Tonight, the eve of the feast of St. Walburga (Walpurga), it is said that the witches of Germany gather on the Brocken, a mountain in the Harz. The night is held by many in Europe to be uncanny, for various reasons. Modest Mussorgsky wrote a tone-poem about this, “The Night on the Bare Mountain.”


Strong Female Characters in Fiction: A Craft Guide

Disclaimer: As Kipling said, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right.” You may well have a better way of creating a strong female character. Go for it!

Last week, Wolfwalker asked about writing a strong female character who isn’t just a guy with a second X chromosome. He was more making an observation than asking a question, but as Dorothy Grant pointed out in a later comment, there’s a problem with “strong women” in fiction today. All too often, they are nasty harridans who show strength by abusing the people around them, or they are simply declared to be a “strong women” by the author. A few authors give the woman a “man’s job,” like oilfield geologist or forensic investigator, but never show the character using those skills. The “Strong Woman” then falls head over—ahem—in lust with the male protagonist who happens to be a not-a-vampire, or a were-creature, or a dybbuk [eeeeewww], or a djin, or whatever is trendy.

Having suffered through a few “strong women” from an earlier generation of writers that were, to use the memorable phrase, “Beowulf wearing a wig,” I have a bit of an idea what to avoid. You want a character who is believably female, with no waif-fu unless there are good in-story reasons for her super-strength or super-speed. James Bond in a cocktail dress is not a strong female character, even if she does grumble about trying to find her favorite brand of feminine hygiene products while on a mission. Nor is she a vicious shrew (unless this is a change-grow-improve sort of story, or she’s the baddie.)

In some ways, you have to get down to what makes a woman in a certain culture a woman, beyond genetics. But don’t discount genetics. Relatively low upper body strength compared to males, generally shorter (but not always), having to be concerned about pregnancy or lack thereof, dealing with sex-specific effects of certain activities (a woman who spends a great deal of time on horseback is somewhat more prone to endometriosis, for example. See Elizabeth von Sarmas for what that means for the character.) You, the author, will want your character to be aware of her physical strengths and weaknesses, if she is in a setting where that matters. Even in a high-tech, armored-suit-boosted world, I suspect differences will appear. Pregnancy affects hormones which affect mood and temper. The first trimester tends to have mood swings, then the “happy baby brain” starts with the second trimester, more or less. But not always.

Most women tend to be more sensitive to emotion in others than are men, and more likely to try to mediate and please. So a female character may ignore someone’s emotional distress because she has to, but she’s probably aware of it. She will be less confrontational, at least in public, unless she has to be. Depending on her personality, she may well have to nerve herself up for a public or even private confrontation, telling herself why this is so important, and getting ready for trouble.

Since most women are more sensitive to others’ opinions, a female character will control her behavior and environment differently. Physical displays, physical aggression and bravado, joking about bodily functions? Much, much less common. She may give as good as she gets, if she has to in order to prove or maintain rank in an otherwise all-male environment. Or she might not, relying on skill to prove her status.

For example, the lady engineer who endeared herself to the Special Forces guys when they returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and discovered her up to her thighs in sewage under the toilet hut, fixing a leak. She’d already repaired the hot-water system for the showers. She did her job, didn’t make a fuss, answered the radio when needed, and left the place neater, cleaner, and more comfortable than when she arrived. In a way, she was doing woman’s work – just not in what most think of when we hear that phrase.

I would write her as being taller than average, possibly a former volleyball player in High School (good shoulders and upper body strength). She’ll be mellow about messes, unless they are caused by carelessness or malice. She’ll probably not worry too much about looking feminine, since this is the military, but she might act more feminine when she’s not working. She won’t joke around and give the guys hell like other guys do, but she’ll tease them gently when appropriate. She’s going to look for small things that make a big difference, like hot water when they come back from a mission, fixing that stove vent so the dining tent doesn’t always smell like grease, and take care of those once she finishes the big thing. She won’t be shy about asking for a strong back when it really is needed, but she’ll be very polite, and appreciative, especially if someone volunteers. If she can get away with it, she might wear lipstick at meals, just so she remembers that she’s a lady.

A good female character is interesting to read and fun to cheer for, even if it is only as monumental as “she got five kids to and from the grocery store without them eating the candy aisle, and she got everything on her list, too!” Or perhaps she gets her team at work all aimed in the same direction, working on the same project, reminds them to eat, has their favorite pop and coffee when needed, and is willing to order people to sleep and/or shower when needed. She’s not the hero of the techno-thriller, but he wouldn’t get the data/piece of code/remedy for the terrible bio-terror thing without her contribution.

Holy Roman Empire: Obstruction or Dead Weight?

That seemed to be the question historians of Central Europe asked in the Twentieth Century. At least until a new generation started waving their hands and saying, ” ‘Scuze me, but if it was so bad, why was it kept around after 1648, and why did the members vote to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to try to claim the title?” Institutions that serve no purpose, and have become a drag on society, don’t survive shocks like the Thirty Years War. Maybe the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation wasn’t the drag on society that earlier writers had declared it to be.

The “problem” of the H.R.E. goes back to Rousseau, and to the rise of the Prussian German Empire in the late 1800s. Rousseau, a French philosophe, seems never to have met an institution that he could tolerate. The French Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, attracted a great deal of his ire, and he is the one who declared that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. He also helped give us the idea that the three monotheisms lived in peace and harmony under the rule of the Moors in Iberia for 700 years, until the abusive Castilian Catholics took over in 1492. Oh, and he gets credit for the idea of the General Will, which passed through some Prussian philosophers (Germany didn’t exist yet), was picked up by Marx and a few others, and went downhill from there.

The “problem” of the H.R.E. then passed to Berlin. After Napoleon, the much enlarged Hohenzollern kingdom of Prussia-Brandenburg vied with the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary for domination of Central Europe. The Habsburgs had turned their attention more east than north, and had their hands full dealing with the Ottomans (still.) They also had difficulties with the growing tensions of nationalism in a multi-ethnic empire. This left an opening for Prussia. As Prussia gained more and more power north of the Alps, historians and politicians both sought for justifications to explain why Prussia was more German than Austria was. If Prussia was more German, than it just made sense for Prussia to be the senior partner in running the German (and Polish, and Czech) speaking parts of Europe. Rousseau’s indictment filled the bill, and was expanded by academic historians.

The H. R. E. had been a valuable and useful institution at first. Upon that all agreed. Certainly as late as the 1200s, perhaps into the late 1500s, having a place where disputes could be settled, defenses organized, and culture encouraged made excellent historical sense. Since, at that time, Vienna and the Habsburgs had the older history, having them run things for a while posed no problems. However . . . Once the Reformation kicked in, and the corrupt—or just misguided—Catholic Church encouraged the emperors to prevent the natural growth and development of Lutheranism, it was time for a change. The Thirty Years War certainly, per the Berlin historians, should have been the end of the HRE. A real empire needs a strong emperor who can exercise tight central control, after all, and that certainly was not, oh, Leopold II, or Maria-Theresa. Frederick II of Prussia was a better model for a true emperor. Fast-forward to 1820, and it was obvious to the pro-Prussian school that the northern German Protestant kingdom really was the true inheritor of Germanitas, of all that made one truly Deutsch, and the Habsburgs should have gone quietly into the twilight of history.

I’m glossing a LOT of politics and academic debate and writing. There were always historians who either 1) felt the HRE should have died with Louis the German or with Frederick Barbarossa or 2) thought that the Austro-Hungarian empire wasn’t as bad as all that. However. American academics studied in Germany, not Austria, and we based our academic system on Berlin, not Vienna. For their part, the Austrians had other fish to fry, and anyone who is familiar with Vienna and that part of the world in the late 1800s-1914 knows that the place was going a bit round the bend in terms of culture and identity crises. It didn’t help in the 1920s when the groups that conflated culture with race with really bad social-Darwinism declared that the northern “Aryans” were, in fact, the true Germans and rightful leaders of Europe and the world.

The H.R.E. as “dead weight” got folded into post-WWII questions about “What the heck happened that Germany went insane while the rest of Europe became civilized? And how do we keep anyone from going that nuts ever again?” The Berlin School (as I call it) of academic history came to dominate for several academic generations, which then trickled down into popular history. I really didn’t start seeing English-speaking historians saying, “Um, hold on a moment. What do the documents say?” until the late 1990s and even more into the early 2000s. Then the “Vienna School” scholars began producing articles and monographs in support of a reappraisal of the Habsburgs and of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

As you know, I’m a bit of a buff for the Holy Roman Empire, both the region and the institution. It served a very important purpose for a very long time, and if it wasn’t a “real” empire with a central, all-powerful leader, well, that was probably one of its strengths as well as a weakness. The institution served some purpose, and was regarded with respect even in it’s declining years, much like the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef in the late 1800s. It was an intriguing place and institution.

Protection from Bad Ideas

In the first episode of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, the most important things lead up to a meeting of the local Committee of the Communist Party. Something bad has happened, word has been passed up and down the chain of command, and the higher-ups have decided to let the locals deal with the problem, while also sending a couple thousand “police” and military. The inference is that the police are the NKVD as well as the military. The party committee members gather in a bunker to decide what to do. Should they evacuate? No, because there’s not really any radiation, according to the available dosimeters [which have all maxed out at 3.6 Roentgen, because that’s as high as they go.] The glow in the air is harmless.

The senior party member reminds them that their duty is to serve the people, and to protect the people. The best way to do that is to prevent panic and suppress false information. He orders the phone lines cut and the area completely isolated. The people will be grateful for the Committee’s actions when they see how well the Party protected them [the people] from bad rumors and hysteria. Viewers know that, well, it’s not going to end that happily.

The Soviets were not the first to want to protect people from dangerous ideas and bad data. The Imperial Chinese censored things, lest otherwise virtuous and moral people be corrupted. Most (in)famously, the first Emperor is said to have burned books and executed authors and philosophers, since no one needed to know the old things or anything that he disagreed with. Since the history was written by someone who disagreed with Qin Shi-Huangdi’s policies, there’s some doubt about the story.

Various governments medieval to modern, also censored people and things, blocked the publication of books, ordered plays to be changed to better suit proper morals and politics, and so on. The princes of Kiev, in the late 900s-1100s, censored various books and works of art. In Early Modern Russia, Peter the Great censored books, forbidding those that demeaned the government, and even ruling that monks did not need to write things privately in their cells. The Russian Orthodox church also censored incoming books, Russian or otherwise, to ensure that foreign or heretical ideas did not lead to people being damned by bad information and ideas. The Roman Catholic church had the Index of books considered to be in gross error, heretical, salacious beyond the usual, and other things. Getting on the Index often meant that the book would sell better, at least pirated editions, because someone is always going to want to know what’s so bad about it, or to rebel by reading naughty literature.

This sense that the mandarins (to abuse a Chinese term) know better and have a duty to protect people from bad ideas did not go away with the 1900s. Certain media platforms routinely censor material, sometimes leading to great ire, as when YouTube decided to remove lots and lots of NSDAP stuff, including university professors’ class materials. Trust me, a lecture on wartime production and economics that includes clips from propaganda films is not going to encourage people to become NeoNazis. Other platforms do the same thing with materials that “contradict the science” or “deny the scientific consensus” about various topics. China has its “Great Firewall.” There are always going to be people or institutions that are certain that some information is too tempting, scandalous, or offensive for ordinary people to be exposed to. Just as a parent protects children from things they are not ready for, so too should the state/church/wise leader/bureaucrats protect the public.

Me personally, I’d rather have Alex Jones as well as Al Franken on-line for people to read. Let the ideas compete. OK, step by step instructions for making a breeder-reactor in your back yard might be going a wee bit far, and I disapprove of doxxing people no matter their ideologies. Iran’s theocratic government considers the US “the Great Satan” because we tempt Iranians into straying from proper beliefs and behaviors. The Imperial Chinese censored materials so ordinary people without the proper education to resist bad knowledge would not fall into vice and corruption. Russian schools teach that Russia won WWII with barely minimal assistance from the US and Britain, and discourage people looking for other sources and stories. The Greek government used to prohibit the importation of Bibles, especially Bibles in Greek, at the behest of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. Which . . . made studying the New Testament a bit of a challenge for laypeople.

The Party will protect the People from accidentally destroying the fruits of their [the People’s] labor. It will be the great heroic moment for the Pripyet Subcommittee of the Communist Party, and the People will thank them for their labor.

Except for that glow in the sky over the power plant, and the men coming out of the plant. With fresh sunburns. At night.

St. George and ANZACs

Before he was dismissed from the official list of saints, George was the patron of Greece and of soldiers. He was very popular in England. Officially his feast day is April 23, but it is observed this year on April 25, which is also ANZAC Day in Australia. It is a fitting pairing.

The “official” story about George is that he was the son of a Roman officer, and so became a soldier himself (as the law required. Martin of Tours [and of Pannonia] had to join the military even though he didn’t want to, because that was dad’s employment.) He became a Christian, refused to return to paganism, and was executed during the persecutions by Diocletian. The unofficial story involves slaying a dragon [devil] that preyed on the young woman of Silene in Libya. George did in the dragon, converted the town’s grateful residents to Christianity, and then the story either ends, or gets really off beat. I’ve only heard/seen the off-beat version once. Let’s just say that even the medieval Catholic Church expressed some qualms about George really being killed three times and coming back twice.

George is the patron saint of England and Catalonia. He is recognized and still venerated in the Orthodox Church, and is the patron of Ethiopia, Georgia, and the city of Moscow.

St. George by Raphael. https://www.raphaelpaintings.org/st-george.jsp

Then there’s a somewhat later and certainly more florid St. George.

Peter Paul Rubens. St. George. Public Domain, at the Museo del Prado, Spain.

ANZAC Day is the day set aside in Australia and New Zealand, and wherever Australian and New Zealander military forces are currently serving, to remember the dead of all the wars. The ANZACs tended to hit well above their weight class, and the mildest, most soft-spoken Kiwi can turn into a ferocious warrior when need arises.

Gurkhas honoring another group of warriors. The two often fought side-by-side. The image is from Gurhka Association website. https://www.gurkhabde.com/anzac-day-celebrations-in-australia/

April 25, 1915, marked the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. They would also fight in South Africa, New Guinea, France, Burma, Korea, Vietnam, and wherever needed. The Australian Military History museum in Canberra was eye-opening, to put it mildly, for a Yank who had very little clue about the huge contributions Australians (and New Zealanders) made in the wars. Or the enormous price those countries paid for that effort.

Polonaise: Dance, Jacket, or Sandwich Spread?

OK, probably not the third option, but one never knows. There’s also a French sauce polonaise, just to further muddy the waters.

All these things are derived from the French adjective form of Poland. The music, a form of the sauce, and the jacket all derive from Polish folk music, cuisine, or folk costume.

A polonaise gown from the 1700s. Fair Use from: https://www.costumecocktail.com/2016/05/30/winged-robe-a-la-polonaise-ca-1778-1780/
Eighty years later . . . Image source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-2o-2048-61a3115b-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

From the front:

Source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-6o-2048-0f368201-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

The original form was a dress with a trim bodice that opened into an over-skirt. The back and sometimes sides were looped up into a bustle, revealing the color and details of the underskirt. I suspect the idea was to keep the outer skirt away from whatever you were working on, and you had an apron on over the dress. Or it was a way to show off embroidery and lace or ruffles on the under-skirt.

The polonaise musical form is a march in 3/4 time, or so it sound like. It is stately and does not have the intimate feel of a waltz. (Keep in mind, the waltz was scandalously intimate when it first debuted. His hand was where?!? They were how close?)


As you watch the video, note that under the faster beat is a slow 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It’s a very different feel from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 accented pattern of a waltz or minuet.

This is a concert polonaise rather than one intended for dancing, but you hear the same tension between the march feeling and the three beats to the bar. Chopin is famous for his polonaises, but other composers did and do write them.
In some ways, the polonaise reminds me a bit of a quadrille and other group dances (Irish, American) with the lines and movement. All hands are accounted for at all times. 😉

Womanly Women in Fiction II: Krimhilde, Lelia, and Others

The last post looked at my early female characters: Rada Ni Drako, Elizabeth von Sarmas, Auriga Bernardi-Prananda, and a character in a story I’ve pretty much given up on, unless it gets worked into a prehistory of the Familiars world. Now let’s move to some more recent creations.

Those of you who have read Language of the Land know that it is a semi-dystopia, set in a world where women dominate religion and society. It is a hard-core matriarchy, with not-so-great consequences for men and women both. I based the female villains on people I’d crossed paths with, plus took characteristics I’d observed in bad female leaders/bosses and turned that up to about ten-and-a-half. Eleven wasn’t needed. As it turns out, I underestimated how ferocious some women can be when given a cause to promote. So those are my “please don’t be like this.” The women wear skirts, but otherwise seem determined to behave even worse than men in the same positions.

So, what about strong female protagonists in the Merchant books? There are no female point-of-view characters. White Gold of Empire started from a woman’s PoV, because I decided that we needed to see the world from a different perspective. My muse refused. There are lots of female characters, none of whom really “buck the patriarchy” because, well, there’s room for them, just as there was in Europe during a similar time period and place. Some are more positive than others, but the Merchant world is one where women have multiple physical disadvantages, and know it. There are a few exceptions, like the senior washerwoman in Rhonari and some others, but everyone knows they are exceptions. Halwende Valke’s wife has a strong personality of her own, and will serve as his second-in-command and good right hand, but she doesn’t try to take over. In fact, she will hear some law cases that are too delicate and sensitive for Halwende (or any man) to properly adjudicate. She doesn’t want to govern the Valke lands on her own, or to explore and claim, either. She likes being warm, dry, safe, and with a roof over her head and servants to take care of her. Her task is to be a helpmeet, and to have kids, at least three sons and some daughters (heir, spare, spare spare, plus girls for alliances.)

So, Morgana, Krimhilde, Lelia, Dumitra’s mother, Arthur’s elder sister, Mistress Cimbrissa . . . Note that all the ladies are competent in their various fields. Even Lelia, who seems dependent on her husband for survival (ignore the royalty and patent income) and Dumitra (who do you thinks runs the herb business?) are highly skilled in their mundane jobs. Lelia Chan Lestrang defers to André in many things, but not all of them. She dresses in a feminine manner because her mother was a New Woman!!!!! feminist* when she wasn’t social-climbing, so Lelia is going to be outwardly obedient, modest, domestic-minded, maternal, and so on. While listening to dark music, fighting monsters, shooting her revolver, and ignoring or working around André’s complaints about fuzzy food (only cheese, and she trims off the fuzz. Sheesh!) Lelia needs structure. She can live without it, but she doesn’t thrive well in chaos. That way leads to chemical escapes. Order and structure are strength for her, and so André being LDS, and Arthur being a bit of a patriarch** are good. She is another helpmeet, and her being Victorian in her speech and dress is her way of rebelling.

Arthur’s brother runs the Clan. He gives the orders, and even Arthur thinks at least twice about challenging Skender. Their older sister, however, doesn’t hesitate to tell Skender when he’s being less than sensible. In detail. With illustrations. She can get away with it because she’s older, and because she has strong magic of her own sort. Dumitra’s mother, an herbalist, will tell Arthur and Skender when they push things too far, and will give the younger Hunters the rough side of her tongue if they are stupid. They take it, because they respect her skill and no one but no one wants to tick-off a healer. The men also know who does the bulk of food preservation and preparation work. Cimbrissa is more reticent than Arthur’s sisters are, but she has no patience for wilful folly. They are strong women because of their skills and because they have shown good judgement in the past. In an odd way, Lelia fits in well, even if she doesn’t realize it and feels awkward and in a bit of awe at the skills of the Clan women.

Dolores Lee was a paralegal, but prefers working with her hands and supports Patrick when she’s not trying to pull him down from the clouded world of pure academics and thaumatological theory (he needs to eat sometime). Mallory Jones is a computer sys-admin, who happens to occasionally bring a very, very large skunk to work. Morgana was a technical writer and planned to raise a family, but she and her husband never had children despite multiple attempts. They took in his nephew instead, for Family Reasons. Barbara works for her husband’s logging business, and they are married and will have children. All have skills and talents, all are individual personalities, and all work hard. They really are strong women. That’s what makes them interesting characters to read about.

Good female characters are complicated, not caricatures of whatever the current trend is. Even Victorian and Edwardian women got fed-up with reading about passive shrinking violets who clung to their men for everything, and that’s when passive shrinking violets were “supposed” to be the ideal. Supposedly, that is, according to later generations. If you are having trouble with creating a multi-sided female character, you could do worse than to find some character creation sheets for table-top role-playing-games and look at categories, strengths, and weaknesses. Toss the dice and see what they give you to work with. You might decide that “low intuition, high charisma” won’t work for your character, but as an exercise in writing a character sketch, it’s a very helpful way to do it.

A strong female character is a women/female who is her own person, who is not perfect, who has valuable skills even if they are “only” supporting and succoring her husband and sons, and who stands up for what she feels is right. She can be a hero or villain. She’s NOT a dude in a wig, or a caricature of this month/week/hour’s definition of Strong Woman.

So go forth and write, those who are so inclined!

*Mrs. Smith-Rogers was whatever would get her prestige and luxury and social status, at least by the time her daughter was aware of what was going on.

**Note, however, that Arthur is not the least bit sexist. He expects everyone to jump when he gives the order. And assumes that both males and females will do as told. That’s a bit less patriarch than imperious and willing to enforce his will with fists and blades if it comes to that, because if he’s giving orders, it’s an emergency, or someone is his lawful subordinate.

Writing Womanly Women in Fiction

A re-post from 2017, because some have asked for more “how do I write” posts.

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? Continue reading

Leadership Post Deleted

The discussion on the post about leadership went in some directions that I prefer this blog stay away from. I apologize for not considering that the discussion might go that route. I thought the focus was clear enough, and I erred.

Comments on this post are closed. I appreciate that my readers have very strong opinions on a number of matters, and that differences in understanding about topics like foreign policy and leadership qualities are common. I’m glad I have such a range of readers and commenters, I truly am.

The fault is mine for touching on a current and sensitive topic that might veer into stormy waters. Mea culpa.