The Four Women-in-Fantasy Tropes I’m Bored With

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by EFR

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these ‘Things I’m So Damn Tired Of’ posts. And you guys have been so lonely without them. So very, very lonely.

Today’s liberal dose of hatred and despair is leveled at four fantasy heroine types who, especially in YA fiction, have become alarmingly prevalent. Now, mind you, there are good ways to do everything, and even these four maidens of mystery can be done well. But what I describe here is not the right way to do them. It’s the right way to make my fillings ache.

A brief note about ‘how to characterize women in fiction’, a subject I see touched on periodically, and grace with a brief chuckle every time I view it: you don’t have anything special to prove, when you write a woman. You don’t have to go out of your way to make her ‘badass’. Women, like men, have a remarkable range of personality traits, and a woman is no more likely to be weak or unlikeable because she’s a seamstress than a man is because he’s a tailor. A girl doesn’t have to be a tomboy or hold a sword to be awesome. A lady can, in fact, be ‘strong’ and ‘badass’ with four kids and a job as a laundress. It’s one of the weaknesses of the fantasy genre today, I think, that folk feel the need to shove a sword in someone’s hand and wrap her in chainmail to make her ‘strong’.

On the other hand, if your lady is a fighting lady–make sure she really is a fighting lady. Not everyone in a medievalesque fantasy universe runs around with a sword and fighting skillz–why did your fighting lady choose this path? What’s made her a soldier? And, for the record–it doesn’t always have to be revenge. I mean, think about it–you probably have a few friends who’ve served in the armed forces. Did they join the military for revenge?

Really?

…or did they do it because they wanted to serve their country? For the pay, maybe? Because they came from a military family? Because Dad said it was either that or go to college? Or maybe, maybe, just because they wanted to. Not everyone clutching a hauberk has to be doing it for some Great Noble Purpose.

Anyway. Without further ado:

 

1) Princess Hellion
She’s a princess. Which is great and all, except she totally would rather be out in the woods fighting and stuff. Except when she’s forced into fancy (usually elaborately described) gowns, has to use all those somehow-still-considered-useless Courtly Deportment lessons, and attends balls which, for reasons unknown to the plot, take up like a whole chapter. Where she meets Prince Charmingly Not Like All Those Other Men Who Expect Her to Wear A Dress All The Time. And engages in witty and pleasantly hostile repartee. Because she’s badass, which means she Says What She Means. And she’s also a princess, which means she expects to have her own way all the time, which is what princesses are like always, right?

The Breakdown: I’m so tired of the plucky princess trope. Princesses learn to behave, too–probably more seriously than the rest of us, since offending the Next Country ambassador can have serious consequences. If she’s really that much of a spoiled pill, guess what? People–probably the whole court–are going to despise her. No one likes a brat. Especially not as many people as like this particular type of character in fiction. Her father always adores her, Prince Charmingly Et Al. falls in love with her. Why?

How to Do It Right: Aerin, from Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, is a little Mary Sueish, but she’s still one of the best heroines of this type. She’s a princess who likes to fight, sure, and she’s got a temper–but she’s also a genuniely likeable person, and she works hard for her dragon-slaying rights. She gets scarred, gets hurt, and makes sacrifices to save her country and earn the respect she deserves.

 

2) The Tortured Waif
It’s A Tragedy, Whatever Happened.

It’s a tragedy, because it left this young woman with total, like, scars. Not real scars, no. Those make people ugly. But emotional scars, totes. Usually, this is a princess or duchess or some other purebred lovely floaty ladything. Often, for reasons I can’t figure out, she’s associated with magic.

The Breakdown: Something happened, and now a whole major plotline just has to be devoted to this girl getting over it. Because there is nothing more fascinating than watching pretty people not-cry in public after weeping in private. (The villainess version of this, by the way, is even more common: the Lady Twisted With Revenge).
But she’s so strong, you know? So strong it takes her three hundred and fifty pages to ‘let go’, whatever that means.

How to Do It Right: Gonna be straight up honest, I can’t think of a single good example of this being done well right now. Usually, it’s employed more in soppy fantasy romances, anyway. My long term feelings are, if you need Great Trauma to prove how strong your character is, enough attention hasn’t been paid to characterization.

 

3) The Innocent Rogue
Her eyes twinkle, her fingers are nimble. She usually has freckles (and she is, entirely too often, an unknowing heiress to something or other, hidden away or abandoned at birth, etc.). She’s got a set of daggers on her, when she’s scaling buildings and scampering along roofs in the underbelly of the city. When she’s acting as the blind at a fancy ball (because there’s always a damn fancy ball in these stories) she’s charming and devastatingly beautiful and full of bon mots.
But, much though she loves a rogue’s life, she never really does anything nasty. Because thievery, as long as it’s happening in a fantasy world and not to you, is charming. Right? Right? It’s okay. She’ll save the world somehow in the end.

Breakdown: Why do people steal? Usually because they don’t have enough of stuff. This girl would either be a fairly unwilling thief, or have some nasty personality parts hidden deep, deep down. Either way, I don’t know that she’s the lady you really want as your queen later on, when she discovers her ‘heritage’ and suddenly goes legit. That whole ‘taxes’ thing is going to seem tempting.

Done Well: There were parts of this novel I disliked, but Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn deals with this character type well and believably. The main character’s brief life of crime happens first unwillingly, and then to a reasonable purpose. She’s also refreshingly clumsy at balls. Because, you know. She’s never been to one before.

 

4) The Woman Warrior
She’s mean with a sword. She’s struggled, sometimes quite a bit, to become The Woman Warrior (usually the only woman warrior in the story). She doesn’t have much truck with girly s***, like wearing dresses and balls and stuff (though she will, like fricking always, wind up at one eventually. Because even this attitudinal lady has to be seen in a dress. Because she’s a lady, and she has to have a softer prettier side for Love Interest to be Interested). Her movements are graceful, her sword is swift, her attitude is either repressed anger or more of those damned witty bon mots. She’s the fantasy world’s tomboy: and, like all tomboys, nobody would like her if she wasn’t still pretty. Right? Right?

Breakdown: A real soldier has spent some time being a soldier. If you’ve led a lot of campaigns, you’re probably sunburned, scarred, hoarse-voiced from shouting commands at all those assholes who don’t know as well as you do. Even if you’ve managed to escape all that, there are points when you’re on a battlefield killing people where you’re covered in blood and effluvia and your hair looks like s***. You’ve got some serious muscle, and, since you’re a warrior through and through, you don’t immediately lose your famed fighting abilities as soon as you gain a love interest.
Because no one really looks good in chainmail. No one.
I’m not saying a gal has to ugly up to do this, but come on. Soldiery is hard. Being in battle is hard. It doesn’t leave you with flawless moon-pale skin, and being around a ton of soldiers doesn’t leave you full of social graces.

Done Well: I’m going to be a self-promoting bitch and refer you to my own book here, of course. Because I do things well. I do.
The other thing that comes to mind, curiously enough, is from a YA series I loved as a kid: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books. While Alanna gets irritatingly close to the word ‘plucky’ sometimes–and you guys can imagine how I feel about ‘plucky’–she fights hard and trains hard to become a knight, and her fiery personality comes across as a drawback as well as a bonus. And, though I think Pierce still pretties her up sometimes, she takes no s***. She’s also short, which I think is what endeared these books to me as a kid. Short people power.

Notice some trends here? These hated ladies are always pretty, always young, almost always white, usually noble, and there’s always a ballroom scene. (A ballroom scene, for those not operating at full capacity this morning, might not actually take place in a ballroom. It’s that reveal scene, where you see your ‘rugged’ heroine in a dress for the first time. You know the one. Oh, god, you do.)

There’s no proper way to portray a woman in a fantasy world. Laundresses, farmgirls, and servants are just as common–honestly, probably more common–than the nobility that makes up 90% of fantasy novels.

And another thing–women aren’t always young. Or single. Or childless. Or beautiful. ‘Strong women’ don’t always hate dresses and despise the court. I think it’s time we moved away from the pretty young tomboy and looked in on the other ninety percent of fantasy womanhood.

A badass is still a badass, even in pink–and I’m tired, so very tired, of that Disneyesque ‘ballroom scene’ where a tomboy has to dress up and let her hair down for some forsaken notion of ladyhood and ‘becoming beautiful’. When you do that one scene, you’re discrediting femininity terribly. You’re saying, essentially, that no one has noticed this woman is a woman until she puts on a dress. And, through elimination, you imply that there’s only one way to be a woman–and that way isn’t ‘strong’ or ‘badass’.

So, really. If you want to write a good fantasy female, take out the ballroom scene. Tempting though it is, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors. You can write a lady who is young, attractive, ‘plucky’, mysteriously parentless, and all those popular things. I’m not saying you can’t. But please, please, be realistic, and take a second before you do to consider the other ninety-eight percent of women out there, and whether or not you might have a stronger story with one of them.

 

 

Guest post contributed by EFR. Her first novel, Aurian and Jin, came out last year. Outside of novel writing, she blogs about the general art of writing. Check out more of her work on her website.

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38 thoughts on “The Four Women-in-Fantasy Tropes I’m Bored With”

  1. One thing that irks me about the heroines engaging in banter is that the point of it seems to be to show that theyre not afraid to speak their mind. Ok…but how about speaking your mind to make an actual point about something? It’s supposed to sound bad ass and clever but usually the character ends up sounding like a dumb ass. Celaena in Throne of Glass for example was very vocal about her opinions – too bad most of the stuff that came out of her mouth was garbage and made her look like a bimbo. Thankfully, the author improved her character in book two to make her less ridiculous. I think the old adage about opinions and assholes should be considered more seriously by YA authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you!! I hate reading such novels now that really focus on such women as you described. Be realistic for a time people! Even with a fantasy book, think about it..do your research. Remember reality and consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How about an ugly heroine? They exist, in real life at least. And they might prove more interesting than these beauty queens who have everything handed to them on a silver platter just because of their physical attractiveness.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a great read. I’ve been struggling with writing a story that despite my best intentions, is going to come across as super YA. Which isn’t bad in and of itself, but I’m glad to get some validation on my character choices.

    But that being said, I disagree with outright dismissing revenge motivations. The western world doesn’t have a strong concept of this anymore and it’s fuel for some awesome stories. I think it’s an element of history that can sprinkle depth into a story, especially if it draws the reader into the knowledge that you have to dig two graves first.

    (There’s also a social element of some cultures pressuring women to seek revenge even if they were never trained and have no chance of success. Overcoming that pressure and refusing to go on that war path is a powerful plot)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (A note: I’m the original author of this post).

      Oh, I wouldn’t say I outright dismiss them. There’s nothing wrong with a deep-seated hunger for revenge…or, erm. Well, there is something wrong with it, but not in a STORY way.

      I just feel like that’s about eighty percent of the reason I see women taking up a sword in fantasy stories (men, too, for that matter), and that’s certainly not an accurate percentage. Sometimes a person’s just born to fight, or needs the salary. You’re right, there’s no great dramatic depth in soldiering because you need the paycheck, but you could take that somewhere, too.

      Also, being pressured to take revenge and not doing it IS a great plot idea. Shouldn’t have told me, I’m like super tempted now. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is really helpful, Thanks! I struggle with my female characters, but thankfully, I’ve done a little expanding on my characters and digging a little deeper on them first before I write about them, so I know that she is more than just a one dimensional character. I feel like I need to know who they are and what their motivations are in life before I can write about them in my adventure. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The best example I can think of for the Princess character is, surprisingly (given how it’s panned for thin characterisation & the fact that the actress was spaced out on substances most of the time), Princess Leia. Her initial role is as a diplomat & she verbally spars with Tarkin & Vader about the Empire’s policies. She is then briefly the maiden in distress but as soon as she’s let out of the cell she takes charge. Rarely adopts the traditional ‘princess’ role but we’re reminded of her status throughout the films. It’ll be interesting to see how she’s developed over the last 30 years…
    As for warriors, I’ve just finished The Bone Wall by D. Wallace Peach (see Myths of the Mirror blog) which is at times brutal and harrowing, but also utterly excellent. Rimma is a young woman going through all kinds of hell to survive and protect her sister. There are a couple of scenes involving nice dresses, but they ain’t Disney. A fair bit of adult content to be honest.
    And generally, I too really, really hate stories that either involve ‘romantic royalty’ or uncover some kind of high-born birthright bollocks. The ruling elite in ancient times and in fantasy are there because they or their ancestors had the biggest stick. The best reason to focus on them is because they have power and freedom that your average farmer/ seamstress/ cobbler doesn’t, which makes it easier to write them into a variety of situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Princess Hellion reminds me of one of my least favorite female characters, the 19th century (or early 20th or 1700s) woman who like the princess doesn’t want to go to all the balls and such, and usually has at least one gender-inappropriate hobby. Neither of which is a bad trait, but some writers think they’ve pretty much done the job of making an interesting woman at that point.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Good post and I agree with most of it. However, I’m not sure about the Great Traumas. They do happen to people, not just women though, so why is giving a character one inherently bad? It’s bad if the trauma is just slapped on or if half of the book focus on the princess wailing about it, but some people do not cry in public after weeping in private.

    Maybe your point was that this only applies to the cases where it’s used to make the princess weep and then the Hero comes in to make everything better in a heartbeat, but I still think traumas can very well make people – characters too – strong if handled right.

    Otherwise I think you accurately described most of my pet peeves in fictional women.

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    1. . A strong traumatized person is someone who can live with that trauma, even learn and/or grow from it. Some people relive it, relive it, re… That’s the point where the book gets annoying, when she relives the past when she could live in the now.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Another good example of the warrior woman done well is Gwenhwyfar in Mercedes Lackey’s book of the same title (her take on Arthurian legend). And I totally agree that Aerin is a wonderful example of the princess trope done correctly, but The Blue Sword isn’t her story, that character is Harry, who as it happens is also a badass but not a princess. Aerin is the heroine of The Hero and the Crown, she’s (most likely) been dead for over a century by the time Harry comes along.

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  10. I think my favourite example of the Princess Hellion archetype is Princess Cimorene, of Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series. She blends domestic, yet royal-inappropriate, hobbies (like cooking! Oh, that cherries jubilee…) with wanting to learn to fight/about magic. And then runs off to be a dragon’s princess. It’s kind of wonderful how she just has interests, rather than being purely one side or the other.

    Also, agreed on Tamora Pierce’s females in general. She’s one of my favourite fantasy writers for women in general; I mean, Circle of Magic has Daja, Tris, and Sandry all together, and they’re as different as night and day. I’m glad those are the characters that formed spectrums of women for me in my childhood, rather than something more cliche like the tropes you’ve ranted about above.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A well-done princess with scars is done by Robin McKinley in her adult fantasy Deerskin. Almost halfway through the novel, the princess is raped by her own father. She manages to recover fully and rescues another young woman in the process.

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  12. I’m currently writing a fantasy trilogy where most of the characters are women, and I read through this post trying to think if I had subscribed to any of these tropes. I don’t think I have (then again, that could just be wishful thinking) but I definitely agree with you that these stereotypes get annoying after a while.

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  13. Great post. I feel sometimes writers try so hard not to stick to stereotypes they fall into the trap of giving heroines mainly traditional male attributes as if traditional female attributes such as being gentle and nurturing are somehow inferior – a mixture would be better. The other one that bugs me is when there is a tough heroine who regularly beats massive men in fights but miraculously she’s physically pretty and slender – where are her bulging muscles?!?!?

    Zoe

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  14. Thank you. It had to be said.
    However, I do love ballroom scenes. Don’t diss ballroom scenes, they’re good fun. Unless, of course, they’re stuck in there for gratuitous purposes of tokenism. Women can be strong women in a ball gown, too, waltzing the s*** out of every guy in the room.
    However, all told – you nailed it.

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  15. You’re right, those tropes jump from story to story, but there is a reason for that: nobody wants anything else. My female heroines don’t belong to any of the categories mentioned in the post. One is a librarian. She would want to go to balls, if anyone invited her. She has never held a sword in her life, she is rather timid, and nobody wants a story about her. I’ve sent it to many magazines. Nope. The same about my other heroine, a mother who betrayed her husband to save her child.
    I think most people want familiar and safe. A bad-ass girl with a sword and a sharp tongue, the one they have seen in a hundred other stories – oh, yes. A quiet introvert who does something totally un-heroic to achieve her goal – oh, no.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. None of the character types you mentioned are free from the expectations of society, or more bluntly, men. I can’t recall a single book , except mine, where the men are equal to and supporters of women! Maybe Hunger Games. That is part of the reason why it was so popular.

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