Today’s guest is historical fantasy author Juliet Marillier! While I have yet to read her books for myself, I’m looking forward to them since they are much loved around the book blogosphere. Daughter of the Forest and the rest of the Sevenwaters books in particular seem to be very highly recommended by a great number of the book bloggers whose sites I read. After reading what she has to say about the qualities that make a good heroine today, I’m even more excited to discover these books that are so often praised!
What Makes a Good Heroine?
What do you look for in a female protagonist? Physical beauty? Kick-ass attitude? Moral fibre? Or simply someone with a journey to make, someone whose path you want to share?
I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitised Victorian versions and the darker and grittier traditional ones. As a writer of historical fantasy, I’m heavily influenced by traditional stories and the women who appear in them, women who often play far more active parts than you’d think. For more on women in fairy tales, check out this perceptive blog by Katherine Langrish.
In creating the female protagonists of my novels, I’m also influenced by the books I read and loved when younger; old favourites I’ve now read over and over. The characters I was drawn to as a teenager had three notable characteristics:
- they showed courage in adversity
- at some point they took control of their destiny
- they stayed true to themselves
So who were they?
Jane Eyre made a huge impression on me when we studied the book in school – I was around thirteen. The gothic romance was part of it, but I also loved Jane’s determination to be her own person, even though she lacked wealth, beauty and social status. That book may have been the one that started me off writing in first person, because Jane’s voice lets us in close, revealing what a creature of passion she is beneath her mousy exterior.
Like many readers, I identified closely with Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels. Jo is creative, eccentric, passionate – she’s one of fiction’s most memorable characters. Her choices are daring for her time: not only pursuing a career as a writer, but also having the strength and good judgement to turn down the boy next door!
Then there was Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, set in Cornwall. The central character is Mary Yellan, a young woman who goes to live on the moors with her no-good bully of an uncle and her downtrodden aunt, and finds herself embroiled in a smuggling operation. Jamaica Inn is elegantly written, evocative and romantic in a way that completely avoids cliché. Mary is a strong, unconventional character, and when I first read the book I wanted to be her.
And I adored Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, not just for its charismatic anti-hero, gripping drama and rich history, but also for Philippa Somerville, who over the course of six books grows from a feisty ten-year-old to a courageous, outspoken young woman of twenty. Perhaps ‘outspoken’ is the key. All of these characters know their own minds, or come to know them. All of them display courage. All of them meet their challenges and stand up to their persecutors. But not right away – each of them must first make a difficult journey. And that’s the key to drawing the reader in: creating a character who is so compelling that we want be with her every step of the way.
From more recent reading, the one character who sticks in my mind as comparable to those old favourites is Phèdre, the protagonist of Jacqueline Carey’s stunning epic fantasy Kushiel’s Dart and its sequels. Phèdre is a submissive courtesan – but that most certainly does not make her powerless. She’s one of the strongest and most memorable characters in contemporary fantasy. The very distinctive voice of these novels – another first person narrative – draws the reader in from page one.
As a writer of historical fantasy, I work on keeping my female protagonists as true to their period and culture as I can while also creating a story that has relevance and meaning for the contemporary reader. That can be a tricky balancing act, as most of my books are set in the early medieval period when societies were often paternalistic and women had limited choices (though in Ireland, where many of my novels are set, there were legal protections for women in matters such as inheritance and divorce.)
In an invented fantasy world, a writer can create whatever social structures she likes; she can allow her female characters as much freedom and power as she chooses to. In fantasy based on real world settings, the same degree of creative licence does not apply. Despite this, it’s possible to present a protagonist with challenges that are relevant to a contemporary reader, whether the novel is for adults or young adults (I write for both.)
So, my characters face issues with parental control, social expectations, love/desire/loneliness, choices made under pressure. In some stories I’ve put my girls in situations where they feel powerless. In The Well of Shades, Eile is being abused by an older male relative, and her story shows how hard it is to break free when a person has an emotional hold over you, and the issues you’re likely to have with trust later. In Son of the Shadows there’s a pregnancy outside marriage, and a pair of sisters who receive very unequal treatment from their family. In my current Shadowfell series, of which the second book, Raven Flight, will be released this July, the story is based on a group of young rebels fighting for a near-impossible cause. The central dilemma of Shadowfell is whether it’s OK to perform acts of violence and deceit for the greater good, and what the personal cost of doing so may be.
Most of my protagonists are brave deep down. Most of them want to be good. Some of them face greater odds than the others, and some take longer to find that hidden courage. Some of them make a lot of mistakes. In the nineties I struggled with the sudden proliferation of kick-ass heroines, because those stories seemed to suggest that a woman could not be a good protagonist unless she acted like a man (or in the way tradition suggests a man should act.) For years I actively avoided creating a ‘warrior girl’ character, thinking there were more than enough of those already. For me, women’s strength goes far deeper. It’s found not only in the soldier, the corporate executive, the elite sportswoman, but also in the stoic grandmother, the single parent shift-worker, the woman who cares for a disabled child or a frail parent. It’s there in all of us.
If I’ve learned anything from my favourite fiction, it’s that good storytelling often involves surprises. In my new book, Raven Flight, two young women with very little in common are thrown together on a long and gruelling journey. And yes, one of them is a warrior, complete with clan tattoos. Why did I finally do this? The character, who had made a brief appearance in Shadowfell, became very assertive about her role in the sequel. There simply was no refusing her. Call it taking control of her destiny.