Monday, December 2, 2013

The Non-Kick-Ass Heroine

Hello, friends! It's my turn to head off Heroines of Fantasy, giving Karin some well-earned time off. There are changes coming to the blog. Great changes. But I'm only going to tease you with that for now. New year, new blog. But for now--
Our guest blogger is the fabulous Jeannette Kathleen Cheney, author of the newly released, The Golden City.
~Terri-Lynne DeFino
In my novel, The Golden City, my heroine Oriana Paredes is not a kickass heroine. She's a sereia--a siren--sent to a human city to spy. Her training, while it did include basic knife wielding skills, was not sufficient to make her kickass
Now we do see writers who skip that. In fact, it's a trope we see on TV a lot.  Buffy?  Does she train to be the kickass heroine? No, it's an inherited burden. What about River Tam? Nope, brainwashed into it. Trinity in The Matrix? Uploaded. It's all shortcuts. Do you see them doing pushups and arm hangs to build their upper body strength? Do you see them practicing having their thighs kicked just to harden the skin. While it makes a great story twist (pretty girl is unexpectedly kickass!) it also bugs me.

Now don't get me wrong. There are heroines who do earn being kickass:  Sarah Connor, Ripley, Zoe, Starbuck...and Michelle Rodriguez in about anything she's in. That's just for starters. It means hours and hours in the gym. Hours and hours learning to do that sort of thing. Hours and hours practicing and keeping their skills up to date.

My heroine doesn't have time for that. Before being deployed as a spy, she has to learn to speak with a Portuguese accent, learn human manners, learn to wear human clothes. She had to learn about the political situation and players in the city. She has to learn basic first aid skills because she can't go to a human hospital or doctor. Add to that a physical limitation: anything that causes her hands to vibrate will disorient her. The webbing between her fingers is highly sensitive to vibration, which is what allows her people to sense movement in the water. So should she hit someone with her hands or fire a gun, the vibrations would incapacitate her for a moment. 

More importantly than all the rest, she needs to fit into Portuguese society of 1902. The constant training required to be kickass would be out of the norm for a woman in Portugal. She would call attention to herself that she cannot afford. So for my heroine, kickass just wouldn't work. 
Fortunately, a woman doesn't have to be kickass in order to be a heroine. Heroines often start from a position of weakness and grow out of that into the role of a stronger person. Brains help level the playing field, as does courage, patience, and persistence. And having friends helps as well. I chose those for my heroine instead, and I hope that makes her believable for readers.

So what makes a believable heroine for you?  Is it all about being kickass?  And which ones aren't believable?

For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores....
When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die.
Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.
Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone....

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella "Iron Shoes" was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist.  Her novel, "The Golden City" will come out from Penguin, November 5, 2013.

And Twitter @jkcheney 

The Golden City is available at:


Terri-Lynne said...

Thanks for this great post, JK!The ultimate in kickass heroine that kicks ass both softly and with physical power is Yeoh Chu-Kheng (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She, IMO, surpasses Sarah and Ripley, and even Zoe--who I love!--in that she comes at her power in two ways. She is a woman who uses her power in the cultural ways a woman can do so in her world, and she also wields power in that physical way of Sarah and Ripley and Zoe do. Personally, I think she'd kick all their asses. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh yes...she absolutely would!

Diana Munoz Stewart said...

I think intelligence and persistence do make a character kickass. This sounds like a great read!

writerknv said...

Great post! I totally agree that these skills have to come from somewhere, and for fantasy heroines without easy access to barbells or years of training, they probably need to sharpen up some other, more important ways to succeed.

I'm SO looking forward to this book, by the way! Can't wait to read it over my break! :)


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Diana and Kim!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, Kathleen! The Golden City sounds like a great novel with an intriguing heroine; I am really looking forward to reading it.

I know Terri's not going to push her own work here, so I'll do it for her; but I couldn't help but think of Linhare from 'Beyond the Gate' while reading this post. She's another good example of a heroine who doesn't have to kick ass in order to...well, kick ass. ;)

There are readers out there who like their heroines to have it all figured out from the get go, but I'm not won of them. I tend to favor any character, male or female, who comes from a position of relative weakness and grows/changes as the story develops.

We really appreciate you coming to the blog this week. Good luck with the new release!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I actually thought about Linhare (Beyond the Gate,) and Zihariel and Augnesse (Finder) and Eolyn (Eolyn/High Maga), and Ki'Leah (Song and the Sorceress/ Northern Queen,) and Eleni (Poets of Pevana/King's Gambit) and...and...and so many of the characters who populate Hadley Rille Books' books! (How's that for a plug, eh?)
But heroines like Oriana and all of those above are rising like the true heroines they are. It overwhelms me with joy and pride. It really does.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's very important. The position of weakness leaves us nowhere to go but up ;o)

And thanks!

Anonymous said...

The whole 'kickass heroine' thing has become such a cliche, and I am infamously cliche-adverse!

It goes without saying that I love a strong heroine, but 'strong' seems to have become intrinsically-linked with 'kickass' in some circles, despite that fact that strength comes in many different shades.

Unknown said...

Writers are lazy, but there's a good reason.

Readers are impatient. Instant gratification is not fast enough, so load that 'Kung Fu' program. What kind of story dedicates 20 chapters to pulling a bow before she can put an arrow between a orc's eyebrows?

So, it becomes what it becomes; we get shake-n-bake heroines, and we lose all sense of wonder at what they do.

I side-step this issue by writing about a heroine--Shadyia--with the ability to instantly learn what she observes:

Deresi stopped in front of Shadyia and locked fingers with her Sister. “You amaze me,” the red-headed girl said.
“What have I done recently?”
“What have you—” Deresi mumbled. “You fight like a Sada Blademaster, you speak Old Ahemian like one born there, you talk a merchant into making you a dress that noble ladies would sell their soul to own—and make it for one hundred silver, no less. You amaze me!”
“I learned sword play—”
“—from a Captain of the Redguard who dressed you in armor three times a week for a year. I did not believe it this morning and I do not believe it now.”
“I didn’t lie—”
“I never said you did,” Deresi said without anger. “But I am no fool. One does not learn to master a blade by pretending to bang swords with a Coin for a year. Did he also speak to you in Old Ahemian?”
Shadyia reacted as if struck and shook her head.
Deresi arched her eyebrows, waiting for an explanation.
“It’s nothing special,” Shadyia said. “I can imitate what I see and hear. I have been listening to Ahmen merchants since I was a child. And I have watched men duel many times. I see where to strike and how to stand. As for the dress, the ranu lowered his price when I promised to tell him of Leon Martel.”
Deresi whistled. “If Makayla finds out, she will hang you by your heels for a week.”
Shadyia glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to eavesdrop. “Well, she will not find out, will she?”
“She may, when a gown fit for Queen Mienhard arrives in thirty days,” Deresi said and kissed her cheek. “Just come up with better lies. That is one thing you can learn from me.”

One way I avoid the instant gratification pit to add a human element to my character's abilities. Shadyia plays a piano of sorts after watching it played only once. When questioned about it...

“Your grandmother was far more than that,” Aaron said. “She was Vaskar. You know her as…as Luun.”
Shadyia’s knees weakened. “My grandmother was a goddess?”
Aaron looked for a moment like he might take exception to her words, but then his expression yielded. “Yes, essentially, I guess you can say that. It’s one of the reasons you can do such amazing things, like playing my gruziencord.”
“No, that’s nothing,” she said, waving away his words. “Anyone can do that.”
“Shadyia, it took me decades to learn how to play a gruziencord as well as I do,” he said. “Be assured, just anyone cannot do what you did.”
Shadyia shook her head. “It’s like learning to swim,” she said. “Some people think they cannot do it, until they are taught.”
“I see,” Aaron said. “And could a bird learn to swim as well as a fish? Or could a fish fly like a bird?”
“Of course not,” Shadyia said. “Fish don’t have wings.”
“Luun gave you wings,” Aaron said. “I’m sure it feels quite natural to you, as flying does to a bird. But to the rest of us fish, it’s amazing.”

She's not even aware that what she does is special.

Once, I played chess with a man who never once looked at the chess board (I moved his pieces and called mine out like 'pawn to queen 4"). When I asked him about this, he said that he 'saw' the board as clearly as if he were looking at it and wondered why others couldn't do the same.

That human element is essential.

TL;DR Kickass is ok, as long as your kick-asser is human.

Terri-Lynne said...

Jenny--The mainstream is slow to let go of a trend that was once NEW AND EXCITING. It's not anymore. Now it's as cliche as the damsel in distress.

Seriously--at this point, I'd love a little DiD. Oh! You know who did that really well--and I can't beleive I'm about to say this--Dinsey, with Tangled.

Rapunzel was a bit of a DiD, a bit of a ditz. She grew, not into a kickass heroine, but into the sort of strong that was right for HER character. She remained a bit ditzy, a bit of a dreamer, a bit clumsy--but she got the job done. I loved her immensely.

And that's another thing I hate--the notion that a character must lose the essence of who she is to evolve into kick-assedness. I love to see heroines like Rapunzel, like Eolyn, like--gasp--Elle from Legally Blonde. They maintain who they are while evolving, while becoming the women they were born to be.

Terri-Lynne said...

AT "Kickass is ok, as long as your kick-asser is human."

Very, very true.

Anonymous said...

@Jenny, Yes, and I suspect that's why I don't read a lot of fiction that has those characters. When you can check off the cliché items as you go along...

Yep, the talent has to come from somewhere, but you don't have to -show- it all.

Terri-Lynne said...

(Posting for Mark, because he can't do this from where he is.)

Awesome comments, folks. Here are a few of my salient thoughts. I
apologize if they sound a bit off topic. I've been mulling responses...

Even though Cherryh's Morgaine is a sword wielding conflicted bad-ass, I've never thought of her as cliché in anyway. To me, she stays true to her tragic nature. In her relationship with Vanye, she transcends the constraints of her task.

In my own writing, I would like to think that Eleni manages to move
along a growth line within the limits of her society. She finds her voice, as it were, despite not engaging directly in any of the mayhem that transpires--especially in King's Gambit. And yet, spoiler alert, when she comes to a point in Path of the Poet King where she's had enough, she adopts a pretty bad-ass attitude.

Originally, Lyvia was a bow and arrow using badass during the fight for the wharves in Desopolis, but I much prefer what she morphed into with the final version of the tale.


Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--I too believe there is plenty of room for those good ass-kicking heroines. I love them--if done well. You know how it goes--there is nothing NEW, there's doing it well, giving it a twist, or simply, making it believable.