Women in Urban Fantasy, and Mistreatment Thereof

I love urban fantasy. I have for years. I started out with Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series, then discovered Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books, and longed for more. For a long while, it just didn’t exist. Annnnnd then it boomed.

Unfortunately, there’s a pattern in urban fantasy that I have a huge problem with and has been turning me off the genre more and more. And that’s the treatment of women in urban fantasy. You would think this wouldn’t be an issue. After all, most urban fantasy these days features a tough, competent, kickass heroine. What could go wrong? Well, a lot of things.

Most prevalent is the overwhelming tendency to completely defang women. Hear me out. Most modern urban fantasy has a heavy romantic subplot and borrows heavily from romance tropes. Being a writer myself, I follow a lot of writing circles, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I have this awesome heroine, but she’s so capable, she does everything! And I need to make the hero sexy! And nobody will find the hero sexy if the heroine can do better than him!”

Ignoring the obvious solution of having the hero and heroine have completely different and complementary strengths, far too many writers go for the TSTL solution. If I had a penny for every time I saw a heroine do something completely out of character… *sigh*

Like, oh, storming off for no good reason and doing something utterly stupid that nobody competent in their field would do. Usually because, well, the hero suggested it, and thus he must be wrong. And if there was a good reason for the heroine to disagree, great! But that’s often not it at all. It’s a matter of cutting off her nose to spite her face. It’s a plot device to put the heroine in a position where the hero has to come to the rescue and save her from her own stupidity — and frankly, this is just insulting. And it’s common. Ridiculously common. And it’s lazy writing.

It’s one thing if, hey, the heroine runs into odds that she can’t beat, or an enemy that’s stronger than her, or gets outwitted by someone equally as capable. But that’s not what’s happening. These are situations the author is forcing the heroine into by making her act out of character for the purpose of giving the hero a moment to shine. Why not put the characters in situations where both their skills are needed? But, that wouldn’t allow the heroine to be the damsel in distress, now would it?

One of the other major issues in urban fantasy in regards to women is how the heroines relate to other women. In a genre that is so focused on strong female characters, it is pretty shocking how few heroines actually have relationships with other women. Often, other women are not friends and allies, but the enemy. Often, the heroine looks down on other women. And you see the same trope over and over again — the leather-clad dark and tortured gun-toting heroine whose strength is all physical or perhaps supernatural.

This is really just the whole “girl in the boy’s club” thing rearing its head. Femininity is derided while masculinity is put on a pedestal. Rarely do we see women who enjoy feminine things, and when we do, it’s usually a slight touch rather than an integral part of the character. Even Anita Blake, with her stuffed penguin collection, dismisses and derides other women. It’s been a long time since I read the books, admittedly, and I haven’t read the recent ones, but of the early series, all the characters that I recall her being close to were male.

(Mind, the problem is not that masculine-leaning heroines exist. The problem is that they are the sole archetype that we see commonly in urban fantasy heroines.[1])

Very few urban fantasies actually pass the Bechdel test (two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). For a genre that is supposedly woman-focused, that’s just sad. Where are all the relationships between women? Most of us have friends who are women, mothers, sisters, aunts, etc. Where are they?

So what’s the solution here? It comes down to writers being aware of the social implications their fiction will have. Because words have meanings, and stories have power. If they didn’t have power, Piers Anthony’s Mode books wouldn’t have helped me when I was a suicidal teen, and Mercedes Lackey’s books wouldn’t have helped me come to terms with my bisexuality.

When even supposedly strong heroines are undermined at every turn and cannot succeed without the aid of a man, the underlying message is that of Well, if $awesomecharacter can’t do it, why should I believe I can? Women are already at a disadvantage in society, with all the negative messages lobbed at us. We should be able to read fiction that empowers us, not reinforces that we are nothing without a man.

I am not saying that heroines should be all-powerful, because that would be boring. But if you’re writing about a top-notch FBI agent, you don’t have her forget basic gun safety. You don’t have her barging into trouble without thinking about it. You don’t have her so distracted by the hero’s good looks that she misses the villain’s move and gets trapped (and yes, I have read this). It sends a very negative message.

So how do you get around it when you need the heroine to screw up somewhere? Well, make it a believable screw-up, not something that a rookie would do (unless your character is a rookie, but most of the heroines I’ve seen in urban fantasy are purported to be some of the best at what they do). Or, hey, maybe she doesn’t have all the information, makes a decision on what she knows, and then finds out that she was missing a vital piece of the puzzle.

But you know what I’d love to see more of? I’d love to see more heroines who get themselves out of that pickle, rather than heroines who have to be rescued by the hero. But, how do I manage an alpha hero and heroine and their power struggle without having one or the other knuckle under? Not everything has to be a power struggle, although they can be fun to write. The best alpha heroes I’ve read have been adept in their own field but respected the heroine in hers and listened to her opinions. But what if they’re both experts in the same field? Well, hey, they’re probably going to argue — but the automatic reaction shouldn’t be for the heroine to be the one who’s wrong. Mix it up a little. Or hey! Maybe they’re both wrong.

There’s a lot of focus on alpha heroes in urban fantasy and a need to make them sexy. You know what? The sexiest heroes I’ve read aren’t the ones who are always rescuing the artificially created dumbass heroine — they’re the ones who respect the heroine, her abilities, her strengths, and love her for who she is. The ones who aren’t threatened by a strong woman. The ones who know when it’s appropriate to take a backseat. The ones who know when it’s time to stand their ground, and when it’s time to say, “Hey, you know more about this than I do”, or “I don’t agree, but let’s compromise.” It’s not an all or nothing situation.

I’d love to see more women who have relationships with other women, too. I’d also like to see a greater breadth of heroines — heroines of color, heroines with disabilities, queer heroines, etc! Or hey, maybe not the heroine but a lady friend who is one of the above, or someone deeply involved in the story. I’d love to see more focus on this, because the lone uber!heroine surrounded by a sausage-fest is getting old.

This is something that writers have the power to change. Let’s change it.

[1] I know there are exceptions to this. Please do not focus on them. This is a widespread issue, and the fact that there are exceptions does not negate that the overwhelming majority of urban fantasy heroines fits only one archetype.

Current projects

So I actually have been writing lately. 🙂

I finished up revisions on a Shadowguard prequel, Severed Spirits Rising, the other day. I’ve been sitting on it for, man, a couple years now. I had some really nasty crap happen right around when I finished it that resulted in me leaving it be. That, and the fact that Shadowguard has not sold as well as I would like; as much as I love the setting and characters, I can’t justify spending the time with it right now.

I found that it was on the upper end of acceptability for Tor.com, so figured, hey, what the hell? It’s just sitting on my hard drive. So I fixed up the ending and my writing buddy Robert spent all night going over it with me and tightening so it fit the word count limit. We’ll see where that goes. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, since I’m competing with authors like Catherynne Valente here, but hey, what the hell, right? 🙂

As far as other writing, I’m working on Stronger than the Night again. This one has come and gone so many times over the years. It’s in the same setting as the Shadowguard stories but told from a different perspective; where Shadowguard focuses on Arielle and the FBI side of the world, Stronger comes at it from the side of the “monsters”, the paranormal underworld. Initially, I wrote it nearly ten years ago, when I was 17, but I’ve changed and grown a lot as a writer since then. (I should certainly hope so!) I started rewriting it a few years ago but stalled out with all the drama.

I picked it back up again to finish recently. And I made a massive change to the story. I’ve made a somewhat interesting revelation recently, which is that I’ve had a very hard time writing romances, or romantic subplots, with men. It’s not that I have anything against it, but I’ve been wanting to write love stories between women for years now, and I kept putting it off because — it won’t sell, or nobody wants to read it, or I shouldn’t write it because people in my crit group think I shouldn’t.

And I was thinking about Stronger and a thought came to me. What about changing the male lead’s gender? What about making him a woman? I initially disregarded it but it kept nagging at me, because Alex always was a more feminine sort of guy. Feminine man but he’d be a slightly butch woman. And then I realized that it fit in with the rest of the theme of the planned series. The rest of the books? Book 2 is a lesbian romance, 3 is a gay romance, and 4 involves a transgendered woman as love interest. Starting off with a straight relationship didn’t give a good idea of the rest of the series.

Plus, it’s something a little different in the sea of dark broody alpha males. 🙂

I have a couple other things up my sleeves but they’re taking backseat to Stronger right now. I have twelve scenes left and then I’m finished with the book! And then I get to jump into revising the first half of the story, which needs some fairly massive work.

But there is progress! 😀

I’ve been bad…

I’ve had news and been neglecting to post to the blog here — oops! I hope y’all will forgive me, or at least not torture me too much. Just a little to the right, now, there. 😉

The Shadow Unveiled, direct sequel to The Twilight Deception starring Arielle and Jackson, is slated for release by Liquid Silver Books. And I now have the cover to share! 😀

Isn’t it purty? The artist is Christine Griffin, who did both the Cobblestone and Liquid Silver covers for the first book. I am in awe of her talent.

I bet y’all want a blurb and excerpt to go with this now, hmm? Well, then!

Blurb: Arielle Thompson never expected to fall in love, but now that Jackson is back in her life, she’s got to make room for him in more ways than one. Never mind sorting out living spaces, she has to convince her boss at Shadowguard, the FBI’s top-secret paranormal division, that an alien vampire would be a benefit to their team. But they get their chance to prove Jackson’s worth when reports of blood magic and demonic sacrifices deep in Louisiana surface. Investigation reveals the situation is far more serious than they previously suspected, and Jackson and Arielle must depend on each other once again for survival.

Excerpt:

Rest didn’t happen. I can’t sleep worth shit the night before a mission. I’m too wound up and anxious. Thank God for caffeine pills and Red Bull.

Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t share my insomniac streak. He passed out on the couch around midnight, leaving me alone with my apprehension. Instead of dwelling on what ifs, I busied myself packing the necessities: clothes, mp3 player and earbuds, a couple of books for the flight, and miscellaneous toiletries.

Arms wrapped around me and pulled me close, against a body muscled but not so much that it was uncomfortable. I gasped and jumped at first, starting to shift into a fighting stance, until I realized it was J. I forced myself to relax, letting my head fall back against him. “I thought you were asleep,” I grumbled.

“I was.” J nuzzled my hair and rubbed my belly. “But I could feel your unease. I do not require sleep as humans do, and you need me.”

I bristled. “I don’t need anyone. I’ve been independent and supporting myself for years.”

Jackson chuckled, the vibration passing through me. “I would not think otherwise. But there is no weakness in admitting desire for human comfort, my dear.”

I turned around in his arms, slowly, until I faced him and looked up into his bronzed, aquiline face. “But you’re not human.”

To his credit, he didn’t even wince. “No. I’m not. But that does not mean I have no desires of my own. We are not that different, you and I.”

Too damn true. Sighing, I leaned my head against his chest. “I’m scared, J. I’ve never been in a situation like this before. I’ve never lived with anyone but myself. I’ve had to take care of myself my entire life, and letting anyone else in–is hard.”

“I know,” he murmured into my hair, his breath hot and soothing. “It is difficult for me, as well. It has been many years since I have let anyone this close.”

“What happened?” I glanced up at him, curious.

His jaw tightened, and his eyes turned both hard and sad all at once. “She died.”

“Oh. I’m–sorry.” What else was there to say?

“It is no matter now.” J drew in a deep breath. “It was a very long time ago.”

I thought about asking how long, then decided against. It would be tacky.

“I am glad to be here with you. Thank you for all you have done for me.” Before I could respond, he leaned down to kiss me. His lips caressed mine, softly, and his hands stroked up and down my back.

I moaned, heat surging through my body, desire raging. Growling, I clenched my hands in his shirt, nails digging in. It had been too long, and I wanted him. We hadn’t had a chance to be together since he’d returned–not like that, anyway.

Jackson’s tongue flicked against my lip, and I all but melted. Gooseflesh rose over my body, and I shuddered in his arms, pleasure overtaking me. “Maybe we should move to the bedroom,” I breathed.

“Maybe we should,” he said wickedly and lifted me into his arms, holding me tight.

Excerpt Monday

Excerpt Monday time! 😀 The following is an excerpt from Severed Spirits Rising, a prequel to my urban fantasy / paranormal romance Shadowguard series with LSB. 🙂

~*~

I made my way to the bar, squeezing my way through the throng of people. “I hate crowds,” I muttered under my breath, strengthening my shields so I didn’t enter the TMI zone. Sometimes being an empath sucks.

Eventually, I got to the bar and let out a sigh of relief. The bartender came up to me, a cheery grin on his face. He almost had to yell to be heard. “What’s your poison?”

“None, thanks,” I yelled back. I fumbled in my pocket for the picture of Nancy and held it up to him. “But I was wondering if you recognized this woman?”

He took a closer look. “Oh, Nan! Yeah, she’s a regular here. Doesn’t dress like that, though.”

I glanced at the frilly white pinafore she wore in the picture and laughed. “No, I would suppose not. When’s the last time you saw her here?”

He held up his hand and walked over to the other bartender and said something to her. She nodded, and he came back to me. “Let’s step outside, where it’s quieter.”

“Great idea,” I said, and followed him outside and down the street a bit. I shivered; it wasn’t that cold outside, but compared to the heat of the club, it might ‘s well have been the Arctic.

“By the way, I’m Jared,” he said with a smile.

“Arielle,” I offered in return, then decided to get the discussion back on track. “So when’s the last time you saw Nancy?”

Jared rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Last Saturday. She didn’t show on Wednesday, which had some of us concerned. She almost never misses a day unless something’s really wrong.” His eyes snapped to me. “Is that why you’re here? Did something happen?”

I bit my lip. Great. Time to drop the bomb. “Nancy died Wednesday night.  The cops ruled it a suicide, but her boyfriend and I don’t think that’s true. We think something else happened.”

His face went pale as a china teacup. “Oh my god. I had no idea.”

Oh, great. Jared looked like he was about to cry. I felt awkward as an anorexic hippo performing Swan Lake. I don’t do comfort well. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish there was something I could say.”

His eyes snapped to mine. “There isn’t. But there is something you can do.”

“What?”

“Find out who did this and bring them to justice.” Jared set his jaw, eyes blazing with fury. “It’s too late to save Nan, but maybe you can save someone else from ending up like her.”

“That’s the plan.”

~*~

Check out a few of the other Excerpt Monday pieces here:

Mel Berthier, Urban Fantasy (PG 13)
Bryn Donovan, Paranormal  (PG)
RF Long, Paranormal (PG 13)
Crista McHugh, Paranormal  (PG 13)

Evie Byrne, Historical Romance (R)
Grace Draven, Fantasy Romance (R)
Cate Hart, YA- Paranormal  (R)

Aislinn Kerry, Paranormal (R)
Kirsten Saell, Erotic – Fantasy (NC 17)

Excerpt Monday

I’m participating in Excerpt Monday, organized by the lovely Bria Quinlan and Mel Berthier from Romance Divas. The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming paranormal romance novella from Liquid Silver Books, The Twilight Deception:

~*~

Jackson stared at me like I’d grown a second head, then his expression softened. “She’s beyond help, Arielle. I tried to help when I first found her, but she attacked me and would not relent. I touched her mind. There is nothing there but a frenzied beast.”

“So there’s nothing that can be done?”

He shook his head. “No. The first twenty-four hours are critical. I found her too late.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said flatly. “You’re just trying to make excuses cause you didn’t have the balls to help her.”

Jackson snarled. Faster than I could track, much less counter in my state, he grabbed my shoulders and swung me off the toilet. My back slammed against the wall, and he held me a good foot off the ground. Pissed off, I aimed my knee at his balls, but he moved to the side and slid his hip between my legs, preventing me from striking out again–and exciting me more than a little bit. Bastard.

“I am only going to say this once,” he hissed, eyes wild with fury. “If there had been any hope of it, I would have saved her. Do you think I like what he’s done? He has no respect for human lives, nor those of his own kind! She was beyond hope when I found her, yet I tried anyway. There is nothing that can be done to save her.”

I struggled against him, trying to free myself. Not like it did any good. I’m not weak by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not a vampire, either, and he had a good advantage on me. “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”

His mouth distorted into a grimace. “Are you questioning my honor?”

Oops. “Look, I don’t know what it’s like on your world, but around here, honor’s just a dead horse that a few old geezers keep beating.”

Jackson tilted his head, blinking with obvious confusion. “Your people … have no concept of honor?”

“Oh, we have the concept. We just decided it was antiquated and tossed it out the window. We replaced it with Egocentricity 9.0.” I hesitated a moment. “Can you put me down now? This isn’t exactly the most comfortable position, you know.”

His anger given way to shock, Jackson lowered me to the ground. “I hear your words, but I … I cannot believe…”

“You really haven’t been around here long, have you?”

Jackson shook his head mutely, looking totally bewildered. Great. So not only is he an alien vampire, he’s a Klingon vampire with a bad case of culture shock. How lovely.

I clapped him on the shoulder, deciding to ignore the whole pushing-me-up-against-the-wall deal. At least for now. Like it or not, we had to work together if we wanted any chance at finding the dude. Afterwards, on the other hand … “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it. Now. About that girl and tracking Eliro…”

~*~

If you’re interested in reading more snippets of great work, check out these other Excerpt Monday blogs:

Aislinn Kerry

Elise Logan

Crista McHugh

Kirsten Saell

RF Long

and check out the main Excerpt Monday page for a full list of participants! Enjoy! 😀

Yay!

Final edits turned in, and I believe The Twilight Deception is off to the copyeditor’s. I think we’re waiting on cover art because there was a snag that took some time to sort out, but hopefully I should have a release date soon. 😀

Now, to work on Book 2…