Monday, September 5, 2016

Having Fun With Women Characters in Thunderlord (aka “Jane Austen on Darkover”)

Across genres, we accept the importance of bonds between brothers; I would argue that in speculative fiction, at least, we give less weight to the loyalty and emotional intimacy between sisters. This may be due to the domestic setting for sisterly concerns. Brothers march off to war together, but sisters hold hands when one is giving birth. If one or both is unmarried, sisters set up housekeeping together, often living their entire lives under the same roof. Yet the relationship between sisters opens many fascinating and challenging story possibilities.

I’ve found that once I step away from the models of male-bonding or male-female romantic love as the only possibilities for central relationships, my stories get a lot more interesting and also emotionally powerful. They don’t necessarily have to be the sole or pivotal bonds in a story. Just as in real life, they form a critical foundation for any social setting.

Thunderlord’s  emotional heart is the relationship between the two Rockraven sisters, Kyria and Alayna. This being Darkover, I also included plenty of action and adventures — banshees and laran and bandits, oh my. Through all this — and a love story or two — the sisters are so integral to the tale that at times I felt as if I were channeling Elizabeth and Jane from Pride and Prejudice (or Marianne and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility). Sisters are not always close, but when they are, the relationships are complex, rich, and enduring. Lovers may come and go, the saying goes, but sisterhood is forever.

I didn’t set out to write “The Bennett Sisters on Darkover.” I began with a few pages of Marion’s notes on a sequel to Stormqueen, almost all of it backstory, and the title of the proposed book. I didn’t want to repeat the general plot of Stormqueen or its tragic ending, and I also wanted to experience whatever adventure the story took me on through the eyes of fresh, new characters.

Although the Rockraven family isn’t anything like the Bennetts, I kept finding similarities: a noble but impoverished family, the pressure for one or both girls to secure the family’s financial future by their marriages, their wistful longing to marry for love, how the sisters are different but devoted to each other, and so forth. There are no balls in the neighborhood, no mother with imaginary illnesses scheming to “make a good marriage” for her daughters, no problem about the inheritance of the estate, and certainly no Mr. Darcy to be unpleasant to everyone. Practical Kyria deals with her family’s poverty by donning her brother’s clothes and trapping animals for food. Romantic Alayna dreams of love stories while understanding that such a happy ending means they must be parted, most likely forever. Distances on Darkover are much greater than in Regency England!


Kyria and Alayna made their entrance in my first draft as fairly conventional characters: the tomboy and the dreamer. I added Kyria – but not Alayna -- having inherited the Rockraven storm-sense laran into the mix, along with family legends of scandalous Great-Aunt Aliciane (who was Lord Aldaran’s ill-fated mistress in Stormqueen) and “The Rockraven Curse.” Kyria developed pretty much along the lines I’d initially set for her. When, for instance, she leaps on the back of a banshee, armed only with a knife, that does not present a radical departure from her character, as it would have been for Alayna.

Alayna, initially less interesting to me, nevertheless led me down some unexpected twists and turns. She grew more in the course of her adventures, in part because she had a longer distance to cover in terms of becoming her own person. She didn’t astonish me when she moved from timidity to desperation to heroism. Her compassion and her bravery in standing up for the people in her care did take me by surprise. I had no idea of her inner strength, a strength that comes from depth of heart instead of muscle and will-power.

By far the biggest revelations came from the minor women characters, in particular Ellimira and Dimitra. Ellimira, wife of the heir to the Rockraven estate and therefore chatelaine of the house, began as a fairly standard scolding, demanding older kinswoman. Not quite an evil stepmother (or, in this case, sister-in-law) but one laboring under the responsibilities of making too little stretch too far while somehow tending to her own children and husband. Yet when she bid Kyria and Alayna farewell, she presented me with a moment of insight: she has not seen her own family since her wedding, and if I knew nothing of whom she missed and what she had left behind, it was because she was such a private person, she would never volunteer that information and no one would ever think to ask, they were so busy either scrambling to obey her orders or trying to escape her notice. She never did tell me, but as this was not her story, I left her secrets for the reader to guess. Perhaps she will, in between counting the holes in the linens and nursing the baby who surely must have been born by now, suggest that I write it.

Dimitra made her entrance as the lady-in-waiting who takes Alayna under her wing upon her arrival at Scathfell Castle: competent, motherly, a bit chatty. Very quickly, it became apparent that she had a mind and agenda of her own. What was she up to with Dom Nevin? And why – money? a secret passion? rebellion against Lord Scathfell? When Nevin’s scheme was unveiled, Dimitra became the catalyst for Alayna’s kindness and sense of justice to overcome her timidity, and this later returned in a much more powerful way when Dimitra fell ill. Although a secondary character, Dimitra had a pretty remarkable story arc, moving from motherly guide to traitor to dying woman to loyal accomplice.


I hope you enjoy reading about these wonderful women characters as much as I did writing them. I lack Jane Austen’s wit and keen social insight, but if you hanker to read about women’s relationships and growth (along with adventure, thunderstorms, a banshee attack, and a couple of love-never-did-run-smooth stories), I hope you’ll check out Thunderlord.

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