I went home to New Orleans last week! It was great — then I found out why the tickets were on sale. 😛
While visiting fam, I got to do a lot of reading. Most of it wasn’t memorable, and actually was completely full of fail, but I’m gonna use this to talk about one of the key points of awesome female characters.
The first thing I read were the three books in Barry Hughart’s Master Li series — Bridge of Birds, Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. They’re about a “China that never was” — presumably one filled with randomly beautiful young maidens who are secretly mad goddesses who’ve forgotten their pasts. I… wish I were lying. But so anyways, the basic plot of all three novels is that Master Li, a wizened, impossibly old, alcoholic, and dishonest genius, is a master detective. Number Ten Ox is his embarrassingly strong sidekick. Together? They fight crime. The crime in question is generally supernatural, and, again, involves absent-minded maidens in need of rescue, except they’re totally not the point, since the real villain is generally a male diety who then they totally need to go out and conquer. Oddly, these maidens (who are the only significant female characters and are basically interchangeable ACROSS BOOKS, if you can imagine that) find Number Ten Ox desperately attractive. I’m not sure why, since he sounds like an oaf.
During my layover, I started The Shattered World by Michael Reaves. Interesting premise — millenniums ago, a pissy sorcerer grew quite wroth and SMASHED THE FRICKING GLOBE. It was rage o a global scale, y’all. Anywho, the other mages on the planet did some quick repair-work and kept all the chunks of the planet in orbit around each other so they could still share an atmosphere and support life. This is neat because all the chunks have a different gravitational pull and different day-night cycles, because they’re all different sizes. Sadly, what seems like an incredibly neat concept is totally marred by randomly intuitive female characters (they’re epically powerful, but don’t know how they do their magics — it’s very “men are to culture, women are to nature”), dumb male characters who have random epiphanies that the female character they’re with is secretly their soulmate, and angst. The basic plot is that guy A is a thief who sometimes turns into a bear who steals the anchor stone for guy B’s castle, so the castle will eventually go out of orbit and take a sizeable chunk of the world with it. Guy B has been sleeping with guy C’s wife, so guy C teams up with guy B’s enemies (including Ardatha Deathhand, who is the only character with a memorable name), and wreaks havoc. None of the lady characters have pasts, either. Unlike Hughart’s forgetful goddesses, these chicks just aren’t WORTHY of a past, because really, the main emotional dynamic is between the guy characters, and their journeys to self-acceptance.
I was a sad panda by the time I actually flew in. At this point, I’d read FOUR BOOKS where amnesiac female characters were a symbolic plot point. So, I decided to kick it old school, and read a picture book. Pigasus by Pat Murphy (who also wrote The City Not Long After) was fantastic. Pigasus, delightfully depicted in overalls, is the only pig she knows who can fly. Her mom is totally worried about her, because Pigasus likes to do cartwheels, and sometimes the other animals tease her for looking foolish. After all, pigs can’t fly! Pigasus is sad about this, and resolves to stop flying so much. HOWEVER — a bird steals her mom’s nose-ring, so Pigasus has to flew quick and fast to save the day!
Okay, tell me why a book of less than 300 words managed to pack more female character development than FOUR full length BOOKS? Pigasus emerges as real, vital, and brave in less than 30 pages. She has conversations with several other female characters, about something other than boys, and, most importantly, she’s not a character without a past. She’s got a mom, she’s got friends, and she’s not a mysterious symbol dunked down to represent light or idealism or naivete to inspire OTHER characters to great action. Geez! If Murphy can do this in a kid’s book, you’d think other authors, using more words in a more adult medium, would be able to WORK. IT. OUT.