As you all know, my book, The Gantean, is now available on Amazon. To celebrate its two-month anniversary, I’m posting this essay I wrote to myself a while back while I was trying to figure out why I was still working on The Gantean after so many years of struggling with it.
I started writing an epic fantasy novel when I was twelve. I recall that I did it just after reading Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, which was a paperback lying around the bookshelves at home. Like most fantasy books of that era, it involved what we call a “hero’s path” story, albeit a dark one. As a twelve-year-old girl, I don’t think I had ever read a fantasy story with a true female lead—there were plenty of girl sidekicks and girls as part of ensembles, but never a lone lead, never a story with a solitary girl’s point of view guiding the tale—I hadn’t yet found The Mists of Avalon. I’d gone through years of Lord of the Rings read-alouds with my mom and brother, captivated, of course, by the adventures of hobbits and elves, but always wondering, What about the girls?
So I set out to write the fantasy book I wanted to read. I knew nothing about feminism then, nothing about theories or politics—I just knew I wanted a story I liked, featuring a girl. And not a fairy tale princess kind of girl, though I was no stranger to fairy tales, having been fed a steady diet of story ballets and Disney movies throughout my childhood.
I slogged over the story in The Gantean for more than half my life, trying to make it work. I rewrote it many, many times. Now, I’ve “finished” it–to the extent that any story is ever finished, and I’m still wondering why I had such dogged persistence on this particular story. For something that gave me so much difficulty, I should rightly have abandoned it years ago.
My beta readers also slogged determinedly through the story, somewhat to my amazement. I had been a little skeptical that they would make it through. Most of the women liked the story, unconventional as it was. Most of the men got through it (“it’s well-written”) but didn’t really like my main character.
One smart reader said, after he finished, “I don’t understand the main character. What does she want? What are her GOALS? Her big goals, not her immediate ones?”
At which point I chastised myself, Emily, you dunce, how could you have written a character-driven story with a main character who has no goals!
After a minor meltdown, I buckled down and said, OK, what are the MC’s goals? She must have some; I just have to figure out what they are.
I know what the typical fantasy hero’s motivating goals are: finding one’s true self, overcoming an evil, saving the world or a friend, or these days, achieving vengeance or gaining power.
At first I thought the only goal that would possibly work for my MC, Leila, was finding one’s true self. But as I considered that goal, rebellion rose in my gut. I’ve always disliked that trope, because identity is a fluid thing, and too often books, especially fantasy books, seem to imply that if you just knew who your parents were and what you stood for, you’d have yourself figured out. No. I reject the idea that parentage, social roles, and our moral or political alignment entirely define us. As Leila, my heroine, says in The Gantean: I want to be more.
So I didn’t like finding one’s true self as a goal. And I had already written Leila very deliberately, associating her with the element of water, so that she flowed rather than strove, and she let her circumstances shape her more than she tried to shape her circumstances. She represented a traditionally feminine character—a character who did not seek power, someone whose strength derived from her ability to adapt and accommodate rather than her ability to control and dominate. I didn’t want to change that—it spoke to something deep about why I had written this book in the first place, some lonely call from my twelve-year-old heart: it’s ok to not know who you are; it’s ok to be passive, to observe, to avoid conflict. These powers are connected to the mythic feminine, and they are under-represented in fantasy, or, when shown, they’re vilified by readers who fail to understand that our conventional hero’s path is paved only with traditionally masculine ideals.
I went back to the standard fantasy character motivations. I considered them again, and then again. These were the goals of the hero’s quest. And even when applied to a heroine, as it has become much more common in fantasy, it seems our heroines are still stuck on that same path paved with traditionally masculine ideals and expectations. I’m thinking of Katniss, Katsa, Arya, and even Sansa, who has suffered so much being toted passively through Westeros by everyone more powerful than she. Now she’s being groomed for a vengeance plot line– or so it seems to me. And look at Cersei, who dared to behave like a man and was tortured for it in a manner so often traditionally used to shame women: denigrating and violating her body to rob her of her power, much to the satisfaction of readers everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve avidly consumed these stories, even when at times I wanted to look away. But their stories are still framed in the grand old tropes of fantasy.
My main character is not walking the hero’s path. She doesn’t care about vengeance, good versus evil, or finding her true self—though she’s aware of the conflicting sides of her personality that want different things at the same time. She wants to be safe; she wants to be quiet; she wants security, love, and peace. Her ultimate goal is to raise her children and give them a good life. She wants to be good. In short—all the nurturing goals of the mythic feminine.
We have always been told that a great story revolves around a great conflict. I can still see my college short story professor brushing his hair from his prominent brow and saying, “Conflict! Conflict, people, it’s the only fuel stories run on!” Conflict is especially valued in fantasy, where the old battle between good and evil is such a prevalent theme. But conflict itself—the getting into it, the resolution thereof, is largely the domain of the mythic masculine.
There’s a line in my troublesome book where one woman says to another: “War and politics seem like petty games of men when there are children to raise.” And that, I see now, is really what I’ve been trying to figure out in this book: is it possible to write an engaging story that doesn’t glorify conflict? Is it possible to write a fantasy story that doesn’t follow the hero’s path, but instead a path much less direct and defined—a shadow path, if you will, into the mystic feminine?
The Mists of Avalon! I can hear you crying out right now.
No. Not The Mists of Avalon. We had female leads there, we had oodles of weird mystic feminine rituals, but essentially, what we had was women scrambling desperately for power in an increasingly patriarchal world. And that’s not what I’m talking about, because scrambling desperately for power is still a goal defined by the mythic masculine. I’m talking about a mode of storytelling that prizes different themes and outcomes. The themes: the difficulties of choice, the turmoil inside one person caused by the external demands placed upon her, and trying to balance those demands with her inner life (the quintessential “conflict” in a modern woman’s life, if you ask me).
The Gantean’s main character, fluid, quiet Leila, came out of me from my shadow side, to show me that we don’t always have to be heroes. Leila came from a twelve-year-old girl’s desire to read something different—a girl I had to return to as I worked, remembering what it was like to grow up surrounded by stories of heroes and their conflict-driven goals, all the while feeling alienated because these stories didn’t acknowledge what I was feeling as I barreled towards womanhood. My concerns, then as now, were not the concerns of a hero, just those of a regular woman.
And a regular woman, to me, has always been as interesting as a hero.