Today’s guest is Cecily from Manic Pixie Dream Worlds! I discovered her blog when I read her fantastic essay “I Want to be the Time-Traveler, Not His Wife” during Sci-Fi November—and have enjoyed reading her site ever since. She often writes about women in speculative fiction, and she also reviews short fiction at The Skiffy and Fanty Show blog. You can also find her micro-reviews of diverse short fiction on Twitter at @SFFMicroReviews.
Epic Female Protagonists Written by Women
Do you ever get tired of gush-a-thons about female characters written by dude authors? Have you come to the point of wincing when a male author’s women characters are described as “amazing” or similar (dubious) adjectives? Because the state of this genre is such that male authors who portray women as, yanno, half the population are given enormous kudos for merely acknowledging our existence, while women writing female protagonists is taken for granted at best, and a strike in the minus column — because that’s just too many girl cooties, y’all — at worst.
We need a shift in discourse.
It’s not that men cannot competently write female characters. It’s that if one is looking for great female characters, that the first source should be women authors should be tautologically obvious. And almost all of the truly great female protagonists I’ve read, the ones who leapt off the page, whose names — whose voices — will stick with me forever, have been written by women.
Here are a dozen of those protagonists and the stories in which they reside.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) by Catherynne Valente
September of the Fairyland series knows very well what becomes of Princesses, as Princesses often get books written about them, and she finds the idea of being sidelined until the conclusion of some Prince’s story quite unappealing. Alternately delighting in adventure and side-eyeing the heck out of both our world and the mysterious one she stumbles into, September is simultaneously a self-insert for readers of all ages and a fleshed-out character in her own right.
Parable of the Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler
Lauren Olamina lives in a near-future United States in which the economy, infrastructure, and government are collapsing. Resourceful, wary, and perhaps divinely inspired, Lauren envisions humanity’s future in the stars, and the two Parable novels are the story of her struggles to get us there. As forces both violent and benevolent try to wrest Earthseed from her over and over again, she stands out in her pure iron will.
The Awakened Kingdom (2014) by N.K. Jemisin
Shill is a godling whose raucous enthusiasm sometimes, um, breaks planets and stuff. This novella is a coming-of-age on a celestial scale of what it means to understand the world and one’s purpose within it. Along the way, Shill learns how to believe in herself, what it means to have A GRIEF, and reasons to stay out of black holes: they are not cute! They are actually very bitey and kind of mean. Shill, however, is basically the polar opposite of a gravitational abyss and perhaps the most adorable character ever.
The Drowning Girl (2012) by Caitlin Kiernan
India Morgan Phelps– or as her friends call her, Imp — is an artist and a writer; she also has schizophrenia. She struggles to order her mind as she grows increasingly obsessed with understanding her multiple encounters with the same woman, who may or may not be a supernatural creature. Imp doesn’t hold many attachments, but the ones she does, to her work as well as her girlfriend Abelyn, are her anchors to reality. This is a story about a mermaid or a wolf, or both — but what it is most profoundly is the struggle of a lonely girl not to drown.
Who Fears Death (2010) by Nnedi Okorafor
Alternately powerful and vulnerable, ambivalent and certain, Onyesonwu learns to wield her magic in a sexist society that makes doing so a huge pain in the ass — which she doesn’t shy from complaining about. Accompanied by her “fellowship” composed of a core group of childhood girlfriends, her story shares the familiar tropes of epic fantasy from the prophecy to the quest in a manner utterly original and shaped to who she is. Onyesonwu is, overall, stunning in her complexity.
Sometimes a goddess, a ghost, a granddaughter, or a grandmother leaves a pretty deep impression in far fewer words than a novel. We get a greater sense of Yolanda from her high school essay in Sofia Samatar’s “Walkdog” than can be found for characters in some massive fantasy series. The main character of Rachael K. Jones’ “Makeisha in Time” leads thousands of lives in the past, as well as an empire; Mari Ness presents a stunning, subversive vision of Maid Marian in “In the Greenwood.” Isa of Alix Harrow’s “A Whisper in the Weld” is a loving ghost, a true-to-life Rosie the Riveter that can’t quite move on because she has one final responsibility. Ittele, a Jewish young woman in 17th century Europe, embarks on a spiritual journey to avenge her brutally murdered father in “Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes; Tongtong of Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” understands the finite nature of life for the first time in a childhood journey that’s surprisingly optimistic. And Grandma Harken of Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” is a feisty fairy tale figure who, as women often must, hides her deeper self beyond view.
So, why do we talk so much about male authors’ female characters, and so little about women’s? Questions like this one may be a necessary step to derive the ultimate answer: that we may live in a world that conceives of dude as default, but SF/F creates worlds, and the worlds we envision need not replicate the inanity of this one.
Cecily Kane read a lot of SF/F as a kid; after a period of being alienated by the overwhelming visibility of books about dudes with swords, she returned to it as an adult. She can be found ranting on Twitter, running a short fiction column at Skiffy and Fanty, and reviewing books and stuff like that on her own blog, Manic Pixie Dream Worlds.