Speculative Fiction Sucker Punches, Part 3 – Upper Cuts, Body Punches and Haymakers

fantasy battle

So we’ve covered convenient magic and uber leetness as speculative fiction sucker punches; the right hook and left hook, respectively.  Now we’re going to bring it on home.

A strong corollary to the uber heroine is the female character written by a man who is clueless about women.  So many good male fantasy fiction writers just can’t write a good female character.  Take Robert Jordan, for instance.  His “Wheel of Time” books are wonderfully imaginative, and set the barre for many literary endeavors that came after (or so I’m told – I never got past the second book).  But his female characters?  Pul-eeze.  One dimensional, inconsistent, stick-women who were either getting into trouble, or using super powers (dare we say, convenient magic, eh?) to get out of trouble or waiting for their men to rescue them or berating their men for assuming they needed to be rescued.

A big reason that I stopped reading  “Wheel of Time” after The Great Hunt?  I simply couldn’t take that triangle shallow female of stereotypes any longer:  Egwene (the magical virginal sweet thing), Nynaeve (the magical independent bitch) and Moiraine (the uber magical matriarch who seemed to have selective leetness, dependent on how guilty Jordan wanted her to be at not being strong enough to save the day).  Or maybe it was just Nynaeve’s hair twisting – that obsessive compulsive action of hers drove me crazy because it added nothing except some kind of bizarre fecklessness.  These women could be strong, frail, smart, stupid, independent, needing to be rescued, devious, guileless, and utterly at the mercy of whatever whim – or plot development – that Jordan gave them.  Rand, Perrin, Mat – at least they were consistent.

And he’s not the only male writer with epic books that I feel don’t do his female characters justice, even if they are main characters.  Terry Brooks?  Hey, I loved Sword of Shannara, too (okay, maybe it had a little something to do with the Hildebrandt illustrations), even though it didn’t have women to speak of.  And actually, that might have been a good thing, because when I did read his books with significant female characters, I found those characters to be empty, plot driven avatars (and I soooooo wanted Wren to be special).  Terry Goodkind?  For all those words he puts out, he never seems to write anything different.  Damaged women, finding redemption (with a man), just to have it turn out totally wrong. Raymond Feist?  Again, great stories, crappy women – if he even has female characters.  Yeah, I actually would prefer that men not put female characters in their works at all, if they can’t make them believable.  Parity for the sake of parity may be an admirable sentiment, but only if it is give real effort, not just lip service.

Now, before fans of these guys get all up in arms, I will admit that I haven’t read the entire canon of their works, so I’m willing to entertain the notion they may have written some really strong and intelligent, well realized female characters.  But I kinda doubt it.  I’d be more than happy to have someone tell me that I’m wrong, and suggest a volume that proves it.  But please, make sure the women really are great additions to the story – don’t prove my point for me just out of the sake of loyalty, m’kay?

And I reiterate – this does not mean these guys are bad writers…. they just aren’t all that successful with their female characters.  (I guess it’s possible to have a female writer who writes her male characters poorly…. I can’t think of an example, but maybe I just haven’t read the “right” books.)  I’m not sure I can blame them for not being successful, it may just be one of those things where you either have a empathetic understanding of what makes a good female character, or you don’t.  But I, as a reader, can’t keep reading what feels to me to be disingenuous.

Or repetitive.  I don’t need to be subjected to the same description of the same situation, even if it occurs more than once in the story line.  For instance, I enjoyed Jim Butcher’s “Codex Alera” fantasy series, at least the first few books (I read three).  I really liked the character of Tavi (although he really flirts with that uber leetness) and Butcher’s widely flung stage of Alera had enough twists and turns to keep me interested, even with the characters not having a lot of depth.  (Heck, I’m like a cat – keep the story moving, and I’ll follow along.)  But what finally kept me from picking up the 4th and subsequent books in this series was the utterly game stopping battle scenes.  Except for the circumstances, they were completely indistinguishable from each other – and there were so many of them!  The same actions, the same almost-escapes, the same descriptions of the sounds and the smells and the horror and tumult of battle.  The same automaton necessity of battle and the same shame and guilt associated with killing, even necessary killing.  Now, these are highly commendable sentiments – I applaud the sentiments – but the mind-numbing litany of them had me literally skipping pages of text without even caring about gleaning any kind of nuance from the monotonous action.  Why make the effort?

Compare that to the countless battles that take place in the George RR Martin “Song of Ice and Fire” series.  Not one of his battles reads like another, possibly because he isn’t locked into describing the complete battle each time.  Instead, he zeroes in on one aspect of the battle, or concentrates on the aftermath of a battle, or even the moments before the battle.  He’s not averse to letting the reader fill in the blanks in the action with what has gone on before. Admittedly, Butcher’s series is pretty much a single-character vehicle, whereas Martin’s series covers a much broader scope so he has many more viewpoints that he can access.  Still, I can’t help but marvel at how fresh Martin’s narrative is across all those pages.

But it’s not just repetitive actions that are show stoppers.  Belaboring emotional or moral points can also stall a good story (true in any literature, but I’m focusing on fantasy literature here).  For example, I absolutely adore Robin Hobb, and think that her works are some of the best out there.  But my disappointment in one of her more recent offerings, the “Soldier Son Trilogy”, can be laid to rest directly at the feet of her main character, Nevare, and his never-ending soliloquizing on his fate, compounded by his inability to comprehend what it was that was being asked of him.  I mean, enough already!  Cut the freekin’ trilogy down to 2-1/2 books – or less! – if you have to, but don’t go through that damned soul searching again!  I freekin’ got it, lady!  Move ON!

(… a short pause while I compose myself…)

Okay, sorry about that.  I didn’t mean to go off the deep end (hence the haymaker?).  I just can’t help myself.  I love my fantasy fiction!  But even with loving it so, I have to insist that the ends justify the means, literally speaking.   Part of the joy of fantasy fiction is that “anything goes” – but it still has to be appropriate and consistent throughout (or so different that what goes on keeps you off kilter from the get-go  – gotta love Terry Pratchett!).  Fantasy fiction is so wonderful because we don’t have the constraints of the “norm” – but we still need to believe.  If we can believe, then my gosh, it’s magical.

Despite it all, because of it all, I still love fantasy fiction above all other genres.  It’s wide open, it’s no holds barred, it has something for everyone and a host of talented and dedicated writer moving it forward.  In a word, it’s magical!  My deepest thanks to all the writers out there who bring that magic into my life.

Even if sometimes it’s sometimes kinda convenient.