Today’s guest is Teresa Frohock, author of my favorite debut novel from last year! Miserere: An Autumn Tale is a character-driven dark fantasy that I thought was very unique. I loved that the characters Lucian and Rachael were mature adults, and I was also fascinated by the world.
The more I hear about Teresa’s next book, The Garden, the more excited I am about that one as well. We talked about how it is a twist on “Beauty and the Beast” in an interview last year, and recently Teresa wrote a fantastic blog post on writing gay characters in her novel. She discussed the importance of discussions of issues like race and gender in literature since one such discussion had a huge impact on the way she wrote this character. I really enjoy her thoughtful blog posts such as this one in addition to her writing, so I was very glad when she accepted my invitation to write a post this month. Today she is talking about writing dark fantasy and strong female characters – including female villains!
I want to thank Kristen for asking me to be a part of her women in SFF month here on Fantasy Café. I have said this before and I will reiterate it here: people should read the books they enjoy reading, to do otherwise is a chore. Likewise, authors should write the stories they tell best; I write dark fantasy to honor my demons and give them voice.
Colin Nissan recently took a rather cheeky approach to this serious subject in his post, The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better than You Normally Do, when he advises authors to keep it together:
A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.
Treat your demons with respect.
I like that.
Gillian Flynn says it best when she tells us that “dark sides are important.” Federico García Lorca calls it duende, that strange dark spirit that seizes the souls of artist and audience alike to convey all the passions of grief and love and loss.
I remember reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and marveling at how Ms. Bradley never sugarcoated the harsher aspects of a woman’s life. Childbirth began and ended in blood, death and sorrow were elements of life, not to be ignored but to be embraced as part of a great cycle. What I loved the most was watching Morgaine adapt herself to each new challenge. Bradley didn’t shape the world to fit Morgaine; instead Morgaine was forced to shape herself to the world around her while holding firm to her own convictions of right and wrong.
She was a woman who embraced the darkness of her nature, nurtured it carefully, and when the time came for difficult decisions, Morgaine reached down into the coldest, darkest part of herself and she acted from the core of her convictions. That is strength.
Gillian Flynn bemoans the loss of female villains, and she’s right—women lose an important aspect our nature when we refuse to acknowledge the darkness within ourselves. Rather than honor our dark sides, we have shielded ourselves behind paroxysms of girl-power, swinging swords like pom-poms, and we justify these flimsy female characters by calling them strong—because they can fight, because they can fuck, because they can curse.
Tootsie Rolls, you see.
Back in the 80s, when I was young and really smart, I spoke to a friend and told her that I wanted to write a novel with a female villain. She hit the roof. She told me that I couldn’t do that, because to write a female villain would project a negative image of a woman, and sexists would seize that portrayal as an example of female evil.
Obviously, a lot of women felt like my friend did. Female villains didn’t die out of the genre, but they became scarce. Even now when female villains show up on the scene, authors find a way to justify their evil. The woman was abused, or the authors fall back on the ever popular rape scenario, or she suffers from a mental illness, which had it been diagnosed in time, none of these horrible things would have happened. Anything, anything, ANYTHING to turn our faces away from the fact that some women (like some men) are born without a conscience.
We gobble up Tootsie Rolls and stuff our demons deep within our psyches, never to see the light of day. We forget that we must vanquish the evil within before we can truly recognize and destroy the external demons that haunt our lives. We cannot defeat that which we will not acknowledge.
We skewer our own darkness and sacrifice it on the altar of popular opinion, because in spite of our brave words, we are afraid of how others perceive us, of how we shall be judged. We hide Hecate, Tanit, and Kali behind the frivolous maiden; we scream that patriarchal propaganda smeared their holy names. The archaeological evidence states otherwise: they were goddesses of death, of the hidden places and the crossroads where hard choices must be made. To deny our darkness is to deny a portion of our true nature, leaving us incomplete, ethereal as the shades of death we try so hard to deny.
I tell stories with black sounds, the sounds of the duende, and not in words to validate the reader’s egalitarian ideals of what the world should be like. To do so would be a betrayal of my craft. I want my readers to be uncomfortable, to think a little more deeply about themselves and how they treat others, but I can’t show them these things in the light. First we must descend, without fear, into the dark places, because it is in our greatest darkness that we find our truest light.
But only if we’re brave enough to look.
People should read what they want to read, but don’t be afraid to experiment— to step outside the comfort zone and see the world in shades of black. Honor those demons, give them back their voices, and let them make us whole again.
Walk with me and I will take you into the dark places. I will show you the truest light. I write dark fantasy; there are no pretty stories here.
Raised in a small town in North Carolina, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction collection of her local library. Teresa is the author of the dark fantasy, Miserere: An Autumn Tale. She has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.
You can find out more by visiting her at www.teresafrohock.com.