Starting week four today is fantasy and science fiction author Vera Nazarian! She’s written novels and shorter fiction and has been a Nebula finalist twice, once for her short story “The Story of Love” and the other time time for her novella “The Duke in His Castle.” My experience with her work so far is reading her novel Lords of Rainbow, a gorgeously written fantasy set in a world devoid of color. In particular, I enjoyed how authentic the main character came across as a female warrior, so I am delighted that she chose to discuss writing warrior women today!
Writing Warrior Women
Ever since I was a kid growing up in Moscow, Russia, I remember wanting to be a warrior woman.
At the age of six, having just discovered Greek Mythology, I announced to my mother that I wanted to change my name to Athena, and then I carved spears and real functional bows out of ordinary wooden sticks found outside. (Yes, I was big on hands-on-crafts at a very early age.)
And then I ran around in the back yard of our large typical Moscow apartment complex, shooting the bow (that often broke, so I would carve another one, and notch it, and bend it like Odysseus, and tie the twine on it, while dreaming of gods and heroes) and throwing the spear like an Amazon, and making other kids play ancient battles and war games. Soon enough, many of them got sick of it, became annoyed with me, and went home to watch TV cartoons (“multiki”) instead. And so I was left alone in the yard, aiming at imaginary antique targets and pretending that Odysseus and Achilles were at my side and at my back, as I cast short light spears upon the wind (and fortunately missed hitting any “babuski” or grandmas).
This went on for months.
All along, I was dreaming of Penthesilea, and my secret dream lover was Achilles. I changed the grim tragic details of their story in my mind—a story that came to haunt me and was the true catalyst that inspired me to write, and tell stories of my own. These stories had different endings, dreamed up by a weird, precocious little girl.
Later on, I would rummage through books of world mythology and classics and art picture books, in search of sword wielding maidens, women knights and female warriors, and the tiniest mention of such would send my imagination into rapturous throes of excitement and self-affirmation. I knew in my gut they had to be out there, yes, and I looked for them everywhere. I combed volumes of fantasy and history in search of sparse droplets of Brunhilde, Penthesilea, Hippolyta, Bradamante, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare’s Viola, Fa Mu Lan, Atalanta, Gordafarid, Boudicca, Queen Tamara, Jirel of Joiry, Eowyn—their names whispered to me like hungry ghosts, and I could go on and on. But sadly, it was always just droplets here and there, little sparse hints. And it was never enough.
And so I obsessed over Bradamante from Song of Roland (Orlando Furioso), Brunhilde from Die Nibelungen (Ring Cycle), Russian female knight (bogotyr) Nastasia Vokhromeyevna from the Bilini (tales), Svetlana from the beloved Russian musical Ballad of the Hussars (Gusarskaya Ballada), Gordafarid the warrior maiden from Shah-Nameh (Persian Book of Kings), and the ancient wicked Georgian Queen Tamara who killed her lovers.
I sought out and proudly cherished each instance of female warriors and powerful women throughout history and myth and literature. And my own very first novel, War and Wisdom, an epic fantasy which was never finished but which pretty much taught me to write, all throughout elementary and junior high school, had a warrior woman for a heroine. She was Elzarán, a perfect Mary Sue character who was beautiful, intelligent, brave, proud, tall, swashbuckling and cocky like Errol Flynn, wonderful, noble, wielded a sword and all manner of weapons, rode a horse, dueled, fought in the Legion and rescued innocents, and made the hero and everyone else fall in love with her.
But such “perfection” got quite boring.
I am so relieved that this particular epic fantasy never saw the light of day in its superlative-ridden form (who knows, maybe one day I will re-write and finish it?), and instead taught me to do better. I’ve never committed another Mary Sue character since, because I think I got it all out of my system, thanks to Elzarán.
What I learned to do instead was write women warriors—or just women, because I believe that all women I write are “warriors” in some way or another—who are simply very human.
The many short stories and novels that followed, including all the pieces I wrote for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s various volumes of Sword and Sorceress, and my novels such as Dreams of the Compass Rose, and my most recent dark historical fantasy Cobweb Bride, all exemplify a different kind of female power.
My women warriors are humble, secret pillars of strength. Yet they are imperfect, vulnerable. Always self-aware, and wise enough to be able to laugh at themselves instead of others. They are self-effacing, world-weary, never cocky, and very much quietly heroic. They step out of the shadow, do what must be done, then step back.
They are also either plain or downright ugly.
And oh, how I reveled in the notion that they could find true love and form human bonds despite their unattractive or invisible outer shells. Indeed, how much more satisfying it is to write such stories….
The epitome of such humble warrior women is my personal favorite character, Ranhéas Ylir from my epic fantasy about a world without color, Lords of Rainbow—you might say it’s the original “fifty shades of grey.”
Ranhé is imperfect and yet relentless. She struggles, with all her being, for what she believes in. And it is what makes her a warrior.
She is my answer to a strong woman alone in a dangerous world—a human being with emotional and physical defects and a brave loyal heart. She has been formed, like a female goddess golem, out of clay and air and fire and longing. And she embodies, on some level, the elements of all the ideal warrior women and all my dreams of untapped female power that I’ve soaked in through my pores throughout my lifetime, and put through the transformative wringer of imagination and experience.
I pulled her, kicking and screaming, out of the most intimate depths of myself.
And yes, I wrote her in answer to all the cocky, “feisty,” selfish idiot females masquerading as warrior women, so often found in entertainment, and who annoy the crap out of me.
My Ranhé is real.
Vera Nazarian is a two-time Nebula Award Nominee, award-winning artist, and member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a writer with a penchant for moral fables and stories of intense wonder, true love, and intricacy.
She immigrated to the USA from the former USSR as a kid, sold her first story at the age of 17, and since then has published numerous works in anthologies and magazines, and has seen her fiction translated into eight languages.
She is the author of critically acclaimed novels Dreams of the Compass Rose and Lords of Rainbow, as well as the outrageous parodies Mansfield Park and Mummies and Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, and most recently, Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret in her humorous and surprisingly romantic Supernatural Jane Austen Series. Her latest novel, Cobweb Bride is coming in July 2013.