Tag Archives: Jennifer Fitzgerald

Fairy Tale Time

16 Aug

When people think of fairy tales they generally think of the fluffy, Disneyfied stories of beautiful damsels being rescued by handsome princes. And they’re getting bored with them. Modern retellings often seek to make these stories darker and grittier, sometimes without realizing just how dark and violent the original tales were. In some early versions of Red Riding Hood, Red never makes it out of the wolf’s stomach. In others she ends up there after being tricked into eating what’s left of her grandmother. Gotta love medieval Europe, they did not shy away from putting the cannibalism in their stories. Whatever versions you read (or watch), they can be a rich source of inspiration, especially when you’re trawling for ideas.

Fairy tales can be excellent springboards for the imagination because they give you a root idea or an interesting element that you can expand on or twist. There may only be seven or eight true plots, but there are hundreds of fairy tales, mixing and matching plots and standard set pieces like wolves, orphans, and dark forests. There’s everything from evil old crones to kindly grandmothers and plenty of room to give these characters motivations, and maybe even names.

Probably the easiest way to find different fairy tales is by using the Aarne-Thompson classification system. It sorts and numbers fairy tales based on motifs and basic plots. It divides tales based on things like what sort of supernatural elements are included (eg. family members, tasks, helpers) and then subdivides them. Within each classification there are usually several variations or separate stories which are numbered. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is AT 306, Aladdin is AT 561, and The Robber Bridegroom AT 955. Along with the usual suspects there are ones like AT 317, The Princess and the Sky-tree. Anyone ever heard of that one? The title makes me want to find out what it’s about! AT 570 is apparently called Bunnies Beware of the King. It’s about herding rabbits. Which just serves to remind me how boring nights must have been before electricity.

I, for one, love retellings and re-imaginings along with the originals, but not everyone does. For those who don’t want to try setting Rumpelstiltskin in a suburban high school, you can use motifs and stock character traits to resonate with readers. Margaret Atwood does this while also doing a gender-swapped retelling in The Robber Bride.

The most challenging thing I’ve done with fairy tales was try to write my own. I created a fantasy world, populated it, gave it history, architecture, and even fashion. But that wasn’t enough to make it feel real. I wanted to know what stories kids heard at their bedtimes and everyone knew. So, I wrote a fairy tale, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be!

So, here’s a prompt for you all: pick a fairy tale type and write your own version! Post a link in the comments if you want to share or just chime in with your favorite fairy tale!

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time querying and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

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Troping Along

5 Jul

I firmly believe tvtropes.org is evil. But, as I tend to be more impressed than annoyed by classier forms of evil, I can’t help loving it. You should probably love it too, if you’re not already hating it for eating you life. It says TV right in the title but that doesn’t mean that terrible, wonderful website can’t be useful or relevant when dealing with other mediums, fiction writing included.

For those who have somehow navigated around the internet without encountering it, here’s a quick explanation. The site calls itself “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction;” the tricks being the tropes. It defines trope as “a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.” In short, storytelling conventions that we can recognize without noticing and inversions of the standard conventions we expect.

I love this site in part because you can look up almost anything you’ve watched or read and see not only things you might expect, like the Light Side of the Force in Star Wars being an example of Light is Good. But also Galadriel’s little crazy fit when offered the One Ring being some pretty clear Light is Not Good. “All shall love me and despair” indeed. Sometimes, the tropes aren’t widely recognized when present, like in Avatar and sometimes they’re Older Than Dirt and really hard to miss, like a Trojan Horse.

I TV troped my own work; it’s probably a no-no in some etiquette somewhere, but it was fun as anything and a nice break from doing something actually productive.

Evil is Cool is Priscilla’s whole motivation, and she is a Villain Protagonist which leads to all kinds of Grey and Gray Morality. Being a Villain Protagonist puts her in the same grouping as Dexter, Dr. Horrible, Elphaba, and the guys in The Producers. Weird grouping, huh? But those are all variations on the same theme and you can see the different ways in which tropes are used and abused. It’s also a good way to see, for yourself, that yes, everything has already been done. And not only has it been done, it’s been pulled apart and neatly categorized for faster digestion. At least you can make sure that you’re giving things your own spin and not trying to do something too close to what’s been done before.

So go ahead and do some research, get lost in the links, and maybe you’ll waste as much time as I did.

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time revising before continuing querying, and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.


Book Recommendation: Mistwood

19 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley and Jennifer Fitzgerald

~~~

Mistwood is our book of the month for June, and we thought we’d give you a little insight as to why! And in case you missed it, you can read the interview we did with the author of Mistwood, Leah Cypess, here!

Description from Mistwood’s Amazon page:

For centuries, the kings of Samorna have depended upon the immortal Shifter for protection. When the Crown Prince Rokan ventures into the Mistwood to find the Shifter, she again allows herself to be caught, to be tamed, and to be tangled into the deception and danger of the human court.

The Shifter is uneasy, though. First she woke with no distinct memory of the past and now she finds that she is unable to change shape. As she adapts to palace life and painstakingly hides her inability to embrace her past abilities fully, she seems to become more the Lady Isabel as she is known in court, unwittingly displaying human emotions and hesitating in her bound duties to the crown.

As Rokan becomes king, he is thrust into danger, seemingly from all sides. Isabel learns much more than she bargained for as she hunts among courtiers for conspirators and finds her loyalties divided. This story unfolds gracefully, mirroring the slow path Isabel must travel to begin understanding herself and her place in the world. Her journey in self-acceptance takes place within a country in turmoil.

~~~

The aspect I loved most about Mistwood was the same part that gave many readers pause: The constant shifts in plot and purpose, mirroring Isabel’s role as the Shifter.

When Isabel re-joins the human world she knows as much about being the Shifter as the reader. All the other characters have expectations for her abilities and ‘powers’  that she flat out doesn’t remember how to even use. All she (and we) know is that she is responsible for protecting the life of Prince Rokan, who is currently in the midst of the boring, month-long ceremonies required to officially take his place as King.

As Isabel gets re-acquainted with life in a castle, parts of her memory seem to come back to her; clothing, customs, and sometimes even rooms all seem familiar. Which makes sense… she was the Shifter once, right? So why isn’t it ALL coming back? Why exactly did she leave the castle in the first place? Isabel discovers that she ran off years ago after ‘failing’… but what had she failed at?

At this point I loved how the court system and even the magic system of this world were gracefully explained through a friendship with the current Magician’s Assistant. Isabel’s ignorance is the reader’s ignorance; and she asks questions that I would ask. Pieces of knowledge are revealed slowly, allowing both readers and Isabelt to draw connections that advance the plot and clarify the previous actions of courtiers.

There was also a journey of emotional growth here, as Isabel learns who makes her happy and who makes her want to smash things. Prince Rokan is a great character; initially a stereotypical prince (charming, handsome, smart, etc.), he develops into a man haunted by the actions of his father, trying to heal the region and do the right thing by his people, even if the rest of the court does not approve.

Multiple attempts on Prince Rokan’s life are made, and as Isabel’s influence over the castle grows her awareness of all sub-plots increase, but even she can’t predict the betrayals her Prince suffers. Soon Isabel can’t trust anyone, not even Prince Rokan or herself, and the sudden appearance of yet another assassin brings out the truth of what happened those many years ago, and puts Isabel into a terrible predicament: as the Shifter, she is bound to protect the royal family. But what if the royal family is in the wrong? What if the person she loves -despite the fact that the Shifter should feel no human emotion- is the person she is meant to destroy?

Each chapter of Mistwood offers a new twist and peels back the layers of these initially flat characters. By the end of the book I was amazed by the complicated motives of the players involved, and how it all fit together so well. Mistwood uses the concept of ‘unreliable narrator’ very well, and the ending is not something I would have expected.

I also love how this book ended on a positive note that didn’t get sappy. I didn’t feel that Mistwood ended ‘happy’ because the writer wanted it to be; the plot really resolved itself and the opportunity was there for Isabel to try and live the life she wanted.

I read Mistwood on my Nook when I was on vacation, and it made the miserable time on the airplane fly by. Whenever the flight attendants came by to check on our electronic devices I hid the Nook in my purse because I couldn’t wait to get back to the story. I thought about Mistwood when I wasn’t reading it, and long after it was over, and will probably be ready to read it again in a month or so. That’s the mark of a good book 🙂

I would definitely recommend this book to other readers.

~~~

Mistwood’s opening page completely hooked me. I was going through the YA section looking for books ‘for my little sister’ and the voice and atmosphere created in the first few lines pulled me right in to Isabel’s world. The setting of the Mistwood was delightfully eerie and the castle’s numerous winding hallways and towers were the perfect place for scheming and intrigue.

The twists and surprises throughout the book were great. They felt like the natural unwinding of so many people’s little plots, overlapping and interfering with each other. It also kept me on my toes, trying to figure out who was really loyal to which person, who were the double and triple crossers, and who was just feeding the fire to watch it burn. I love books that keep throwing my curveballs as long as they don’t come out of left field, and trying to figure out what was going on kept me reading for the six hours it took me to finish. I only stopped for dinner and that was because my family insisted.

Isabel’s frustration and confusion was palpable throughout as was Rokan’s fascination with her and the concerns weighing on him. The shifts in perspective were very well done and the use of third person meant the reader gets insight into what Isabel and Rokan are thinking without a change in narrators or any interruption. Rokan’s drive to be as good as he can in spite of his harsh father’s training makes him likeable and the kind of guy you want to be in charge. In fact, he’s pretty impossible to dislike, even when you discover the reasons behind the Shifter’s previous departure from the castle and Rokan’s current danger.

I am a sucker for happy endings. Not gooey, sparkly endings (though I sometimes like those too), but Mistwood’s ending wasn’t neatly packaged and sterilized like a Disney movie. It wasn’t all happy and it wasn’t morally clear, which made it all the more real. So, even if I was sad not everybody ended up with the love of their life and a pony, it worked well, and Isabel finally got to make her own decision about the course of her life.

I wish Mistwood had been twice as long. Well, maybe not twice as long, but at least another 30k words. Mostly because Leah Cypress does such an excellent job skipping scenes that aren’t crucial to the plot and summarizing them in the character’s dialogue or the narration that it makes me wish we could see those scenes too. These parts don’t feel like a brief summary to get the author out of having to write something, I had the impression that Leah Cypress knew exactly how each conversation went and I wanted to know too! At least I have a sequel or companion book to look forward to!

Culture Building

15 Jun

Fantasy writers often talk about how world building is a crucial step and must be well done for a story to be believable. I think that culture building is equally if not more important. Everyone lives in a culture (there is no such thing as ‘natural Man’) and your culture affects every aspect of your life. If you don’t build a realistic culture people are going to notice; it might not be glaring but there will still be a subtle sense that something is off.

I’m going to go over a few areas of culture that are important to consider when you’re building.

Language

Language is almost insidious. Feminists know about language, as do gender studies people, so of course the mainstream writes it off (F.Y.I. our culture hates feminists). However, it is more than thinking about phrases like ‘man and wife,’ it has to do with concepts of space and time, numbers and personhood. Some languages have no words for numbers above two or three. You have one, two, many, and people in cultures with languages like this don’t differentiate between say twenty and thirty of something. They’re both many. Try to imagine an economy in a society that doesn’t bother counting above three. Even what colors you recognize depends on your culture and the words in your language. Read 1984 and be afraid, be very afraid.

Spatial Relationships

The Mixtec in Mesoamerica buried their dead under the floor of the main room in their house. If they moved they opened up the floor and took the bones with them. What does that use of space tell you about their culture?

Space is something we notice when we enter unfamiliar places. If we think that doors are in the wrong places or people use the other side of the street it can make us uncomfortable. Consider what the layout of buildings, towns and cities can tell you. A grid layout of streets implies central control and city planning while winding, narrow streets are evidence of more organic growth over time. The layout of a house can show gender roles in the segregation of workspaces or just the segregation of women to a separate area from men and visitors. Public and private areas of a house contrast what a family wishes others to see and what they want to say about themselves with how they interact on their own.

Buildings can display wealth and power. A palace is meant to impress everyone who views it and your rank in society determines which areas you are able to view. Temples, cathedrals, and important government buildings can make the viewer feel small and insignificant. Your use of space textures your world and positions your characters. It also allows readers to orient themselves or it disorients them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you’re writing about people living in grand houses, research/visit some. Space can be used to control or convey subtle information and making your characters aware of it can add depth to their interactions with the people and world around them. And when I say space I mean buildings, yards, gardens, fences, roads, gates, walls, and the areas they enclose.

Social Structure

Bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states are the four broad categories of social structure used to classify most societies. As they increase in complexity they decrease in equality so that you go from the egalitarian structure of a band where decisions are consensus based to a state ruled by a small elite class. There are all kinds of variations within each category, so anthropologists really hate these four even if we can’t stop using them. Rank in society is either earned or inherited; as you move up in complexity you also increase the likelihood that rank is inherited. Elites like to keep their power to themselves and their kin whereas more egalitarian societies put emphasis on achievement. With them you get to be in charge because you’re the best organizer, or warrior, or hunter.

So far I’ve written primarily about state level societies. They’re literate, they have governments, economic classes, specialized labor, standard weights and measures, and armies. If you’re writing fantasy, you’re probably dealing with state level societies. Evil dark lord with tons of minions? It’s a state. A kingdom with happy peasants? It’s a state. A peaceful village surrounded by fairies and gumdrops and fields of unicorns? Well that depends. It could be a tribe or chiefdom instead of a state depending on what other characteristics you have. If the village lacks an overarching government and you don’t have a separate artisan class or much inequality it’s probably a tribe. If it’s part of a network of villages, there is pronounced inequality, and you have tribute going to the person in charge of the network, it’s looking more like a chiefdom.

Kinship

I love kinship, especially fictive kinship. Fictive kinship is when you call your parents’ best friends aunt and uncle but it can get far more complicated. It’s probably best to stick to the basics for now. Kinship tends to be patrilineal or matrilineal, you belong to your father’s family or your mother’s family though in some cases you can get bilineal descent in which a person is a member of the mother’s line and the father’s line. Western cultures are patrilineal; you get your father’s name as your family name and you marry into your husbands family and take his name. In some cultures this is reversed and a man will marry into his wife’s family.

Who you can marry and what counts as incest is based on your kinship system. Yeah, I’m talking about cousin-lovin.’ Today Americans look down on first cousin marriages whereas they used to be common and desirable among the upper classes. Some societies favor first cousin marriage but only with certain cousins. Their definition of incest includes the cousins who would be within your line of descent. In a matrilineal system cousins on your mom’s side would be off limits but the ones on your dad’s side would be a great choice.

A lot of kinship comes out in your words for family members. In Chinese there are different words for your father’s mother and your mother’s mother. They also distinguish between your father’s older brothers and younger brothers. Confucian teaching put a huge emphasis on respect for elders and familial relationships, so it’s no surprise to see this level of distinction in kin names.

Gender (which has its own article), food, medicine, and religious practices are all major elements too and I could just go on and on. But the thought of having to think of them all can be daunting,  so it’s good to remember that you can make a major change in say one area and end up with a society vastly different from our own.

A quick example of great culture building? Terry Pratchett’s dwarves! Dwarf culture feels organic and has depth in Pratchett’s books even though they are comedies that parody our world. Pratchett takes the simple but crucial step of reversing the cultural meanings of light and dark: to enter the light is to be blinded and ignorant, to be endarkened is to see clearly. And they only have one gender! All dwarves are male! Yes, they have two sexes, that’s how they reproduce, but they only have one gender in the first few books.

Go on and try your own for fun, or share ideas below!

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time revising before continuing querying and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

Questions to Ask Your Agent

24 May

mmm chaiI’m currently going through the delightful processes of finding an agent, so I thought it was about time plan for the next step: what to do if an agent offers representation. I know that day is probably a long way away, but I also like to be prepared. So, I asked the agented ladies here at LTWF what questions they asked (or wished they had asked) their agents when they got that first call. I did some poking around the internet too, in hopes of discovering some more questions to ask a prospective agent. And boy did I find them all over the place! I wouldn’t have even thought of most of these myself, which is why I’m devoting this whole post to the topic. Finding and accepting the right agent is a major step and not something to jump into lightly, so make sure you know enough to make an informed decision!

I’m not saying you should ask all of the questions I have listed, or only these questions. And I wouldn’t even dream of trying to memorize them. I plan on having a separate word document on my desktop (easy to find for the panicked) that I can read off (because my brain will shut down and I will probably be incoherent/in disbelief).

Editing

-How much work do they think your book needs? And what kind of revisions?
-Are they an editorial agent that will be involved in the editing process?
-How involved do they want to be in the process; do they want to see each draft or only final ones?
-Will the manuscript be ready for submissions soon?

Submissions

-Which houses/editors do they have in mind?
-How long do they give editors before giving them a nudge?
-Do they do big batches or small ones for each round?
-Do they have a game plan for selling your book?

Communication (came up a lot and I can see how it’s crucial for you and your agent to be on the same page)

-What’s their response time, whether for emails, snail mail or calls? (If it takes a while for them to respond it’s good to know in advance so you don’t have to worry that they’ve forgotten you.)
-How often do they get in touch with clients? (Some agents will check in every week, some will only check in when there’s news. If you are a bit nervous starting out, you’ll probably want occasional check ins just to reassure you that your agent remembers you.)
-What’s the best way to contact them?

Career

-Do they want to help you build a carer/brand or do they want to work with you on a book by book basis?
-Do they have a vision for your career? (Do you have your own vision and do these match?)
-Do they represent all the genres that you think you are likely to write in? (For instance, I need someone who does more than children’s/MG if I have a career agent because the other book I’ve written is YA fantasy.)

Contract

-Will they explain it to you? All the tiny little details? (If you have questions after reading it)
-Do their answers satisfy your concerns/questions?
-Will they explain the publisher’s contract in all its little details?

The Agent

-Does the agent ‘get’ your book? Do you get the feeling that they understand what you’re trying to do with it?
-Why does the agent want to represent you? Do they love your book? Are they excited?
-What have they sold that’s similar to your work? What have they sold in general and recently?
-How many clients do they have?
-Can you speak with their other clients?

Questions I stole from other sites

Casey McCormick’s incredibly helpful/detailed post on what to ask: http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/2010/02/call-or-what-to-ask-literary-agent-when.html

-Will I be working solely with you, or will there be times I’ll work with an associate or assistant? (eg. Do they have the interns do some of the revisions?)
-Are you confident you have enough time and energy to add another client to your roster? If it’s not already full, how many clients do you wish to have on your list eventually?
-What happens if you can’t sell this manuscript?
-What if you don’t like my future projects and ideas?
-Would you still support and represent me if at some point I wrote outside of my current genre?
-Will you keep me updated as rejections and offers come in? Are you willing to share the rejections with me? (If you want to see them)
-What are your commission rates? Are they the standard 15% domestic and 20% foreign/film?
-What is your procedure for processing and disbursing client funds?
-How soon will I receive my share when payments are received? (Typically publishers pay agents and then the agent pays the client)

Rachelle Gardner also has a detailed list: http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2009/05/questions-to-ask-agent.html

-Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?

Ginger Clark’s guest post on Nathan Bransford’s blog gives an agent’s perspective on offering representation and what she thinks clients should do: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/10/guest-blog-ginger-clark-on-how-to.html

Check out those links and make your own list! Let what’s important to you guide what you want to ask. Remember to research the agents beforehand so you don’t have to ask them questions they answer on their websites.

And feel free to share any questions I haven’t included!

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time revising, querying agents, and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here and follow her on twitter here.

Costuming Your Characters

10 May

What are your characters wearing?

Do you know? Is it important? I think it can be. Even if you don’t include long descriptions of each character’s outfit (which you shouldn’t because no one wants to read that), you should still include bits of information. Jane Austen mentions muslin in Northanger Abbey; she does not indulge in a treatise on the spring fashions of 1804. If we didn’t know what people wore during the early 19th century, we wouldn’t get an idea of it just from reading, but those mentions of muslin still give texture to the story and make Henry Tilney awesome. People’s clothes say a lot about them, so whatever the setting, whether it’s historical, modern, fantasy or sci-fi, you can use clothing to help set the mood and flesh out the world your characters inhabit.

Just like the color choices on movie costumes are used to say a lot about the characters, the colors your characters wear can drop hints about personality. I’m not talking about a leather bustier for your villain’s hot and evil secretary; I’m talking earth tones for chill people or bright colors during dramatic events. I have one character who’s emotionally distant. She wears mostly light blues and white but at the climax she wears red.

Fabric and accessories can hint at class or wealth. A Coach purse says upper-middle class and affluent, but not old money. The latest toys from Apple say something similar with a techie edge. A duct taped wallet shows someone who’s not willing to spend money on a new one. Silk and satin dresses are far more expensive than polyester blends or cotton. Think about all the props you see in movies and TV shows. It takes more time to write about objects but it can be worth it for what they say about your characters and the setting.

You can also hint at the weather or reinforce what’s already been said about it. Are people sweating through their t-shirts? That makes more of an impact than someone saying “It’s hot out.” During the winter they could reach for light jackets or wrap up in heavy fur coats. Which one they go for tells us more about the temperature than just plain ‘cold.’

The better you can picture the elements of your story, the better you can describe them and get that image across to your readers. I have trouble picturing things without reference, so I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out what everyone in PRISCILLA THE EVIL wears. It gave me an excuse to look a lots of pretty pictures, especially since Priscilla goes all Art Nouveau when she can. The dress is the wrong color but the picture feels right.

Mucha

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the prince she meets is dressed like Valentino from The Son of the Shiek.

The desert peoples are inspired by paintings of the late 19th century Ottoman Empire.

In short, know what your characters wear. The Kyoto Costume Institute has a drool inducing book I will probably eventually treat myself to, but even for those not quite up to buying books on historic costume, there are the wonderful wilds of the internet. So, here’s a few links I’ve found handy:

-The Art Renewal Center, Lord Frederick Leighton, http://www.artrenewal.com/pages/artist.php?artistid=14

-18th Century Blog (pictures of period clothing and fashion plates): http://18thcenturyblog.com/

-Movie stills from period dramas: http://www.costumersguide.com/costume_research.shtml http://www.freewebs.com/heileen/graceelliot.htm

-Wikipedia also has articles on fashion changes over different periods of time. Here’s the one I’ve looked at the most: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1750–1795_in_fashion

It’s pretty easy to find information on Western European clothing from the Roman Empire up through the modern period but there are tons of different clothing traditions throughout the world that are beautiful and wonderful sources of inspiration.

-some traditional Russian clothing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sofi01/3929375465/ and http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/100pages/1903BALL.HTM

-The West African Grand Boubou: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boubou_(clothing)

and Kaftan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrapper_(clothing)

-Historic Japanese outfits: http://fibers.destinyslobster.com/Japanese/Clothes/japoutfits.htm

and Kimono http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono

-Aztec clothing: http://history.missouristate.edu/jchuchiak/HST%20350–Theme%203–Daily_life_of_the_aztecs.htm

So, go have some fun, look at some pretty pictures, and play dress up with your characters.

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then plans on spending her time querying agents and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

Gender in Fantasy

26 Apr

Seeing standard gender roles in fantasy is boring, to me at least. I get a ‘been there done that’ kind of feeling when I see women hanging around taking care of kids or waiting to get rescued, or when an entire army is made up of manly men. If you’re going to convince me to accept magic, strange creatures and some kind of epic quest, I’m going to ask why the chicks seem to be filling traditional Western gender roles. Even when some plucky heroine appears and sets out to do something interesting, half the time she’s dressed like a man or she faces discrimination for acting like a man. *CoughEowynCough*

You might say that a lot of fantasy is set in a something like the past so, naturally, men fight wars, rule nations and get entrusted with the fate of the world. Most women stay at home taking care of stuff and getting used as pawns by their menfolk. We don’t have to think about these things; they just makes sense and seem natural. It’s important to remember our Western views are only traditional to a small part of the world and only represent a few hundred years of gender relations. Also, they’re typically ideals and few people really fit cultural standards. So, put yourself out on a limb and don’t just put your characters into the slots we have ready and waiting. Think about why men and women do what they do and then play with it. It will not only force you to think outside the box, it will strengthen your ability as a writer.

Here are a few suggestions for ways to change things up, or at least topics to think about:

  1. Try reversing some gendered trait. For instance, make aggression a feminine trait or make fashion something men follow obsessively while still being considered ‘manly.’ These things aren’t innate to the sexes, they’re cultural.
  2. Think about why characters holding certain positions are male or female. Are your army’s generals all men? How come? The ancient Chinese queen, Fu Hao, was the third wife of Emperor Wu Ding and one of his best generals. There are oracle bone inscriptions mentioning her success in battle and in bringing back tribute from neighboring groups. This didn’t stop her from becoming a mother either.
  3. Play with your marriage customs. Going for something exotic? Polygyny is when a man has multiple wives but a much rarer form of polygamy is polyandry, where a woman has multiple husbands. Also, who is the head of the house, the man or the woman, and what does it mean for the family?
  4. Don’t just exclude women from the political sphere. Throughout history, women have managed to play politics even in strongly patriarchal societies. Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia had a son from her first marriage and it’s thought she poisoned or had banished most of the other males in Augustus’ family to ensure her son would inherit the throne.
  5. Who are the religious leaders? Are they exclusively male or female? Is it a mix? In Ancient Egypt, there were priests and priestesses, though which groups were more powerful changed over time depending on which god ranked highest.
  6. Think about who does the farming. In agricultural societies where women remained in charge of food production, they retained power. The Iroquois are the classic example of this. Women owned the land and farmed it. If they didn’t like what their men were doing they cut them off from food. They could stop a war or start one this way.
  7. Do you only have two genders? Why? Four or five are way more interesting.
  8. And remember women are just as hard on other women as men. So, a plucky heroine out to prove women are capable of something or other not only has to confront male bias and discrimination, she has to deal with the possible alienation of her friends who will want her to ‘act like a girl’ and conform. Remember high school?

Hopefully, I’ve encouraged some of you fantasy writers to think about the roles men and women have in your stories and then to mix it up! Do some research on other cultures; see what quirky or interesting traditions they have and think about how you would write about them. Read Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. Try challenging yourself and see where it takes you!

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Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She will be starting grad school in the fall and until then plans on spending her time querying agents and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

New LTWF Contributor

29 Mar

Hello!

They’re actually letting me post so I guess this means the secret initiation rituals are over. I’m honored to be joining the lovely and accomplished group of ladies here at Let the Words Flow. I am Jenn Fitzgerald and I’m twenty-two years old. I grew up in suburban Maryland and went to college in Virginia where I majored in anthropology. Nobody ever knows what anthropology means but that’s okay because I’m actually an archaeologist. I’m planning on entering a Ph.D program in archaeology in Boston this fall. Hopefully it won’t consume so much of my life that it interferes with my writing. I’m hoping there’s a way I can balance both. We’ll see how that goes.

Writing is my hobby and my addiction when it’s not part of my job. I’ve been writing in my spare time since I was in middle school, in snatched instants when an idea struck or late into the night when scenes wove together and demanded to be recorded. The first story I ever finished had vampires and was written in second person. Yes, it is as cringe worthy as you think. I spent several years writing mostly fanfiction and improving as a writer before I went back to working on original projects.

I started posting on fictionpress during college because I wanted to share my stories and because I wanted feedback on my writing ability. I also needed the feedback to motivate me to finish one thing instead of jumping from beginning to beginning and story to story. I can almost never work on only one thing at a time but I’ve been handling this by writing short stories attached to my main WIP on Fictionpress. I am also still updating and posting new stories there.

PRISCILLA THE EVIL is the reason I’m here. It’s the first book-length project I’ve finished since those silly vampires and I thought it was worth a shot trying to get it published. It’s about a girl named Priscilla who gets fed up with her life and decides that she’s going to be powerful and respected. Naturally, the only way to do this is by being evil. So, she declares herself an evil queen and sets out to acquire all the standard things evil people need, like a barbarian army, an evil dragon and dark castle. I’ve received a request for a full from one agent. Now I’m waiting to hear back from her and working on a synopsis for other agencies’ submissions.

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Currently Reading: The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky