Heroes and Sex

My stories tend to start with a character in a situation. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to them, and if I have an idea where they’re going, I don’t usually know how they’re going to get there. Whole worlds grow out of figuring that out. Lately I’ve been working on something new set in the Blackdog / Storyteller world, and finding I’m doing far more than the usual amount of writing, scrapping, starting again. I’ve decided to look on this phase of a book as doodling, stealing a phrase from Connie. It makes me feel less like I’m failing to get the book going properly, and labels it as a necessary process. Therefore, I am making progress. (So I tell myself.)

I did this for The Shadow Road, too. I’m not sure how many times I wrote entirely new opening chapters, but it seemed to take about half of the time it took to write the whole book. In some drafts (doodles!) Nethin was a young man; in some a young woman. Depending on his/her sex, the story seemed to go in different directions. Actually, at first, Wolfram was the hero and Nethin was merely a secondary character. All of Wolfram’s backstory before he ended up liegeman of Annot was the original plot of Shadow Road. I think it would have been a good story, but it kept turning into an adult book, which wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Demote Wolfram, enter a very confused teenage Nethin. That was step one in getting the book under contol, but it wasn’t until Nethin settled on being male that the book really took off.

The new project (which, like Blackdog, coming from Pyr this September, and The Storyteller, is for adults) is going the same way. There have been a lot of alternate beginning chapters. A lot. I’ve been getting very frustrated with it. I finally realized why, and it was partially to do with the fact that though it happens after Blackdog, a lot of interesting and important things happened about thirty years earlier. Revelation the First: have the first chunk of the book happen thirty years earlier and stop trying to squeeze so much backstory in. Revelation the Second: things don’t flow as well if the primary hero is female.

This seems strange. The overall, anchoring hero of the world is Moth — she’s a secondary character in each individual story, though, except “The Storyteller” itself, and even in that, the manga adaptation is showing that a lot of the psychological character focus was actually on Ulfleif, not Moth, all along — and I have lots of female heroes in my books. (As a teenage girl reading fantasy in the eighties, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown came as such a relief! Girl with horse and sword, slaying dragon — Yeah! Plus Aerin gets two desirable men.) And yet, trying to make J. (female) the central figure of the new story hasn’t been working. In “The Storyteller” itself, the main characters, Moth and Ulfleif, are both female, but Ulfleif began as male and is in fact female due to a late sex-change, because I came across some anthology or other that was looking for teen female heroes. It didn’t get sent in for that after all, but Ulfleif remained.

I’ve now switched the main character, for the first, thirty-years-ago part of the story at least, to A., who is most definitely male, and it’s all coming together much more naturally. I don’t feel like I’m hitting bits with a hammer to knock of the corners so they’ll fit. And that’s strange. But I came across this very interesting essay by the late Diana Wynne Jones (whom I recently wrote about on my other blog), which crystallized my thinking about this matter of heroes, sex, and writing. In this essay, the text of a lecture she once gave in Australia, Heroes, Jones talks in part about how writing male heroes gave her the little bit of extra distance necessary to really let them go. She writes, “For a long time I couldn’t write a story with a female hero. The identification was too close … and I knew that in order to see my hero as a real person, I had to be slightly more distant than that.” In the same paragraph she goes on to say, “… what I wanted to do was to write fantasy that might resonate on all levels, from the deep hidden ones, to the most mundane and everyday. If I chose a male hero, I could go after my own submerged half and so get in touch with all the hidden, mythical, archetypal things that were lurking down there” (http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/heroes.htm, accessed April 1, 2011). This, I think, is why for me the book has an easier birth when the main hero is male. He’s that extra step removed from me, and this, in the shadowy depths where the underlayers of story congeal out of the unconscious, sets the story free. A. can stretch, somehow, yet now, I can smell on the wind, as it were, like coming spring, that when J. does enter the story, she will be much freer, because she’s not carrying the weight of being my pathway into the story.

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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