Alena, the protagonist in my debut novel, The Wheel Mages, is sometimes labeled as weak. I don’t usually comment on the label, because I see why people call her that, and I think it’s important for readers to have room to formulate their own opinions. However, there’s something about the label that rings of a double standard to me. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, or the frustration I’m facing in my own life that is finally compelling me to speak on it, but whatever it is, here we are.
Alena’s backstory is one of sheltered confinement. Because of her value to the Sanctum, she’s been hidden. Before the novel begins, she has spent the last five years in almost perfect isolation. The isolation makes her naive, while her emotions, driven by her ever-changing element (water), make her as variable as the river.
She is in a constant state of flux. Her opinions are mutable, and her emotions propel her forward, often landing her in positions that frustrate readers. She doesn’t rule her feelings nearly so often as they rule her. She’s rash and (arguably) irritatingly dependent on the main man in her life, Nikolai, who has served as her mentor and protector for the past five years.
In the first book, she is not a feminist’s feminist. When she meets Catalina, the fiery former love interest of Nikolai, she explodes in a fit of jealousy. Isolation might have protected her, but it has also stunted her emotional growth. She will grapple with this throughout the book, and indeed, throughout the series.
Bitterness rose with the thought, acrid in the back of my throat, but I fought it down. I would not allow myself to fall prey to that again. Not after Catalina.
~ The Blood Mage, sequel to The Wheel Mages
When I first wrote Alena, she was much more stoic than she appears in the final version of the book. The scene where she erupts in fury over Catalina’s presence, throwing an epic temper tantrum (albeit in private), did not exist in the first drafts of the novel. It was added after a lengthy conversation with my editor wherein she urged me to dig deeper into my protagonist’s feelings. Alena, at first, did not read like an eighteen-year-old, especially not one who had spent the past five years completely hidden from the world.
That’s perhaps because she was being written by a twenty-eight-year old who had just spent some time in a mental health facility doing a whole lot of soul searching. A lot of maturation happens in the decade between eighteen and twenty-eight. That’s not to deride teenagers (in fact, I think today’s teens are a world more enlightened than I ever was), but it is true. A lot of growing occurs in a decade–any decade–and I’m sure when I’m thirty-eight I’ll say the same thing of my twenty-eight-year-old self. At least, I hope I will, because I want to keep growing.
One of the things I love about young adult literature, and have always loved about it, is that there is so much room for growth within the characters. The internal journey for main characters is as interesting, if not more so, than the physical journey taking place on the page. Exploration of this growth is something that has always fascinated me, perhaps because my own development has been so slow moving.
But the journey Alena takes is, perhaps, a controversial one in today’s climate. She is, after all, a young woman who is driven by her emotions. I understand that in a time when the badass, woman warrior is the go-to main character for young adult fantasy, Alena might seem… soft. Too typical. Too weak. Too dependent. Too exactly-what-we’ve-been-fighting-against-aren’t-you-a-terrible-feminist. It was a risk to write Alena the way I wrote her, but at the end of the day, I wrote what I knew. Alena’s story is one I’m familiar with.
Because honestly? At eighteen, I was a terrible feminist. Actually, I wasn’t a feminist at all. I was brash and completely ruled by my emotions, which were prone to shift by the minute. I cried a lot and screamed and engaged in far too much self-pity. I fell hopelessly in love with men who were terrible for me and to me, yet would do just about anything to cater to them. I thought much less about the amazing women who surrounded me than I did about the sometimes horrible men I fell for, and in the end, I was burned by this confused loyalty. I surrendered friendships I’ll never be able to get back to please men who weren’t worth a single hair on the heads of those women. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is part of my story. For me, feminism didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still not a perfect creature when it comes to my feminism (or anything else, really). Neither is my protagonist. She’s floundering, struggling with her identity. She’s trying to figure out who she is and what she stands for, and the fact is she simply doesn’t know the answers to life’s big questions. But she’s willing to learn, and she tries (but sometimes fails) to keep her mind open.
In this way, she is the queen of the internal monologue. She thinks about her feelings a lot. Whether or not she makes the right decisions concerning them is a question the reader can pose to him/her/themselves. I am not telling a morality tale, I’m simply telling the emotional journey of one young woman trying to find herself in a messed up world. And unfortunately her journey (as it is for many of us) is not clean, or pretty, or comfortable.
The reaction to Alena, and other female protagonists who get pinned with the label “weak,” does make me wonder about double standards, however. I see cries for soft boys in YA in reaction to the alpha male, and I wholeheartedly agree we need to see more soft boys in books. I’ve written a soft boy into The King’s Blade in direct juxtaposition of the alpha-male type my main character has spent her life in service to. I love soft boys, and I hate that they’re underrepresented. But why do we cry for soft males, then spurn soft females as weak?
I understand that in some ways, we reject soft girls as a confirmation of stereotypes about the female gender role. But in my view, that’s reactionary feminism. It’s defensive instead of offensive. The thinking goes something like: The patriarchy says women are soft, thus we should portray women as hard. The thinking is simple, but it doesn’t allow for the entire vision of womanhood to shine through, only a sliver of it. Women are not a monolith, yet our heroines are starting to make it appear as though we are. Why, for example, do so many of our heroines these days so closely mirror heroes? Why do they have to be sword-wielding, physically strong killers who hide their emotions? Why can’t there be room for both hard and soft girls, the same as there is room for both hard and soft boys? Why can’t our heroines be both emotional and strong? Emotions, after all, are powerful things, and learning to harness them can be a lifelong struggle that takes immeasurable strength. Why also do we consistently link physical prowess to some kind of intrinsic perception of “strength”? Can’t a female character be considered strong of spirit without ever needing to wield a sword or shoot a bow?
And, most of all, why can’t we give our female heroines a little space to grow?
Just some things to ponder on this (here in Philadelphia) rainy Monday.
❤ Always (and please don’t hate me),