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.

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9 thoughts on “Womanly Women in Fiction II: Krimhilde, Lelia, and Others

  1. so Lelia is going to be outwardly obedient, modest, domestic-minded, maternal, and so on

    But don’t get her angry. You won’t like her when she is angry. 😉

    Of course, her anger mainly comes out when children (especially her children and yes they are adult) and when bullies threaten innocents. 😀

  2. Up to ten-and-a-half?
    In some of the female-dominates workplaces I’ve been familiar with, a simple Tuesday would suffice.

  3. That is…. fascinating. Because that’s not my picture of Lelia Chan at all.

    From the first time I met her in Strangely Familiar, the thing that struck me most about her was her inner strength and sense of self. For pete’s sake, a talking lemur walks up to her and introduces himself as her Familiar, and she doesn’t head straight for the nearest shrink’s office? Then she’s a recovering addict who successfully kicked not only booze but also heroin – never an easy thing to do even if you do have help. She works retail and she’s good at it, so she has mundane skills. She’s always ready to defend her friends. And she never hesitated to legally separate herself from Mrs. Smith-Rogers. I could go on for a while, but I’ll summarize with a line from one of my other favorite books: the Bahzell series by David Weber. “A champion is someone as does what needs doing,” Bahzell says more than once. Lelia does what needs doing in her life.

  4. As a separate point: How do you create a strong female character? Having known a few writers, published and still-working-on-it, and having tried writing fiction once or twice myself, I long ago concluded it was more a question of creating a strong character who happens to be female – with all the associated Stuff, good and bad, that “being female” might entail. I once read a fantasy novel by an otherwise very good author in which she had obviously taken her usual sort of protagonist (always female, in all her previous books) and made him male instead, without stopping to think about what differences it might make in the character’s outlook on the world. It made an otherwise pretty good story almost unreadable for me. In the same way, I figure you can’t get a good female character by just writing a male character and then flipping his gender, because physical/biological/genetic sex is as much a core part of every person as the species they belong to.

    • I’ll have to chew on that for a bit. I’ll post something on Saturday (a week from today), because I’ll have to do a little digging inside my head to figure out how I do it. “Write a strong character who isn’t male” is not really helpful, I suspect.

      • Oops, I might not have been clear. I wasn’t asking a further question, I was sort of trying to reply to what you said in your last paragraph: “A strong female character is a women/female who is her own person…”

      • *tilts head to the side*
        I still haven’t figured out writing “a strong character” part. I mean, Alma can tell you the mild panic attack I had when the first reviews popped up stating I wrote strong female characters. She had had talk me down and reassure me that no, I wasn’t writing emotionally abusive asses with plot armor to survive the constant idiot ball carry, that there were indeed other uses of the term amoung readers, and would I please quit clawing the living daylights out of the curtains by my mad scramble for safe heights and smooth down my hackles?

        I just write people who are people, and do what needs to be done according to them, whether it’s the wisest thing or safest thing or not. And I like to read Alma’s people, because they’re not Strong Female Characters, they’re people who do the bet they can with who and what they are.

  5. Thank you for this. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but at some time in the future I’ll have to figure out how my main character is going to handle a developing relationship with a young lady whose father is a Royal Navy Vice-Admiral.

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