Friday, December 02, 2005

The MZB Heroine, Or The Sword & Sorceress Generation

So, while dinner cooks and the novel prints out for the second round of line edits, I got to thinking again about the MZB heroine. You know, the Marion Zimmer Bradley heroine. The Sword and Sorceress anthologies?

Anybody who's old enough to remember MZB's fantasy magazine before it went defunct probably knows what I'm talking about. MZB was the first mag I submitted to, back when I was 15. She always gave personal rejects, which ended up being more encouraging than I think she actually wanted, and when she didn't personally comment, her back-up did a fair job.

After a couple of rejections, I decided to try to get into the S&S anthologies. I mean, shit I was *writing* strong-women-heroines-with-swords fiction, why couldn't I get into these anthos?

I tried my best to ape the style of the S&S heroine. That means spunkiness as illustrated by her desire to kick someone, tug her braid, chew her lip, and lesbianism, if not an outright no-no, shouldn't come up much. She should have been through a Profound Emotional Experience that she needs to get over. And there should be some sort of earthy psuedo-magic god or goddess that she either worships, scorns people for worshipping (and is later converted), or she's a priestess in some kind of snake cult.

My problem with getting trying to get accepted into that antho (besides the major one - I was fifteen and couldn't plot my way out of a paper bag), is that I never really liked the anthologies. Hated them. Bought two of them, tried very hard to mimic the style, generic setting, generic plot, never really came away with anything. This may be because I've only recently learned how to write anything at all like a plot.

I had a tough time.

As I've gotten older, I've stopped reading a lot of the generic female-heroine fantasy and opted for Russ (who will smash your face in), and Martin (whose characters will all smash your face in, regardless of sex), and deadly courtesans like Jaqueline Carey's Kushiel (or Louise Marley's books). I've tried very hard to read people like Elizabeth Haydon, Kristen Britain, Sarah Zettel, and other women writers with purportedly strong female heroines.

But I just couldn't get into it. Setting falls away in favor of a thin but workable plot, and the interchangeable female heroine can just sort of get dropped into any of these worlds and chew her lip and kick somebody if they irriate her without changing much about the plot (you could also make the argument that this is what many of the Robert Jordan heroines have devolved into, though he gets points because at least the setting's pretty rich). The worldbuilding often feels so thin that I'm uncertain as to why or how these women rose to power in their respective societies except that these are books written in the 21st century, and women running around with swords in feudal societies is considered the Thing to Do. Now, I love myself a good sword-weilding heroine, but you better be really clear about what you're doing.

There have always been women crossdressers in armies, and women are great for making up the ranks of rebel groups (just remember that, historically, once the fighting's done, they're pressed/invited/feel good going back into their more traditional roles). So if you've got a feudal society that's shown as being no different than, say, ancient Greece or Europe circa 1100 ad, I want to know how your woman came by her sword and kept it. And don't give me the cop-out by changing all the names of the countries and saying, "But it's fantasy!" when you've changed absolutely nothing about your pseudo-medieval world except the names and the fact that your woman gets to lead the warrior life baby-free without having access to reliable contraception.

Make me believe you. Please, try. Fantasy or no, worlds have rules.

This is the problem I ran into while reading Naomi Kritzer's Freedom's Gate. Our Heroine, daughter of a freed slave, works for a guy as his errand-runner, basically. She learns to ride and handle basic weapons, self-defense. But I have no idea if she's some kind of anomoly in this society or not, which is called "Greece" and has some djinn and alternative historical bits to it that make it not-Greece. But, basically, it's Greece.

She goes on to join a group of, basically, amazons. An all-female group of rebel fighters, which worked for me. I'm not sure why we needed to get 100 pages of filler in the middle of the book where they spend a bunch of time training without having much to do with the plot, but I guess you have to get a three-book series out of this plot somehow. Extended training scenes help.

The feel of the book felt very familiar to me, and I hopped over to her site and saw that she had, indeed, sold a story or two the S&S anthologies.

And that got me to thinking about how MZB may have nurtured a generation of women writers who all write the same sort of heroine, the same sort of plot, the same sorta-like-X-but-not setting. The same heroine-finding-her-inner-spiritual-strength plot.

No doubt these are quick read books with likable characters and a solid if simple plot. They're marketable. But they're quickly forgettable. I've actually forgotten the main character's name in Freedom's Gate already. I will never forget Martin's Arya even if he ends up killing her. She's that dynamic. And she's a part of a dynamic, complex setting and plot.

Maybe that's the difference between candy trilogy fantasy and true epic fantasy: depth and complexity of setting and character. When I read, I want a whole lot more going on than sorta-like-but-not-really. I get bored with the generics. You can give me a classic trope, you can give me a scullery maid or plucky horsewoman, but she better be *more* than "the plucky horsewoman."

I've already read that book, and it bored me the first time.

I think it's a matter of pushing a book, a plot, characters, concepts, to the next level, and not settling for the easiest way to write the story. It might be comfortable, but it's not memorable.

5 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Alec Austin said...

Word up, Kam.

I ended up thinking a lot about these kinds of issues when I was writing and revising Vicious , and even if I didn't manage to put as much of it on the page as I wanted, I know how the gender politics of that world works, and how issues like class, regional attitudes, and local history affect the cultural roles of men and women. To just gloss over the worldbuilding issues by using the "heroine finding her inner spiritual strength" plot without making the obstacles she has to overcome real is a cop out, no matter how well it might sell.

Posted by Alec Austin

Anonymous said...

Well said Kameron, and it's something that's been noticeable for many years. Always a nice touch getting some off hand encouragement from a real writer though. This makes MZB very old school, but I know many people still appreciate this personal touch. Much better than a damn form letter, right? Oh for the days of pen and ink! Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'  

Posted by VJ

Anonymous said...

I think the really unfortunete thing is that this concept of "rehashing what only worked moderately well the first time" extends far beyond just the genre or even the generation. The redemption, luckily, comes when people realize it and spend the next so many years shattering the prototypes. Kinda makes you wonder what will become "old school" next... 

Posted by Steph

Anonymous said...

Tamora Pierce's books (Lioness series, Protector of the Small series, Circle of Magic series, and a couple of others) are more aimed at young teens and young adults, but I think they're pretty great. Some of the surface details you mention, but definitely good backstories and atmosphere too. Again, sometimes they read a little young, but they're pretty engrossing anyways.
And the newest one, "The Will of the Empress," apparently has one of the major characters realizing she's gay. 

Posted by PurrpleGrrl

Patrick said...


As the person who suggested Kristen Britain to you, I want to defend myself by noting that I SAID she was popcorn. :)

Posted by Patrick