Strong female characters
Doing a read-through involves wandering into the past, the context of your writing as it used to be… in my case not just three years ago when I started posting but 20 or 30 years ago when I wrote portions of what’s in my three-year-old posts. So an old irritation itched me again, and it has to do with strong female characters.
For various reasons, I really didn’t used to have them. Reason #1 would be that I was born in the early 60s, and it was a very different time. Women doctors, lawyers, executives, politicians, cops—any powerful job—were still unusual; women (including all my female relatives) were still mostly in the traditional three professions of teacher, nurse or secretary. In learn-to-read books we got in school, boys characters did all the action and girl characters watched admiringly. (I did a project about it in high school). Sexual harassment was considered a normal part of life. Subtle put-downs of women’s capability and worth were pervasive. That women were somehow completely unable to do certain things was common “knowledge.” As a child you can't help but suck these notions into your being.
Reason #2, and perhaps for her it sprang from Reason #1 as she was born much earlier than I, was that Mary Renault, my writing idol, didn’t do strong female characters, at least not whose head you got inside of. In the rare cases where they existed, they were Mysterious and Other. (Odd from a woman author, I know. I wonder if she ever got psychoanalyzed?)
And maybe there were other reasons. But by the late 80s, when I was writing the dead-tree books, I was a confirmed feminist and trying to express that in my work. In fact, I changed Yeola-e into an egalitarian society in my late teens… Yes, when I first wrote about them, they were strictly patriarchal. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Steve Stirling and Shirley Meier influenced me further that way with the way they wrote their Fifth Mill collabs (they’d flip a coin every time they mentioned a spear-carrier, so that half would be male and half female--which to patriarchally-raised eyes, seems like an overwhelming preponderance of females). Shirley influenced me even more, in part by kvetching (not always easy to take because I had tremendous guilt about it, and still have enough that it’s been hard to admit this here) and in part in role-playing, especially by introducing Niku.
But I think for a writer of my era to completely liberate herself of the old sexist tenets takes full self-acceptance as a human being, capable of everything that human beings are capable of, not “just a woman” in the stereotypical mode. And I wasn’t there 20 years ago. In the intervening time, I have met innumerable deeply-impressive women in real life, done things that I didn’t think I was capable of, and, like everyone else, experienced the cultural shift that has happened.
Am I there entirely now? Well, one thing that I have noticed about myself in the last nine months as I lost the weight is that I’ve been more inclined to dress femininely… and have not felt diminished at all by it, unlike before. So I don’t know whether it’s complete, but it’s definitely vastly improved.
I also know that my online Chevenga writing has lots more strong female characters. I haven’t evened it up with the viewpoints—Chevenga, Kaninjer and Intharas still verbally outnumber Niku, Artira and Megan—but then, it’s Chevenga’s story. Many of the strong female characters were originated and defined by others, e.g. Niku and her female Niah kin/friends, Narilla, Vaneesh, Avritha and of course Megan (by Shirley); Taina (Michael Thedford); and Sera Milera (Clare Miller—Klara’s strong in her way!). Still others, such as the Arkan Goddesses, Vriah and Esora-e’s mother Krasila (who first appears in ak), were of mixed creation, with Shirley and me both characterizing them.
But there are plenty of my creation, even if I’ve sometimes inveigled others into RPing them. So I’d like to celebrate them, starting with my very favourite, that is—
Karani. Chevenga’s blood-mother obviously existed before, but I expanded her role so much in PA that she’s like a different character. She is not apparently strong in a head-bashing way, but in embodying the Yeoli female virtues of rationality, wisdom and equanimity in the face of the most crushing adversity, she has immense strength. Chevenga accurately credits her with making him who he is more than anyone else did. There’s some wish-fulfillment there; she’s the mother I wish I’d had, as well as the mother I aspire to be.
Artira. Chevenga’s overshadowed kid sister is the first ever female Fifth Millennium character I’ve conceived as the main character of a book, though I’m not sure I’m going to finish it, despite the urgings of Muskoka Novel Marathon judges. Accordingly she has developed interesting complexities. Not strong, you say? When she held things together as semanakraseye during the most demoralizing part of the Arkan War?
Komona. You always knew Chevenga’s spiritually-inclined second girlfriend was bright, but perhaps you don’t think of her as strong, since she ditched him on finding out his secret. You’ll find out differently, as well as what she was doing and what happened to her during the Arkan War, in asa kraiya.
Klaimera. Chevenga’s first foreign girlfriend is the longest-existing major female character I’ve got, dating back to my teens, though she was more major then. Her part in the human sacrifice ritual was an invention for the dead-tree books. I feel that I’ve never finished developing her as a character, actually.
Diyadesai. Who says mad inventors have to be men? Diya is another character whose origin I cannot quite remember, so Shirley was possibly involved, though it was I who named her, after Alexander the Great’s genius engineer Diades. Who says women mad inventors can’t be sexy enough to sweep handsome guard captains off their feet? No one who can also spell zenzizenzizenzic, that’s for sure.
Kilalulana. A new character, vintage 2012, Kaninjer’s massive, open-minded and culture-loving Hyerne girlfriend is who she is in part due to my wondering, ‘What would Kaninjer’s ultimate opposite, tempered by similarity enough to make them plausible as a couple, look like?’ BTW, the Hyerne themselves go back such a long way that I honestly cannot remember whose idea they were. I think I probably conceived the utterly-matriarchal culture—it’s the kind of idea I would have—but it could have been Shirley or even Steve. I can’t say for sure.
Eosena. Starting out anatomically and apparently male, as Niku’s boy, Ea hides her true gender due to Arko’s traditional repressiveness and maltreatment of transfolks, until she finds herself living in a liberated Marble Palace in the new Arko, and summons her courage. This was the direct result of me thinking “Out of all the characters I have running around, there’s not one single one who’s trans, and statistically there ought to be.” Ea even proves strong enough to agree to be interviewed, and identified, in a Pages story about transArkans.
The Arkan feminist cameo-characters. Obviously there had to be more Arkan women pushing for their liberation than just Narilla, though as Fenjitza she becomes most prominent. Namely:
Sisaria. I’d mentioned elsewhere the hiring of the Pages’ first female reporter; by recounting it, of course, I had to create the character. Her having already freelanced under a male pen-name is a nod, of course, to all those female writers who have done the same in the past, or concealed their sex by the use of double initials so as to further their careers.
Frenaria. Historically, martially-inclined women have also disguised themselves as men to follow their calling, so I figured that had to happen in Arko too… and then the legal and social push towards egalitarianism would tempt them to come out of the closet. I just had Frenaria do it in the biggest way possible, and I love her for her courage.
There’s also Ara Min Kian, because all feminist movements must have writers, The Office of Half-Blood Issue and the women and girls who are quoted in the Pages story “Goddesses, whores and girls with spectacles.”
Women villains. My gallery has some new roguesses, such as She-Who-Called-Herself-Sirichao, the Roskati spy of Arkan employ who tricks Kaninjer into falling in love with her so as to get more information about, and maybe an assassination shot at, Chevenga. She’s not nice, but you can’t say she’s not strong. Likewise Nainano-e Shae-Vakyirya, the supply clerk-operative who almost captures Chevenga by deviously getting Accedence into him, but is foiled by Krero and Sachara, prompted by Tawaen. The Yeoli hawks have some disagreeable but strong women, too.
Healers. Chevenga’s brain would still be goo if it weren’t for Kaninden the neurosurgeon and Megidan the empath, both of whom pay a bitter price for their compassion and excellence. Nor should we forget Mirasae the psyche-healer, who blows it with his 10,000-Lakans issue but helps him a lot later. Of course Kaninjer’s mother, whom we know only as what he calls her, Mamin, is a healer, and is characterized mostly by how he writes to her. I for one get the impression she is strong.
Chosaiya Ninganen. If you haven’t read ak, you haven’t met the brilliant legal eagle Chevenga must turn to as a result of a plot complication at home when the doughty Veresinga has remained in Arko. Chosaiya is possibly the most confident character in the entire series—even more than Chevenga himself, at least at the times they’re conferring.
There are also Chevenga’s childhood friend and late ex Nyera, grandma Naingini, shadow-mother Denaina, wife-by-arrangement Shaina, secretary Chinisa, steel-eyed generalling teacher then second-in-command Emao-e, Circle School dean Nainara, plus numerous members of the darya semanakraseyeni, and major characters’ friends, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues, enemies, etc. of the female persuasion.
In fact, I suspect that with so many characters of all persuasions running around, I've probably forgotten some awesome women. Remind me and I'll add them to the honour roll here.