Whenever I’m in a new town, I always make sure to stop by the local bookstore and sign stock. This was especially fun over the holidays–with any luck, a few of my elaborately-decorated books made some young readers smile on Christmas morning.
I’m not in costume for these stealth-signings, so I’m rarely approached by customers when I’m about my business. If it happens at all, it’s usually because I’m mistaken for an employee. But once in a great while, someone actually asks me about my book. I’m happy to tell them in a summary that wastes as little time as possible.
This year, when I was signing books at the Tyson’s Corner Barnes & Noble in McLean, VA, I was given possibly the loveliest compliment that has been bestowed on me by a stranger to date. “Thank you,” she said to me. “Thank you for writing fantasy books with girl main characters.”
I’m always surprised at comments like this. When I was a little girl, I read my way through the juvenile section of our local library, and I ferreted out all the authors who favored strong female characters: Tamora Pierce, Meredith Ann Pierce, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Ellen Raskin, Vivien Alcock, Anne McCaffery, Astrid Lindgren, L. Frank Baum. I had no awareness that men dominated the world of fantasy, because they didn’t happen to dominate *my* bookshelf.
Now, when I say “strong” characters, I don’t necessarily mean buff, weight-lifting, sword-wielding, ass-kickers…though sometimes they were. Sometimes they just had brains, musical talent, extrasensory perception, or simply the stubborn will to carry on when the whole world was against them. I think the “strength” of these characters lies in how true their traits ring to the reader. The loneliness, the determination, the weight of responsibility, the fear…I believe this is what truly makes a character strong.
And when I say “female characters,” I don’t just mean the protagonists. A young fan said to me once, “Just take a bad guy and make him the hero.” It was at that moment I realized: I HAVE NO BAD GUYS. So far in the Woodcutter Sisters series, the one bad guy I had died a pretty horrible (and necessary) death. The remaining antagonists are witches, sorceresses, an evil fairy godmother, the fairy queen…and I haven’t even introduced the wicked stepmother yet. I decided then to make a concerted effort to include more evil–or good, or annoyingly ambivalent–gentlemen in my novels, just to even the odds.
But there are so many great evil women out there! Queen Achren. The Wicked Witch of the West. The Witch of the Waste. The Lorelai. And all those evil women in the fairy tales: the aforementioned stepmothers, Baba Yaga, the sea witch…and every other witch out there.
Every writing teacher tells us to “Write what we know.” I grew up in a family of very forward-thinking women, with two widowed grandmothers as matriarchs. I surrounded myself with books about strong women…and I like to think I’ve become a pretty strong woman myself.
All this time, I’ve just been writing what I know. I never realized it was a good thing that I was doing.
I never realized it was a bad thing, either. For while fantasy seems to have happily embraced the female protagonist, I have a lovely manuscript for a picture book that was rejected by one of my publishers for being “too feminist new-agey.” (Thank goodness no one really noticed that in the AlphaOops books I made bossy troublemaker Z a boy, and magnanimous A a girl…)
So…yeah. Write what you know. Be true to your characters. Be true to your world. Be true to yourself. Don’t change for trends; let the industry come to you. Fairy tales weren’t always popular–I’m very lucky that they are now. Perhaps, in time, even feminist new-agey picture books will be selling like hotcakes.
In the meantime, perhaps I’ll turn that fashionable trope on its head and consider turning some of my “bad girls” into heroines. But as the first seven books are reserved for the Woodcutter Sisters, I guess I’ll just have to do that in the next series.
Bio: New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a goddess, a force of nature, and a mess. She’s known for screwing up the alphabet, scolding vampire hunters, turning garden gnomes into mad scientists, and making sense out of fairy tales.Alethea is the co-author of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion, and penned the AlphaOops series of picture books. Her short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in a myriad of anthologies and magazines. She has done multiple collaborations with Eisner winning artist J.K. Lee, including The Wonderland Alphabet and Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome. Her YA fairy tale novel,Enchanted, won the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award in 2012, was nominated for both the Andre Norton Award and the Audie Award in 2013, and was selected for World Book Night in 2014. Born in Burlington, Vermont, Alethea now lives in Northern Virginia with her Fairy Godfamily. She makes the best baklava you’ve ever tasted and sleeps with a teddy bear named Charlie.You can find Princess Alethea online at: www.aletheakontis.com.
Books: Hero (second in the Woodcutter Sisters series) and Wild & Wishful, Dark & Dreaming (short story collection), both released on October 2013. Upcoming: Revised & Extended edition of Beauty & Dynamite (out of print essay collection) in April, and Book Three of Woodcutter Sisters in Fall 2014.