Strong Female Characters, Point of View, and The White Queen

A story has to be told from the right point of view; the author can’t always choose that.

Yesterday was the Summer solstice and marked two interesting divisions. The summer solstice (or “Langesttay” in the language of the book) marks a critical division in the plot of The Queen’s Night, and four months ago Mark Gottlieb submitted this book, and we haven’t heard anything back. Although Mark has assured me it’s not time to give up hope, he does think it’s time to try to sell the next book, so that’s where my focus is. I am not giving up hope primarily because every person I’ve shown this book, or pitched it to, has said it looks fantastic. I am extremely skeptical that out of fifteen editors who might see it, none of them would like it. It’s gotten to the point where I hope someone will tell me what’s wrong with it so I can fix it. But nevertheless I am moving on with the next book.

The second major milestone yesterday was finishing the revision of Firesage. right now I’m working up some material for copyediting it, and as I do so, I see this book has achieved a Melanie Rawn level of complexity, with over 101 named characters, plus named horses. I may have to trim some of these characters down as some are redundant. For example, when I got to a scene in the village toward the end, it didn’t occur to me, or I was writing too fast, to go back to Chapter 2 and use characters that I’d named there. As I said a while ago, my biggest concern about this book was achieving “crunchy complexity,” and I think I’ve done that. When I went to my writing group and gave people the background, it ended up taking a lot longer than I expected. Also, whenever someone asked “Why does she do that?” I always had a good answer. Now my biggest insecurity is just originality, especially when it comes to magic.

My new about page has teasers for both Firesage and The Queen’s Night.  You can also like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter to keep up.

Strong female characters and point of view

The curse of learning to tell stories is that you can’t hear one without noting its structure

I sometimes get the comment that I write “strong female characters,” and I have to admit I’m puzzled. I don’t think they mean “chicks with swords” or anything like that, because I don’t have those. I’m grateful for compliments, of course, but whenever anyone says anything to me, I always question their motives. It’s a bit much, but hearing about “strong female characters” always makes me wonder why that’s worth noting (I prefer to say I write complex female characters, as in women facing moral dilemmas, often with questionable moral bases). I can think of plenty of reasons why people like to see strong female characters, but in the books I read, they’re not particularly rare. Writing books that feature women for me, is not that special, as I tend to read books that feature women, or at least have well-rounded characters. When people say I write strong female characters, I always feel like retorting: “Why would I bother to write weak female characters?”

The answer, of course, is that I might be a bad writer. Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching The White Queen from Starz (who also brought us Outlander, and therefore should change its name to Boobz). I was interested in this story and Philippa Gregory’s other books about the Wars of the Roses for a long time, but I never gave them a chance. I have a hard time reading historical fiction since I often find I can learn more from just reading nonfiction (especially since a lot is very fun to read, such as Dan Jones’s Wars of the Roses and Harriet O’Brien’s Queen Emma and the Vikings). Historical fiction is often told as a string of nifties, and however the story gets told, it is often more of a statement about current mores than about the time in which it’s set. It’s just tricky: in order to have a relatable character, you might have to transplant a modern teenager into the fifteenth century, and then what’s the point? I gave up and started reading fantasy and nonfiction to get my medieval fix.

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Amanda Hale as ruthless Teen Mom Margaret Beaufort

So historical fiction often comes off better on TV, like The Tudors, Rome, and my favorite of all Vikings. Vikings is not without its problems, but still has the best dialogue (i.e. it’s not 100% exposition), the most emotional depth to its stories, and the best costumes, and best sets. Hence I was excited to watch The White Queen when I accidentally signed up for Amazon Prime a second time. The show features the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, the Lancastrian widow who became the wife of Edward of York, and later Queen Elizabeth when Edward usurped the throne from Henry VI. Secondary are the stories of Isabelle Neville and her sister Anne (wife of Richard III, and widow of Henry VI’s never-crowned heir), and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.

Elizabeth starts out as a strong-willed character, willing to bargain and threaten Edward of York (aka Eddie Baby), and she almost kills him and then herself when he tries to rape her mid-picnic. He eventually woos her, marries her in secret ceremony and they spend the next 45 minutes boning. Sorry to be crass, but the show is, too: I don’t know how they get the actors to sign up for so much nudity and thrusting. Throughout the first two episodes Elizabeth’s expertise in witchcraft is revealed. This is not without historical basis, at least in the suspicion of Edward’s rivals, and is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard III (and is therefore good), and I thought it was an interesting angle. Margaret Beaufort shows up early on in the ten episodes, and her ruthless piety takes center stage as she tries to protect her son (Henry Tudor, who was born when she was about 15) and get out of her political marriage. The Neville sisters first show up as the daughters of the Earl of Warwick and we see how their father uses them to create alliances for and against York.

The women are always locked up waiting to hear something you could read in a history book

But despite all the hot sex and creepy witchcraft the show sets into a predictable rhythm of locked up women pacing around waiting for men to hurry in and tell them “SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED!” That something is always something you can predict if you’ve read the history. For example, after Eddie Baby dies his sons are to be protected by his brother Richard, Duke of Glocester. In history, Richard took over the kingdom for political reasons, the children were declared illegitimate, and Glocester became Richard III. Richard likely seized power because the threat from Lancaster was too great for a child king. Richard already had a son by Anne Neville, and that was a much more secure position than having a regent and risking the king’s death during his childhood.

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Rebecca Ferguson as Queen Elizabeth, being told that something bad has happened

But here’s what happens on the show: Elizabeth locks herself in Westminster Abbey with her daughters, while Anne and Cecily Neville, Richard’s wife and mother, badger him to declare Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward invalid. He fends them off until one night over wine, he gives in and delivers the fateful line “Convene parliament.” Cut to a messenger startling Elizabeth with the news: “Parliament has declared your marriage invalid; your children are bastards.” A look of Miss Piggy shock comes over Elizabeth’s face and that’s that, Richard is crowned. That drove me nuts: no arguing in parliament, no consideration of the various sides or who had an interest against declaring the marriage invalid, no men arguing for or against the welfare of these women, not even any witchcraft. Just “Good day dowager, your son’s a bastard.” There wasn’t even thorough explanation of why they would push for such a measure, just women who want power and a formerly powerful woman locked in a dungeon waiting to hear the news.

 

There’s plenty good about this show. It’s worth watching. The sex scenes are hot, although there are too many. There are great costumes and hairstyles, and some of the actors and roles are quite well done. The characters of Margaret Beaufort and Richard of Glocester are the best thing about the show, and they get surprisingly little screen time, and their actions are often poorly motivated (i.e. it’s hard to tell what they want because these more passive roles get more screentime, and there’s no foreshadowing or build-up). However, it showed me quite effectively how weak characters hinder a story.

“Strong female characters” are just good storytelling

“Strong female characters” is not a political or social issue. It’s not a matter of “agency” or whatever poststructuralist terms you want to throw around. It is not a matter of how women are treated in our society or in Afghanistan. I won’t debate that. Strong female characters are a matter of good storytelling, that’s all. Weak, unmotivated female (or male) characters who are ineffective and passive are just bad storytelling.

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James Frain as The Earl of Warwick, one of the actual point of view characters, who makes stuff happen to the women, mostly from offscreen

The situation in The White Queen was often that the women were literally locked up waiting to hear what decision of men was going to affect their lives. The story is told from the wrong point of view: the characters who are featured do not make decisions or face any obstacles that they can surmount effectively. Instead they wait around while the actual characters kill and scheme and fight battles. Those are the characters that the story is actually about. By trying to focus on the women in the Wars of the Roses, the writers accidentally shifted the story away from its real players. The result is female characters who are passive, and at best, scheming without the ability to carry out their own schemes. All the most effective female character Margaret Beaufort can do is write letters to her son. That’s not enough, and it makes all her fierce piety go to waste.  Note that the writers didn’t have to do it this way: they could have sacrificed historical accuracy (if that isn’t what they did).

 

The story must be told from the right point of view

Weak and unmotivated characters have their place, but it is not central. Scarlett O’Hara is a point-of-view character. Melanie Wilkes is not. MacBeth is a point-of-view character. Duncan is not. Ideally all characters should have well-known motivation. Kurt Vonnegut says “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water,” but sometimes you do need servants to open the door and so on. Especially in fantasy, where we’re going for a certain big-ness of the world, you’re going to have people who don’t care who the boss is as long as there is a boss. If you’re always sticking women in those roles, I won’t say that’s sexism, but it’s a little weird and probably boring, because your main characters can’t have relationships with them, and stories are about relationships. Not everyone’s going to put female characters in central roles the way I do (and I don’t always), but that doesn’t mean those characters have to be weak. Strong female characters are just good characters.

If you like “strong female characters” you’ll probably like my short story “Talons of the Sun,” in which the main character is a better shot with a rifle than her fiancé.

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4 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters, Point of View, and The White Queen

  1. Great post about a topic I feel strongly about. I think people get excited about “strong” female characters because, especially in speculative fiction, there was a long period where the female characters in the majority of books were merely decorative. Now I think the 2-dimension female character mainly shows up in books where the men are equally cardboard cutouts.

    On a separate note, I know exactly what you mean about most historical TV dramas consisting primarily of expository dialogue. And great clothes–the costumes are the main reason I watch them. A wonderful exception to this was Netflix’s Marco Polo. They created real drama out of that bit of Rennaissance history. I have no idea whether it’s remotely historically accurate, but it was good storytelling.

    Like

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