How do you write womanly women in fiction? I hit that question hard when I started the first of the Colplatschki Chronicles, Elizabeth of Starland. I’d been writing Rada Ni Drako, and while she is many things, some of which I can’t say here without getting at least an R rating and I try for PG-13 at worst, she’s not overly feminine. At least, not for a very long time, or in most company. Auriga Bernardi lifts the bar higher, because she’s never going to be a professional soldier like Elizabeth von Sarmas was pushed into becoming. And I have a sense that the female lead in the Bronze Age story is going to be even less aggressive than Auriga. What does that mean? And how do I do it without having the character turn into something from one of those caricature Victorian morality stories?
My first thought is to the character. What does she want or need? What motivates her? Is she just living her life, day by day, doing what she and the women around her have always done? What changes that, or does anything change? Is she the stable point around which the story revolves, the person others leave and go back to, or are trying to protect, or preserve, or obey? And is she really as unchanging as she appears on the surface?
The next question has to do with culture, namely what sort of world does she live in. Is it a strong patriarchy, like tribal Afghanistan and Pakistan for example, where women exist only to serve men and to produce sons and to do labor? Does she belong to a culture where the ideal is for a strong patriarchy but there are holes and exceptions, perhaps religious, perhaps due to unfortunate necessity like plague or war or natural disaster? Or has it gone the other way, a ferocious matriarchy where men are considered morally as well as socially inferior, at worst looked on as a source of muscle power and generating offspring and are otherwise disposable? Why would that come about (see Language of the Land if I ever get it polished and published)? Is she part of the culture or bucking the culture?
If we assume a world where magic or technology (or both) have not removed all differences between the sexes, i.e. not the Honorverse or some less plausible worlds, where does that leave our female protagonist and how is she going to act?
To use Elizabeth von Sarmas, she begins on the fringe of her culture because she is in royal disfavor, seen as a possible threat due to her father’s family, and encouraged in a mild eccentricity by her “keeper.” She’s in good physical shape, has a few basic skills but not really survival skills, and knows what she doesn’t want to do. She does not reject her culture. She does not want to become a great woman warrior, because such things don’t exist and she knows very well that she’s not a man and cannot fight like men do. And she wants to settle down, have a good marriage, and do what women of her rank and station are supposed to do.
However, as I wrote the character, I knew things would not go quite that way. She had grown up with the idea of a vocation, and it was ingrained in her to accept that vocation even if it seemed strange. So when other people saw her skills and decided that she was the answer to their prayers, and that she should polish and improve the gifts she’d been given, she accepted that as her duty, per her society and religion. She’s not entirely comfortable straddling gender roles, but if that is what Godown wants from her, she’s going to try her best to do His will. And she is not going to challenge the system, unless it challenges her first.
Elizabeth von Sarmas is not trying to strike a blow for women’s liberation, because she doesn’t see women as needing liberation, unless they are held captive by the Bad Guys. Society is the way it is, and she’s going to protect that society. In her world, it is deadly dangerous for women on their own, especially in her corner of Colplatschki. Women need men and men need women, and Godown made them equal and different. Elizabeth never questions that foundation. She is thrilled to be married and pregnant, and when things happen that cause her to lose the child, she’s heartbroken. She ends up displacing her maternal desires onto the young officers she trains, and onto her servants (to an extent) and to the horses and mules she raises. She dresses like a woman, rides like a woman, and likes persuasion more than confrontation if possible. On the surface, Elizabeth is not a typical woman of her class, but she lives within her culture and makes no attempts to change it.
Rada Ni Drako, in contrast, does try to change Azdhag society, but slowly, by living and doing, and making certain that females on the estates she manages are treated properly. She’s not an activist at heart, unlike Zabet, who would march through the palace hallways wearing a “Votes for Females!” sash if given the opportunity. However, Rada is facing the double whammy of Azdhag biology and pack behavior. Over the centuries she nudges a few changes into place, but not many, and Rada doesn’t push. Zabet pushes and is ignored, because the Azdhagi all know that True-dragons are strange that way, and they humor her but don’t take her seriously.
Rada is an odd character because in some ways she was made to be a warrior, trained and conditioned (of her own free choice, mostly) to do the same thing males, neuters, and they-have-five-sexes-don’t-ask do. So she started out as a more masculine individual than her physical appearance might suggest. On the other hand . . .
Rada knows where she is strong and how to cheat in those areas where she’s weak. Most of the time she’s willing to admit that her small size is a problem unless she can shoot from under cover or is using powered battle armor. But she has that technology, sort of, and lives in times and in places where technology has made the differences between human and humanoid sexes far less important. Even so, she picks up certain feminine behaviors over the years, and becomes pretty darn domestic in her later centuries, for Rada values of home-maker. As Joschka and others have said, “she’s housebroken, not domesticated.” She wants children, loves children, and her inability to have them hurts her badly. She’ll never be the anti-child feminist. Her idea of equality is letting people do what they want with the skills and strengths they have, and she doesn’t see the point in trying to make other cultures change if she can find one that she likes and can be comfortable in. Comfortable meaning “exceedingly well off bordering on rich.”
Auriga Bernardi is another womanly woman. She’s closer to the Victorian ideal, but not the caricature. In her mind, men are men and do men things, women are women and do women things, there is some overlap, and a proper woman knows how to assist and support her man as well as caring for children and running the household. She is as far from a rebellious activist as one can get, unless people under her care or in her household are affected. She has the skills to live on her own and support herself, but she would prefer to marry and start her own household. She’s free to choose and she chooses to be traditionally feminine and strong without being abrasive or pushing her accomplishments into other people’s faces. Auriga can be manipulative, and she’s not a plaster statue of perfect domesticity and womanhood. She doesn’t want to have to make big decisions on her own. But she’s not stupid, and she will argue for what is right, in a polite, restrained, but firm way, when needed.
The female protagonist in the new thing will be different again. Her culture is being forced to change, although they don’t recognize it at first, and when they do, the response is to try to go back and do what they’d been doing but more so. More offerings to the gods and goddesses, more fertility magic, more isolation from the new horse people starting to move into the area. The protagonist is comfortable in the old way, has a place, and knows what to expect. But she does not want to starve, either, and starts to wonder if perhaps change might not be what the gods and goddesses are pushing the people toward. Could there be a compromise? But she doesn’t want to upset the world that she knows, doesn’t want to remake it, just do what is needed to bring back the good old days and make the fields produce again so the crops stop wilting and the rivers stop flooding so much and so often. And she doesn’t like horses.
On the other side of the river, a nomad woman looks at the farmers and thinks they have the better way. She’s not a warrior, but a mare-herder and weaver. Until the gods strike, and she decides that tearing up the soil and living in one place are a curse, not a blessing. What happens when a former farmer marries into the clan? Will the stranger’s gods upset the clan’s gods? Or is new blood good for people like it is for the clan’s mare band?
Character and culture seem to be the drivers for how my female protagonists come out. If they can reach their goals and desires within the system as it is, they stay within that system and accept its rules. If things fall apart, do they try to change what seems to be the problem, or do they try harder to keep things from changing? Those are human traits more than strictly feminine or masculine.
TL;DR: Womanly female characters accept that men and women are different physically and psychologically, and work with that, within that, and only if pushed will they challenge what is going on. They are strong without being masculine, they prefer to persuade instead of challenge out-right (most of the time) and know that they are not “inferior men” but different. If you do have a character who needs to be “manly” by her culture’s definition, show why, and make a coherent system for why, instead of slapping armor on her and calling on Grrrrrrrl Power! to make her a super-warrior, liberator of all wymynkind.