I've finished Makar's story, tentatively entitled Cygnet Moon, and I've shipped it off to my beta readers. While I'm waiting for them to get back to me, I worked on the blurb and the submission package. This is the part where I evaluate the characters and the major plot lines.
As I worked, it occurred to me that I've finished a book with a protagonist who is not homicidal in any way. He doesn't use violence as the means to get his way. He is intelligent but inexperienced, and in some ways these traits might make him seem weak. Yet he's not. His strength is his ability to be flexible and not become overwhelmed by his circumstances. He is willing to learn, and that willingness to learn and listen to others becomes his greatest strength.
Killing is a last resort to him.
As I'm thinking about the blurb and synopsis, I'm wondering how we define "strong" in genre literature now. Is a willingness to kill the criteria for what makes a character strong?
Part of this musing arises from a review that Justin Landon wrote about The Hunger Games:
In other words, I find Katniss to be an incredibly unappealing character who’s saved by being able (if tentatively unwilling) to kill her peers ... And yet, Kantiss is touted as a heroic character. She is something of a icon of the “strong female character”. I think shoehorning her into that role does her, and Suzanne Collins, a grave disservice. She is, actually, a much more layered character than that.
Without digressing, I think Justin is right, but part of his rationale stuck with me for a different reason. Why do we tend, at least in genre fiction, to equate killing with strength? The proverbial "strong female character" is one who "kicks ass." She kills without blinking and fights with the same savagery as a man. We expect the same out of our male characters: he must be willing to fight and sacrifice all. Yet we seem to be putting our emphasis on the ability to kill, not the ability to reason.
In spite of their willingness to kill, the Katnisses and Jorgs of the world don't possess strong character. Justin gives an excellent overview of Katniss. Mark Lawrence's Jorg is also weak in many ways. He is a child seeking his father's approval, and he will go to any length to acquire that approval. He is clever, but he is not emotionally strong. The one thing I like about Abercrombie's work is that he doesn't claim his characters are heroes, except in the most tongue-in-cheek manner. He portrays everyman in situations that demand hard choices, but he doesn't call them heroes.
This isn't saying that these stories are bad or inadequate in any way. I'm a big fan of dark fantasy and enjoy writing horror as well. That isn't the issue I'm trying to raise. The issue is how we, the readers, equate strength with killing. Our heroes are essentially murderers who find a way to justify their homicides.
Blog post after blog post has been written about women who fight as if they are some anomaly. Women have fought alongside men since the beginning of time--only the most obtuse individual would claim otherwise. I was fortunate in that my father was a historian and a teacher. He directed me to good sources when I asked about women in history.
As a young woman, and even today, my heroes were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. These two women fought against the injustices around them, but they didn't go around "kicking ass." They fought with their intellect, their cunning, and they were unafraid.
If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it. --Sojourner Truth
As I grew older and read more history, Eleanor Roosevelt became another hero. Roosevelt knew that other women looked to her as a role model, and she gave us ammunition in the form of words. She rose to meet every challenge around her and told us all that we could do the same. She fought with the strength of her character.
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot. --Eleanor Roosevelt
I thought about all of these things as I wrote Cygnet Moon. I could have easily made Makar a kick-ass killer prince. Yet the biggest battle is often with oneself and one's own nature. This applies to men and women. I wanted to explore Makar's desire to be humane in spite of the inhumanity around him. That takes a much deeper form of strength.
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. --Harriet Tubman
So with Cygnet Moon, I wanted to look a little more deeply at heroes and how they are made. I wanted to bypass the thieves and the everyman. Other authors are writing those characters much more skillfully than me. I don't think we need another kick-ass hero of moral ambiguity. That's just more of the same.
Makar wants to change the world around him, and in doing so, he has to make hard choices. I don't think his lack of murderous intent lessens the tension of his story in any way. He is not the golden hero who always makes the right choices. He is flawed and quite vulnerable at times. He is a young man who wants to use his status and his privilege to protect people rather than exploit them.
I think those goals are just as worthy as kicking ass.