The World As We Know It: The Women of Syr Nebra

National Novel Writing Month has begun (as has National Blog Posting Month). I’m slightly ahead of the game, because in October, I finished the third novel in the non-magic fantasy series I’ve been writing, Ascendant Realms. But I shall endeavor to write as much of book four as I possible can this month.

The first two books of this series (Adversaries Together and Winterfinding, which are both FREE for digital download) were both written during NaNoWriMo. Written in just thirty days, both books could benefit from some professional proofreading. As an indie author with a budget for nearly nothing to augment my writing, I think both books are pretty good. Given that I picked an oversaturated and hypercritical genre, that my strength has always been poetry (and even that was never really pleasant to read), and that I have barely any resources to spend on the projects, I’m happy with what I’ve crafted.

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I think The Punishment Hand, book three that’s available now, is a good story. What’s more, I think it’s a book that makes the entire series stronger because the characters in it are growing into directions that are surprising me. Well, not surprising but rather making it a whole lot of fun for me to write.

What made writing The Punishment Hand enjoyable was letting my characters be more than tropes. I think I’ve set them up to become very interesting over the next few books (I plan on writing four more to complete the series). In the past, I’ve talked about the races in the world I’m creating. I had intended to write (and still do) a post where I give more detail about the dominant religion of Syr Nebra. But thinking about the book I just completed and the next one, I’ve been dwelling on character. In this post, I want to focus on the three major women characters of the story: Jena Char, Fery Landis, and Kira Ambrose.

I don’t know if I’m writing convincing woman characters, but I’m trying to while making them more than mere props. In my second book, Jena’s story came forward as a much more significant character than I had planned. In fact, her story (cleaning up after the battle that ended Adversaries Together and securing a future for the boy Colm) turned into a more than just a heist or a tying up loose ends piece as I had initially planned. Writing Jena’s story not only deepened her character but allowed me to introduce other minor ones that I’m going to revisit in the future (specifically, Jej, Addison, and the Scrivener).

Jena is tough, smart, independent, and anything but the typical heroine. I hate fantasy depictions (in books, in games, comics, and especially art) of women fighters that are essentially fanboy porn (even when they have pants on). The pics below are some rather representative examples–painfully stupid wankbait.

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When I conceive of Jena, I don’t imagine a woman in a man’s world, some male-gaze heroine, or some bitter feminist. She has to fight against all of that nonsense just to be the person she wants to be. This is why she’s a match with Roth (not necessarily romantic, though I’m not ruling that out), the world she is experiencing is a world she has to endure. So the image I have in my mind of Jena is closer to an actual person, not some toy or fantasy.

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I want Jena to be a character that is beyond the standard cis-heteronormative depictions. I’m not there yet with her character. She has a rather obscure sexuality. In Winterfinding, she has a sort of tryst with the woman Jej but throughout the books she has a desire to be with Roth (a character whose own sexuality is in question) and in The Punishment Hand flirts with Goshen. But each of these encounters is rather skewed. With Jej it’s clear Jena was more than a bit tipsy and/or bored. I wrote Jej as a kind of fawning admirer that more often than not annoyed Jena. With Roth, there’s an undercurrent of attraction (I think because I’ve written the two to be so similar), but are they just close friends or is there more there? When I first conceived of Roth, it was as a trans character. I don’t have the confidence or skill to pull that off yet but I think I have been rather successful at writing him as asexual with a desire to be with Jena. So, we’ll see where it goes. Point is, Jena is a fucking badass and has become one of my favorite character (I want her to be a mix of Starbuck, Faith, & Princess Leia–is this even possible?).

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How I imagine Jena Char

Then there’s Fery Landis. When I first wrote Fery, she was meant to be a slightly more experienced version of Kira. But as I got into her character, I realized that she wasn’t slightly more experienced, she was damn tough. Her father, Wynne Landis, is the leader of Rikonen, which means he’s somewhere in-between a mayor and a governor, so she is born into the ruling class. I sort of wanted her to be a spoiled rich/privileged girl, but the character resisted that. Fery had to survive on her own in a city tearing itself apart–rapist gangs, mobs of cannibals, and panicked opportunists. She pried a brick of cheese from a corpse’s hands so she could live. Prissy girls don’t do that. 

Fery is a ribbon-dancer. The idea is very simple, she’s meant to be a sort of rhythmic gymnast (the kind of gymnast that performs with the ball, baton, and ribbon). I’ve always thought that rhythmic gymnastics was one of the most graceful meldings of dance, performance, and athleticism out there. Put knives or swords in the hands of a rhythmic gymnastic… So she isn’t just a spoiled rich girl, she’s a woman that’s been raised in privilege but knows that she has a responsibility towards others. Is it the most original trope? No. Is it effective and kinda relatable? Sure.

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When I think of Fery…

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…I think of something along these lines

 Fery was meant as my story’s the middle ground woman character (between the world weary Jena and the naive Kira), but she’s grown into more than that. Writing Winterfinding, I’ve come to realize that Fery is a clever woman who knows more than most. She’s fiercely loyal and impatient with anything she see as tedious or just stupid. In my third book, I have her pushback against being coerced into wearing a hijab-like garment because of the religious fanatics in the city of Sulecin (although a part of me feels that this was too cliche of a move, one that reinforces stereotypes rather than break free of them). Over the course of The Punishment Hand she develops a relationship with the mercenary Declan Rainway and a close friendship with Kira. I don’t know where Fery’s character is going; she could still really surprise me. 

Of the women I’ve written, Kira Ambrose is perhaps the most underdeveloped and the most difficult for me to get a handle on. Kira is an alm (a nun, if you will) and has been presented as a sort of naive character. Her first time outside of her some city, she’s attacked, kidnapped, and thrown into a plot that destroys who she thinks she is. What keeps Kira going is her faith, her belief in the fundamental goodness of people. In the handful scenes she has in Winterfinding, I present her as conflicted and hurting as she blames herself for what is happening not just to those around her but to the larger world. She is wrestling with massive amounts of guilt as well as the shock of what she has known–what she has been raised in and believing–to be if not a lie then a kind of farce. Of all my characters, Kira is experiencing an existential crisis.

I hope as she grows, experiences the world, and has Jena and Roth rub off on her she becomes a more assertive person. She is a character poised to be more than a damsel (which she was in Adversaries Together) and more than a plot device (which is what she was in Winterfinding). Kira could be–Kira will be a prime mover as the story continues. But just how will she develop, I’m unsure. I want her to be more assertive, but I don’t want her to become jaded. It’s a fine line to walk.

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Kira will become a force to be reckoned with, but how? That I haven’t figured out yet.

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Because I’m writing a non-magic epic fantasy series, I have to pay attention to gender dynamics in the world I’m having my characters inhabit. It’s vital that I strive to create a narrative that breaks away from trite and sexist tropes. I’m not sure I’ve been able to do so. I’m hoping I’m moving in the right direction. What I need to do is keep reading and incorporating the fucking brilliant criticism over at Lady Geek Girl and just simple tips about how to write characters that enrich a story.

As I write book four, I’m acutely aware not just what I want my men characters to do and be but what I want my women characters to be. What I want more than anything is to create a group of heroes that breaks through the tropes and cliches of fantasy without being ham-fisted or forced. I think I’m getting there, but I’ve got a ways to go… 

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