Writing For Me: How Fantasy Tropes Can Bring Out the Power of Being a Fangirl
I’m sure I was read bedtime stories, but I can’t really recall a single stand-out moment of being read to. From the moment I could read books on my own, I was encouraged to do so. My choices weren’t policed – I could have any book I wanted, as long as the librarian let me check it out.
In this way, I think I was a little deprived, because there was no one in my life who put a book in my hand and said, “You should read this one.” Or who said “I loved this book at your age, and I want to share it with you.”
I didn’t even know what Lord of the Rings was until I was at university and a friend nearly had a heart attack in his seat when we saw the first film trailer. I’d been given a copy of The Hobbit by a friend for my tenth birthday, but gave up before I’d even read the first chapter because I couldn’t keep all the dwarves straight, didn’t know what a Hobbit was, and was supremely annoyed that this Tolkien hack had failed to put the sheet music for the songs in the back of the book (I was and still am a massive musical theatre nerd).
I’ve never read Asimov. I’ve never read Heinlein. I was only introduced to the glory of Ursula K. LeGuin, Diana Wynne Jones, and Cornelia Funke because while living in Japan, the English-language section of my local book store was slim-pickings and I had no other options.
But in this lack of directing my choices, I think I was also lucky. When I went to the library I could pick anything I wanted. I could follow my fancy, choose the book by the cover, put in random strings of keywords on the computer based on my interest-of-the-day and see what came up. I remember the first time I realized that I could use the name of my hometown to find books–that there were books written about the history of where I lived. It fractured my little mind in a good way.
I stumbled into fantasy at age eleven, when my school librarian said I was advanced enough of a reader to be allowed to choose from the spinners and shelves that housed the books for the older kids. My first fantasy book was Ogre, Ogre by Piers Anthony. Eventually I read nineteeen books in the Xanth series, and while I thought they were racy and sexy and fun when I was younger, the older I got, the more I realized that the books made me feel…lesser.
I had, at one time, as we all do, fantasized about entering Xanth. I wanted a magical Talent, and I wanted it to be Wizard-grade so I could be Royalty. Much like my brothers and I played Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers on the playground, in my head I played Xanth.
But the older I got, the more something made me uncomfortable about the books. When The Color of Her Panties came out–an entire quest-narrative novel about Mela Merwoman’s plaid knickers–I suddenly realized that I didn’t like the way Anthony was speaking about girls. I didn’t really know what feminism, misogyny, sexism or The Male Gaze was then. I just knew that I didn’t want to play make-believe in this world anymore.
I stopped reading fantasy novels. I moved on to Anne Rice, and Diana Gabaldon, and Laurell K. Hamilton, whose books were just as sexy, but at least catered more to The Female Gaze, even though I didn’t know what that was either.
The point of all of this reminiscence is this: I created my own canon, with no reference to or real understanding of what the “classics” of science fiction and fantasy were meant to be. I consider this a strength when it comes to my own writing–I’m not saturated with what came before, which, I hope, allows me to tell my stories in a way that makes them uniquely mine. I’m not arrogant enough to say “my work is all original and I’m a special, special snowflake!” I know that I have of course be informed by the narratives and stories I’ve consumed in every medium (like I said, huge theatre nerd). But I do hope that not reading the canon has helped me avoid some of the traps that come with internalizing tropes and assuming them to be naturally true.
After I published Triptych, however, I began to wonder if this ignorance could also be considered a failing. A lot of people compared the book to Stranger in a Strange Land, which I had never read, and I wondered if my ignorance meant that I was going to accidentally start copying the ideas of writers who came before me. How, I asked myself, can I be unique and break the rules and invert the tropes if I’ve never really been exposed to them?
I had already fallen head-over-heels for Peter Jackson’s world of Lord of the Rings (and tried so, so hard to love the books. I got through The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers before I just couldn’t take it anymore and never picked up The Return of the King) so I at least had an entry point to the classics. For the next while I re-read some Xanth, watched the classic SF/F films, got caught up on Star Trek and Star Wars, and began to read SF/F from the middle of the century. Or, at least…I tried. Anne McCaffrey I adored–I loved The Ship Who Sang, and picked up and devoured Dragonflight in one sitting. (It was on the day that her son Todd emailed me privately to tell me his mother had passed away. I’d met Todd a few months previous at a Con, and I had expressed an interest in reading their work. This was kind of him. I had a bit of a sob at the book store when the cashier processed my purchase and said: “Oh, I love the Pern books! I hear Anne was sick, but that she’s gotten all better! I’m so relieved! She has another book out.” I had to tell her: “No, no, Anne passed away last night. Todd just told me. I … oh, god, sorry, do you have a Kleenex back there?”)
But most of the rest…I put down Dune after just a few chapters, wasn’t really into Stranger in a Strange Land, got confused by all the head-hopping in A Song of Ice and Fire, and while I’d enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment, the background-radiation-buzz of something uncomfortable-making had me looking Card up before I tried Ender’s Game. Reading what Card thinks of people like me was enough to stop that avenue of inquiry in its tracks.
The point is–I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was, exactly, that left a bad taste in my mouth whenever I finished reading a SF/F classic. I knew it wasn’t all the stories. I knew it wasn’t only stories written by men. And by then I’d taken lots of classes on Theory and Critique and Narrative Structure. I was a woman in a job that put me in public, and I was online–so I sure as hell had learned what misogyny, rape culture, the male gaze, and feminism were by then.
But it took until watching Game of Thrones for me to put it all together.
It gave me a lot of ideas, but mostly what it really sparked in me was a kind of low-level resentment. It wasn’t at the show per se, but at the guy friend I was watching it with. After we marathoned all of season one, we had an argument about intended audience, and I couldn’t get him to understand how much it sucks to not be the center. I mean, I literally couldn’t get him to understand that Game of Thrones, while not horrible, was not made for me to enjoy. That the way they chose to tell the story and couch it in “historical realism” made it offensive in a mild way that piled onto every other mildly offensive trope, and together they were really starting to become a weighty yoke. I could not make him understand that everything was always made for him, by default. And that being a niche, or a small shelf in a book store, or being the side character, sucked.
I was so angry I went off to my office and wrote a scene where a female character yells at the hero of a standard fantasy series. The next morning I reread it and thought, “I think there’s something in this. This… anger at always being on the edge.”
Around this time I had fired my first agent, and had signed with my current one. I wanted to give her a book that the former agent had never touched, and I had been mulling and musing on what to do next. I wanted to write a fantasy book, I thought. I wanted to do with Fantasy what Triptych did was sci-fi; that is, something left-of-center, something issue-laden without being issue-driven or -burdened.
I love SF/F but I was exhausted. It’s the same thing over, and over, and over again. I mean, I love Marvel, but look at all those white men. I can’t tell them apart from far away unless they’re in costume. It’s the same with video game protagonists lately. Two decades ago there was more diversity in video games than there are now. Now it’s all vaguely tanned, scruffy, brunette, fit guys.
I wanted to write a story that not only was different than what was normally told, but pointed out why diversity is important. That not only contains it, but also discusses it. I wanted to write a book that makes the readers intensely aware that it is a book. And yet still be entertaining.
I never like writing from the obvious character’s perspective. What’s the point of rehashing the same sorts of narratives? Other people have already done the space opera, or the violent alien invasion, or the sword and sorcery fantasy, or the heroic steampunk fighter pilot. There’s no need for me to tread those paths again. I’d rather walk the fringes. History is written by the victors, they say, which has always made me wonder how the losers would tell it. Or the victor’s personal assistant or dog-walker. How is the same tale told when it’s being related by someone who isn’t in the center of it? Someone who isn’t the hero? I wanted to tell a fantasy story from the POV of those who are often marginalized or absent in classic epic fantasy.
I wanted to write a compelling, engaging tale where the power-fantasy hero is not the one who saves the day, but the sidelined, ridiculed characters. Not everyone is Aragorn or Lancelot. I wanted to write about how fantasy narratives stereotype men who are clever and use their brains instead of brawn as snivelling, whiney villains.
I wanted to tell a story about me, for once. And people like me. People like you. I wanted to tell the story from the geek-seat, if you will. And I wanted to show that being in the middle of things is harder than it looks from the outside, too. (I mean, how many times have we been reading or watching a fantasy, thrown up our arms and shouted “Oh, come on! Gandalf, just ride the damn Eagles to Mordor!” We have the privilege of the outside perspective, of seeing the picture on a bigger scale.)
And thus The Untold Tale, book one of the Accidental Turn series, was born. The conceit is this: Forsyth is younger brother to the titular hero of an eight-book fantasy series written in the 1980s and early 90s called The Tales of Kintyre Turn, penned by American writer Elgar Reed. There is no such series, of course. I had to make up all that, too. And I did a lot of research to make it as realistic as possible. Things like what kind of fantasy was being written in the 80s in North America, and what sorts of allegories they were filled with, that kind of thing. I really wanted it to seem as if the world is an actual, honest to goodness book series. And it was a lot of fun. There’s even fan fiction and fan art. And of course, your standard fantasy-world map. I also wrote two novellas set within the confines of The Tales of Kintyre Turn, by the series’ narrator character Bevel Dom.
The Tales of Kintyre Turn was not created to attack the works of Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin, or Anthony, but rather to converse with them. These fantasy books gave us what it means to write modern western fantasy, and what it means to be a fantasy writer. With each generation, it’s the artist’s responsibility to enter into a dialogue with what came before. That’s how you get expressionism and cubism out of the work of the romantics.
This is my reply to what came before me. This is, I hope, the next phrase in the dialogue. I’m trying–and maybe I’m failing, but at least I’m trying–to take the next step in the evolution of the genre, while still keeping all the fun and everything I enjoy about fantasy-world settings.
But The Accidental Turn series isn’t really about inverting tropes, though that does happen in the book. It’s about inverting the reader/story dynamic. The lead male character isn’t a power fantasy avatar; he’s a literal male fantasy-geek reader stand in. And into this world comes Lucy Piper, an actual Mary Sue (in the sense that she is a reader-stand in who originates from outside of the canonical media-textual narrative). Because if I was going to write a book from the geek-seat, I decided I’d better go all the way. I wanted my main character to be an academic-nerd, and to view the world she falls into through the same lenses that I would.
So often in media (and especially in SF/F), we see female characters who are simply not complexly written. The character exists to be the pursued love interest a.k.a the princess in the tower, with very little deep-down characterization and motivation beyond Looking Pretty For The Hero. Or, they exist only for the sake of a plot point–if they come to harm, it’s to further the hero’s emotional journey or to spur him to action; if they step out into the world, it’s because they’re crazy, or rebellious. These books told me, time and again, that I as a woman was only good for three things in this world–rescue/sex/trophy, as a thing that can be harmed to further the plot/hero’s emotional journey, and as the incubating and nurturing machine for the next generation of heroes. And as a woman, I had no right to any further development, or complex desires.
So when I created Pip, I made a point of writing a strongly written female character, not just a strong violent female character. Pip has motivations and desires that yeah, sometimes are at odds with themselves, like they are in real life. She is complex and contradictory. She cries. She screams. She runs. She’s not violent, she can’t fight back. She is harmed for the sake of the plot. She is, in fact, rescued.
But Pip’s strength comes from embracing the tropes that fantasy literature imposes on her simply because she is a woman, and using them to her own advantage and power. She takes what is done to her–to female characters in fantasy novels and, by extension, to female readers of fantasy novels–and she turns it back, not as revenge, but to wield it as a power. Pip is a strong female character because of her wit, her intellect, and from that very thing that makes all female fantasy readers powerful–her fannishness.
Pip is us. Pip goes to SF/F conventions. Pip cosplays. Pip wrote her PhD on The Tales of Kintyre Turn, and Pip writes long thoughtful meta-posts on Tumblr on the imagery of homosexual undertones in the series and Tweets with the slashfic hashtag #BinkyLives. Pip reads The Mary Sue. Pip is a Strong Female Character.
There is power in being a fangirl, and there is a complexity there too, in loving the problematic. And that is why Pip is a SFC, and why she needed to be one, too.
And I wanted to represent the stereotypical male fans, too. Forsyth, the book’s narrator, is a genuinely good man who’s just never had a break. He is whip-smart, but he’s been overshadowed by his hero big brother his whole life. He is, in essence, the clichéd geek everyman–bullied by the jocks, overlooked by the women, looses himself in his nerdy, obsessive past times. And he finds his own power through being a geek. He doesn’t transform into a muscle-bound sword-waving hero. Instead he finds his own heroism in his own strengths, in his own way. But he also evolves–at first he holds the jocks and the women accountable for the way they treated him, got angry, got mean, was in danger of turning into an MRA. But he quickly realizes that respect and sex aren’t owed to him. He grows up, he matures. And his biggest strength is in how he doesn’t see the women around him as lesser, especially the women of color, like Pip.
The Accidental Turn series isn’t a female warrior hero and sad-sack loser male who needs rescuing–it’s not a binary inversion. I wanted heroes who were heroes because they were geeks. I wanted to celebrate the geek every(wo)man of all sorts. The fact-collector. The cosplayer. The gamer. The shrine-builder. The con-goer. The aca-nerd.
So what’s the ultimate message here? I call The Accidental Turn Series a feminist fantasy series, but I don’t want it to be. I don’t want what I’ve done in this book to be so special and unique that it requires a label. I want it to be normal and common. I don’t want to have to point out that the book is feminist. I want all the books to be feminist.
We talk about how important it is for little girls to see women in powerful roles, but it’s just as important for little boys to see women powerful roles as well. We talk about how important it is for PoC and people with different health, communication and mobility barriers to see themselves as main characters, to have representation, to have a wide variety of different characters with different characteristics and intersectional representation to choose from–but it is also important for the mainstream, for the ones who aren’t used to not being the hero.
It is important for my friend who watched Game of Thrones with me and didn’t understand what I was upset about. Who scolded me for not wanting to read Ender’s Game, and who tutted at me for failing to real the great classics of SF/F. It is important for people like him to see people like him not as the main character, and to accept it as normal. And it is important for the next generation of writers to start writing as if it is.
Is it arrogant of me to hope that my book becomes one of the new “classics” of SF/F? Probably, yeah. But maybe I would like the “classics” more if there were more books like this one. We write what we needed to read when we were younger, right?
So here, kid. Here it is. I hope I’ve done right by you.
featured image via Shutterstock
J.M. is a voice actor, SF/F author, fanthropologist and professional smartypants on AMI Radio’s Live From Studio 5. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia, and wrote her Master’s Thesis on Mary Sues. She also has an addiction to scarves, Doctor Who, and tea, which may or may not all be related. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, won the San Francisco Book Festival award for SF/F, was nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Her sophomore novel, The Untold Tale, (book one of the Accidental Turn Series), debuted December 2015. Book two, The Forgotten Tale, lands December 2017.