Friday, February 29, 2008

The leading ladies

Well, it's certainly been an estrogen-centred week over here, what with my little talk on the Hilton of Cadboll stone, discussion of Pictish matrilineal succession(?), a lecture on women's place in early medieval Ireland, and Thursday's tutorial, which had us looking at women in Irish literature. I suppose it's no big shock, then, that all my character developing energies this week have been focused on my female MCs (and not-so-MCs).

I think one of the potential challenges in creating strong, vital female characters in historical fiction is the restricted role women have traditionally been assigned in various cultures, and a history-conscious author will always want to adhere, or at least give some flavour of, the roles and conventions present within their chosen society. Fierce warrior women like Boudica seem to have been the exception rather than the rule. But I don't think "active" necessarily has to mean "charging around with a sword". And physical strength isn't the only kind there is. After all, history is full of strong female figures who never lifted a weapon in public.

So, with that in mind, I examined the roles and personalities of my various female characters more in depth, making sure they fit their societies (of course, I get a bit of leeway when it comes to the early Caledonians!) and yet still remain - I hope - vital, interesting, and engaging. I'm a bit leery of describing characters rather than portraying them, telling rather than showing, but I'll give it a shot. I'll be interested in seeing what you make of them.

First and foremost, and who's already shown up here in an excerpt, is Gairea ní Macháir (hope I've got that genitive right *cringe*), the most prominent female character in The Ancestor Crown and my only female PoV. By birth, Gairea is the daughter of Machar, one of the most respected warriors of Dun na Nighinn, and so her position in the clan is at first linked to his. Unfortunately for her, however, she was born with the second sight (I can hear you all groaning. Stop that.) and has spent all her childhood surrounded by the rumours that she's a changeling, or a bansidhe. By nature, she's restless and unconventional, and feels trapped by society's ground rules even as she tries to respect them. At the start of the book, however, she has a particularly harrowing vision of what's to come, she is approached by Sargaid, the Chief Druidess, who offers to train her as a seer, so she won't end up descending into madness and a horrible death. She readily agrees and joins the Druid order, but as a direct link to the Otherworldly powers, she's also potentially a valuable pawn to those hoping to cultivate such powers (I'll say no more here). Her relationship with the Epidii champion Cathal mac Comgáill ends badly. It's then that she decides to turn her back once and for all on the warrior aspect of her upbringing and make Druidism her life. She finds newfound confidence in herself, realises she now has the capacity to take control of her own future and becomes much more decisive, though at heart she is still a painfully sensitive creature (bad things to come). Her feud with Cathal and also her relationship with Marcus Valerius Laevinus are significant threads in the story. In the end, she becomes pivotal in the outcome of the battle of Mons Graupius, when her spider-senses (lol) warn her of Agricola's reserve cavalry. With that knowledge, it's up to her to deliver the warning to Calgach of the Caledones, which means making a long and difficult journey from Ioua to Mons Graupius (Bennachie). Which wouldn't be so much of a problem, if she wasn't four months pregnant. Which is she more willing to risk, the life of her baby, or the thousands of Caledonians she has seen dying at Mons Graupius? Unfortunately, I don't even know what's she's going to choose; it looks like I'm going to have to wait before I get to that part of the book. Since Tacitus-muse is rather adamant that I stick to his version of events, the eventual decision isn't so much a matter of plot development, but of character.

I like Gairea; she's probably the easiest character for a modern character to relate to, and she grows into a powerful priestess without falling too much into the Mists of Avalon clichés. Female druids are mentioned a lot in the classical histories, so there's not much of a problem there, but as a character whose story involves her - intentionally and unintentionally - breaking the rules, I can get away with slightly more with her than I can with others. Time to look at the other women of The Ancestor Crown who remain in their social bracket, but are no less strong for it.

There's Morwen, who isn't a main character but has a lot of presence. She is the sister of Calgach and the mother of his heir, Garnat. Which means, essentially, that she has had to raise her son with an eye for being the next king - a daunting task, I'd imagine. Also, since Calgach's wife has been dead for several years, she is the one who runs the royal household, including the organisation of all feasts and the like. Considering the strategic importance of feasts etc. to leaders in these times, Calgach's success is partially - and probably significantly - down to Morwen's ability to keep such functions running efficiently. She is also the one who he leaves in charge of his fort, and by extension the tribe, when he starts travelling around Caledonia in his bid to unite the tribes. Which means that Morwen will be the one in danger when Agricola marches on the Caledones' fort in the aftermath of Mons Graupius. I'm sure she'll handle things with her usual level-headedness and wit, though. It's nice to have faith in your characters. :) In a similar vein is Moireach, Cathal's mother and the leader of the clan. She and her son balance things out between them: Cathal takes charge of all the martial aspects, the warrior-training, the cattle-raiding etc., while she busies herself with the day-to-day running of Dun na Nighinn. I have a feeling she and Cathal might end up at loggerheads later along the line, though. I'll be interested in seeing how that pans out. (Let's face it, Cathal is at loggerheads with everyone.)

Other women who have small parts are Agricola's wife Domitia - their married love is one of the nicer parts of the book - and their daughter Julia. I was particularly impressed with Julia when she wandered into my head: she's plucky, sensible, and more than a match for that husband of hers! I'm a bit disappointed she's not going to be in it more. Then there's Eithne, Tuathal Teachtmar's scheming mother, who is using her son in her game of revenge against the kings who killed her husband and sent her into exile (Agricola and Domitia privately refer to her as an Hibernian Agrippina). Another one I'm sad to leave as a cameo.

And just when you thought it was all over...

The Antonine novel (which needs a proper title before I end up calling it Nice Ditch, Shame About the Wall) has its fair share of female leads. My favourite is Eilwen, the younger princess of the Taexali tribe, and the result of her mother's - er - indiscretion with some anonymous at Beltaine. As a result, in the eyes of her half-brother Cinioch, king of the Taexali, she's another blemish on the façade of the royal clan. Still, royal blood is royal blood, and she's very well aware that she's a pawn in her brother's power plays. Like Gairea, Eilwen has been Druid trained, but in the more practical aspects such as diplomacy and lawkeeping. As a member of the king's immediate kin-group, she has a place on his council and intends to make that her vocation, though she knows she might just as easily be compelled by Cinioch to enter into an advantageous marriage contract. Since tribe and kin is everything to her, she resigns herself to this, and doesn't hope for anything more than the reality of her life, which includes not pursuing a romantic liaison with the warrior Edarnan (just as well, really). She faces life head-on, and knows how to endure the bad as well as she does the good. That takes some strength of character. Cinioch finally does offer her to another tribal king in order to form an alliance: he and Eilwen are descendants of Calgach, and Cinioch hopes to eradicate the shame of the defeat at Mons Graupius by imitating their ancestor and driving the Romans out of Caledonia once and for all. Eilwen, understanding his motives, grits her teeth and bears it with minimal complaint. On her way to her new husband, however, she and her escort are ambushed by slave-traders and end up on the wrong side of the Antonine Wall. But while this situation is terrifying at first, Eilwen, by a lucky chance, strikes gold. She is bought by Firmus, a centurion in command at one of the principal forts on the Wall. She ends up at his secretary, and finds herself in the ideal position to do a bit of espionage that may benefit Cinioch's cause, especially when she finds the means to get the messages to him. Firmus, however, is dealing with a mystery which is linked to Eilwen's capture, so she finds herself co-operating with him even as she double-crosses him, which tears at her conscience, especially since Firmus turns out to be a fair and decent man (he's absolutely smitten with her as well).

Eilwen is probably one of the most vulnerable characters in the book, with a deep-set inferiority complex brought about by her childhood, even though her exterior is deceptively composed and confident, if waspish and sarcastic. Because she's used to the contempt of her brother and older sister, she's incredibly suspicious of kindness, something which baffles Firmus. She's also one of the saddest characters, in that most of what she works towards rebounds upon her, and she's betrayed by Edarnan, the one person of the Taexali she thinks she can trust. In the end, she takes the only life open to her: to stay with the centurion and leave Britain with him when he retires, end up as his freedwoman and either keep working for him or marry him. There's a promise of happiness for her there, however: she gets to start a new life away from Caledonia, and she loves Firmus very much, even if she's not in love with him.

Also linked to Eilwen's story is Edarnan's wife, who only took shape recently and doesn't really have a name yet. She's ambitious, especially after becoming pregnant, and schemes with Edarnan to overthrow Cinioch. She knows full well that Edarnan still loves Eilwen, however, and that he intends to rescue her from her servitude on the Wall and take her as his second consort (stealing from Irish law here). Understandably enough, Wife isn't too thrilled at the thought of this - especially since Eilwen's children would have a stronger claim to the throne than hers - and schemes to have Eilwen gotten rid of as well.

The Roman Aurelia is another influential figure in the book. She's a young Roman matron on her third marriage, and has come to Britain with her tribune husband to get away from the rumours that surround her after the mysterious deaths of her first two husbands. When her husband disappears in mysterious circumstances on the Antonine Wall, she decides to risk travelling north to investigate the truth herself, not an easy task since she's a single woman against several garrisons of grizzled war veterans, and eventually finds herself thrust into the inter-tribal politics beyond the Wall. As the daughter of a senator, Aurelia has secretly gained a wealth of political skills, which she finds herself actively putting to use in her search for her husband, and slowly comes to realise just what she is capable of. I don't have quite as good a grip on Aurelia yet as I do on Eilwen, but I know she's going to be incredibly important. On the surface, she's quite a withdrawn, compassionate and demure sort, but she can be incredibly manipulative and/or sometimes authoritative, depending on the situation. Oh yeah, and she's a secret Mithraist. "Wtf?!" I hear you say. Well, because Juno, Isis, Cybele et al. turned out to be pretty deaf to her pleas when she was trying - and failing - to conceive a child with her first husband, and so she appeals to the soldiers' god instead to help her in her search. Like Gairea, she's an unconventional one, except she's just more private about it. ;)

And those are just the ones who have books already. I'm already being pestered by that Pictish huntress for a book, and I wouldn't mind writing something one day about Cartimandua, or Chiomara of the Galatae. So many interesting figures, so little time...


Gabriele C. said...

You have more interesting female characters than I, and none of mine is a MC.

In Britain, it's mostly Morait form Caledonia Defiant who grows into her new role after an arranged marriage to Iogenan and becomes the spokeswoman for the women of the Selgovae when they confront the leader Talorcan. I'm not sure about the witch woman (druidess) Eacna who suddenly appeared - I think she may get some part to play, as does Ancailot of the Votadini, married to a high ranking Roman deserter. Her dad seems to be the rival of Artcois aka Atrectus, the Tungrian captive turned Votadini as well.

In A Land Unconquered, the most importat females (besides a cameo for Livia) are the historical Thurisnelda (Arminius' wife) and Agrippina (Germanicus' wife), and the fictive Clodia Marcella who's married to Cornelius Lentulus and then learns he could have saved her brother but didn't, and seeks protection from the MC Horatius Veranius which starts a family feud that will last for several generations, and Erelieva, a woman from the Cherusci out for revenge. Maybe also Irminric's sister Maura, but I'm not sure about her role.

Then we have Cartimandua in With Horse and Chariot Reigned and Rionach, the woman who's going to become the mother of Aquila from Eagle of the Sea, though I'm not sure she'll still be alive in that book. There are two more characters in EotS who have not really come to live yet, Easnad, wife of Aquila's cousin Tarian, and the Batavian Thivara, in love with Madalric.

The historical Galla Placidia will play a role in the Visigoth novel Endangered Frontiers, of course, as will he fictive Vinicia Marcella, sister of Lucius Vinicius, lover of the MC Aurelius Idamantes to whom she is betrothed. Evil, me? No way. :) And there's the Visigoth Mataswintha, sister of Alamir's enemy Raginamer, who plays a double or triple game.

In The Charioteer, the novel in search of a plot, I have Julia Vatinia with whom Ciaran falls in love during his time in Rome - a romance doomed to fail, and the Dal Riatan Eavan who abandons Ciaran for his Pictish rival Eoghanán.

And there's always the bad girls Kazimira and Saldís from Kings and Rebels, plus Roderic's cousin Estrild. Probably more, but I'm not sure. I had a Valkyria type of swordfighting girl with Ragnhild, but I'm not sure I'll keep her, she's a bit cliché.

Crystal said...

Good post girl! And believe me, I wasn't the one to groan because Gairea was born with the second sight;o)

She readily agrees and joins the Druid order, but as a direct link to the Otherworldly powers, she's also potentially a valuable pawn to those hoping to cultivate such powers (I'll say no more here). Your KILLIN ME!!!

Spider senses!!!ROFL!! I LOVE it!
Holy crap Kirsten! She's preggers??!?!?!? Did I forget that in the excerpt or did you just tell us that?????? I'll have to go back and reread, it'll drive me crazy until I know for sure!!!

Can't wait to see whats in store for Morwen. She has a lot of responsibility within the household!

Wha? Not a bigger story for Julia?? She sounds like a hell of a woman! NNNNOOOOOOO!!!!!

Damn, I can relate to Eilwen....

Pictish huntress, eh? Care to elaborate on that juice bit you gave us??? Hmmmmmm??LOL!

Well done sweet! Hope you had a wonderful weekend;o)

Crystal said...

Have a good weekend sweet;o)

Crystal said...

I'm missin me my Kirsten...*wipes away tear* Yous comes sees me, K? LOL! Where you at girlie! Hope your doing okay;o)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Gabriele - I like the sound of your female characters. I've come across Morait when I was sneaking around your snippet blog, and she looks like a good character.

As for Valkyrie sword-wielding types, that's another reason I'm a bit leery of including any all-out warrior women. They're so clichéd. My noble Caledonian ladies have had a little formal training in the sword as part of a tradition, but they rely more on their minds. I wish I had some more bad girls. Equal opportunities should extent to the "forces of evil" after all! :)

I've got a few characters too who seem like they might have bigger parts to play. One is Aurelia's maid, Verecunda, but she's not letting me know anything. And I'm pretty sure Gairea's mentor Sargaid has some ulterior motive...

Vinicia Marcella, sister of Lucius Vinicius, lover of the MC Aurelius Idamantes to whom she is betrothed.

Oh, lol! Is she aware of the relationship between Vinicius and Idamantes?

You're not evil. Just sadistic. It's the writer's prerogative. >:)

Crystal - Lol, I'm all right! Just been a bit tied up with this and that.

Re: Gairea: I didn't know second sight amongst Celtic/Scottish heroines was such a cliché when I came up with her, and when I found out it was too late; she impacted too deeply on several plot threads. And she has red hair to boot. I'm hopeless. :)

She gets pregnant later on in the book, a while after that excerpt takes place. Pregnant, able to see into the future, feuding with the tribal champion, charged with safeguarding the Druids' island... she's quite a multi-tasker, lol!

Morwen has a lot to do, she just does most of it in the background.

I really wish Julia was in it more. She's the only one who knows how to get Tacitus to shut up when he starts his look-at-the-state-of-our-Empire-now act. :) Oh, and apparently the Ebul Emperor Domitian has started eyeing her up. That wasn't in the Agricola...

You can relate to Eilwen, eh? Lol, have you ever been sentenced to hard labour at a saltworks, been kidnapped from there then sold/ransomed back to your former master? Just asking. :)

The Pictish huntress is that lady on the Hilton of Cadboll stone I did the post on. She wants a book, and she's not taking no for an answer! Damn muses...

Gabriele C. said...

Oh, and apparently the Ebul Emperor Domitian has started eyeing her up. That wasn't in the Agricola...


Actually, I'm not yet sure if Vinicia knows about her brother and Idamantes. Right now I'm not sure she's going to marry him at all after she met Alamir (who happens to be Idamantes' half brother, raised by the Goths). Damn characters.

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