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Writers Of Amish Fiction May Not Have It So Wrong

Can speculative fiction find a place for these women? Can they be our protagonists? Do we see them as worth the spotlight? Or do our female protagonists all have to do as the men do?
| Oct 15, 2018 | 31 comments |

Speculative writers often express a disdain for Christian fiction because it is dominated by books in the romance genre and by the peculiarly Christian Amish Fiction genre. Stories in those genres, we so often say, do not reflect reality. They are not authentic. They reflect wishful thinking more than they do the way things actually are.

It is kind of ironic for fantasy and science fiction writers to criticize another genre for not being “real enough.” Of course I say this with tongue in cheek, because I believe that speculative fiction can do what other genres only hint at—our books deal with the spiritual life as much or perhaps more than the physical, emotional, mental life of a person.

So why would I suggest that Amish Fiction writers have something to say that might actually be what readers want to hear, beyond wishful thinking?

My thinking has to do with a blog post I read this morning, “We Need More Weak Female Characters…,” by one of my favorite bloggers, InsanityBytes, who also happens to be a Christian.

IB explained her position:

Well, isn’t it rather insulting to have “strong” placed in front of “female” as if we must now differentiate? Isn’t that just incredibly redundant and rude? Doesn’t it also just scream, the female characters is this book are so not like all the other women, you know, all those limp wristed, wimpy, soggy plates of pathetic femininity we have all come to loathe and despise?

I mean call me naive, but I thought “strong female” was just a given?? What woman is not strong? And really when the world attacks, I’m pretty sure it could care less about you presenting your Strength Credentials anyway. “Listen up world, I’ll have you know, I am actually a strong female character, so thou shall not mess with me…?” Does that even work?

Later she adds

What is with this whole idea that “weak” is somehow the same thing as “bad?” Don’t our stories all begin with a moment of weakness? Isn’t it our scars and our struggles that make us unique? Isn’t it our defects that tend to build our character? How can I even empathize with one of these two-dimensional, plastic characters who walks about like trained prize-fighter in stilettos? Like, I totally question the judgment of anyone wearing a tank top in 40 degree weather, anyway. Chasing bad guys in heels is even worse.

IB has a point, a humorous one but also with serious ramifications. In today’s feminist-driven society, a woman isn’t really quite significant unless she’s doing what a man does. Softball players, for instance, aren’t valued by the press nearly as much as the few women who have attempted to have a professional baseball career. Who makes the press, the female cheerleader who does an incredible, daring high-flying flip into the arms of her teammate, or the girl who becomes the football team’s field goal kicker?

Translate that into stories. Do we writers value women characters only when they do the things men do, or do we have a place for women who are “nothing” but gracious and kind and nurturing and stable and (hold your breath) domestic?

Do we see “weak” women as valuable too?

I think writers of Amish fiction might have a place in their stories for “weak” women. They may have strength of character or spiritual depth that far outstrips the men in their lives. I’m not well schooled in the genre, so I don’t know for sure, but after reading IB’s article, I got to wondering whether or not women can relate to the women in Amish fiction more than they can relate to “two-dimensional, plastic characters who walks about like trained prize-fighter in stilettos?”

I suppose the real challenge for writers is to fairly represent characters of various stripes. All our female lead characters don’t have to be girls that can hold their own with the guys on the team. Nor do they all have to be vulnerable victims that need a man’s protection. Maybe we can get away from the stereotypes of both extremes and write women characters who are, you know, like real women are.

The women I know are amazing because they can multitask, they can wear a dozen different hats every day, they can deal with grief and loss with the same grace that they do gain and applause (which doesn’t come their way very often). In case you’re wondering, I’m describing my friends who are moms, some who also work outside their home. But the stay-at-home moms are no less amazing. Can speculative fiction find a place for these women? Can they be our protagonists? Do we see them as worth the spotlight? Or do our female protagonists all have to do as the men do?

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Kathleen Eavenson
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Kathleen Eavenson

How does Sharon Hinck’s Restorer series with its housewife heroine fit in to your discussion?

notleia
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notleia

Ursula Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea book, Tehanu, is about the life of Tenar after she’s grown older and married a farmer and has two grown children. It’s not really an action-y story, but it is a think-y story that I liked the majority of.

princesselwen
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princesselwen

I think part of this has to do with the kind of plot that you find interesting. If you like to write action-heavy plotlines, then you’ll probably be more likely to include the more active type of heroine, because she’s got a better chance to be involved in the story. But if you’re writing a calmer story, you have the chance to showcase other types of strength. The types aren’t better or worse, just different.

Shannon McDermott
Editor

I really enjoyed this article. As a reader, I’m not interested in romance, but I like the idea that romance provides a space for different and sometimes more relatable female characters, and SF writers could learn from that.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I agree. Though I think another part of why women playing pro baseball makes the news is because it’s something unusual. People don’t usually make the news for doing something common(unless it’s worthy of public outrage and thus likely to make people watch the news story)

Sometimes when the tough/vs weak girl char thing comes up, though, it’s a sad reminder that some people act like girls have to identify with female chars and guys have to identify with male chars. Personality and circumstances should be the most important factor when it comes to identifying with someone.

Of course it’s ok to identify with chars of one’s own gender more, but we should still be very open to identifying with characters that, on the outside, look far different from us. Many of the chars I’ve identified with the most have been guys, for instance, though I identify with several girl chars as well.

One female character I have liked and identified with more recently is Clearsight from Wings of Fire Legends: Darkstalker, which was written by Tui T Sutherland. Yeah, Clearsight’s a dragon, but she’s not a warrior, and is pretty much the equivalent of a normal human girl in her late teens. But in many ways she’s still strong and relatable. I know I’d probably act kind of like she did if I was in her shoes and could see the future as she could. I haven’t read the newest Wings of Fire book yet, though, so I can’t speak for how Clearsight is written in other parts of the series.

Another thing authors could do more of is experiment with the fact that most people are ‘masculine’ in some ways and ‘feminine’ in others. I’m slightly more ‘masculine’ in the sense that I’m fascinated by animals a lot of girls tend to find creepy or gross, but I’m more ‘feminine’ in the sense that I’m not very athletic.(Those things are a little more along the lines of cultural definitions of masculinity and feminity, but the same concept still applies to some more inherent things.)

Writing that kind of mixture seems to help with fleshing out characters a lot. The mother of the main character in my current WIP, for instance, is a scientist, so she’s not tough/’masculine’ in the sense of being a warrior. But, at the same time, she doesn’t really meet the feminine stereotypes of being warm and nurturing, even though she actually cares a lot. And that causes a lot of conflict with her son since he doesn’t ever feel like she cares, causing him to feel mostly miserable around her during his childhood.

Rachel Nichols
Guest

I really liked Robin McKinley’s YA novels. Her heroines were geeks more than prom queens. I love her novel Beauty–a retelling of Beauty and the Beast where “Beauty” Honor Housman is a studious polyglot but also a homely wallflower.

R. J. Anderson
Member

I adore BEAUTY. Have you read CHALICE? It’s another of my very favorites, and the heroine is wonderful.

notleia
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notleia

Being a not-really-nurturing female, I have an ulterior motive in wanting to see more of them in fiction. People seem to find it almost offensive, tho, that there could be a type of woman who, for example, doesn’t like children (hi, hello, I am one of those).

But also being someone with domestic-type hobbies like crochet, I do want to see tropes about “women’s work” overturned. Like, it takes skill and artistic talent to do most textile work. Like, most of the people I know who make their own clothing are nerds, but mostly the cool type of nerds who know a lot of stuff and are very competent in their chosen fields. And they embroider pictures of Grumpy Cat rather than floral patterns.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I kinda want to see more girl chars like that, too. It’s not something I think about much, but it would still be nice. At the very least, they’re fun to write, since I’m not particularly nurturing, either. I don’t dislike children, but I’m not crazy about them like some women are and would be perfectly happy staying single and childless. I have lots of chars that end up single, actually(sometimes ’cause they’re ace/aro, other times because they aren’t interested, just never find someone, etc.)

One thing for me, with the lack of nurturing, is that I express myself a little differently than others would expect sometimes, and now and then that means accidentally coming off as cold and standoffish or some other thing people don’t like, so I like to read and write characters struggling with that issue too.

The struggle doesn’t always have to be blatant, sometimes it’s enough to just see that the character’s personality is such that they would struggle around people that expect ‘caring’ to be expressed in blatant/stereotypical ways. It’d be nice to see more characters struggle with that since it would help people realize that there are people that genuinely care even if they don’t express it blatantly.

Funnily enough, one thing that is part of the main character’s training is learning how to make his own clothing. Granted, the clothes are generally made out of leather and animal furs in the area of the world he ends up moving to. But since they’re basically out in a forest and expected to knowing how to survive, clothes making is considered basic training for everyone regardless of gender. Of course, some people are still more skilled and artistic in it than others.

I like crocheting, too, though I haven’t had much free time to complete crochet projects in. It’s kinda hard on my wrists, too, after a while.

Rachel Nichols
Guest

This is a little off topic but I dislike romance novels since they claim to be true to life but they aren’t. Spec fiction is open and honest about not being real. Horatio Algernon novels were similarly fake reality as opposed to numinous. A lot of self help books might fall into this category too. Lol.

A female character doesn’t have to be like Rey in the new Star Wars thing, nor Katniss. But she shouldn’t have to be Bella Swann or Blondie What’s-Her-Face in The Temple of Doom. (Ugh!)

Characters like Frodo Baggins, Fiver from Watership Down, Dr. Ransom from Out of the Silent Planet could all be “played” by women with some changes. But I don’t think feminists would like girls learning self sacrifice, staying in someone else’s shadow, or talking instead of fighting. (In Perelandra, Ransom plays a more manly role of punching another guy to death. But in the first book he runs away out of fear.)

Some great female characters from old Christian literature were Chloe Burnett from Many Dimensions and Lester from All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams, Jane Studdock from That Hideous Strength by Lewis, and Eowyn in Return of the King by Tolkien who quits fighting to become a healer.

We are the weaker sex. But that doesn’t make us idiots. Funny how there is more emphasis on brawn than brains in heroines now.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Except women used to be thought of as also the mentally weaker sex. There are minefield-level types of baggage that accompany any discussion about the differences between men and women (((because all of them were used as an excuse for why women should be controlled by men))). Also it gets into ableist poop and nobody needs that.

I have conflicted feelings about Jane Studdock, because I want to introduce her to feminist theory and postmodernism and that she doesn’t have to take the old-white-man view of the world at face value. Also she can be barren if she wants to be and Merlin can stuff it. DON’T LISTEN TO THE PATRIARCHY, Jane, chivalry is weak poop that’s revoked at the merest flutter of injured man-feels! (See: that turd Merlin.) Equality is the dope sh*T!!!
(Also men should probably get better at how they treat other men, so not that kind of equality, a better version than that.)

Travis Perry
Editor

“Chivalry is weak poop”…chivalry is something C. S. Lewis deeply believed in, which only partially related to male and female relationships. Chivalry was based on the notion of a self-sacrificing warrior, that someone should fight for the poor and the weak and not for self. I suppose your objection to chivalry could be a valid one if you were objecting to the fact that it axiomatically put women in the category of “the weak.”

But what you actually say you are objecting to is that in practice, chivalrous attitudes towards women have been revoked when inconvenient–i.e. “at the merest flutter of injured man-feels.” Well, chivalrous attitudes are also supposed to include only fighting fully prepared opponents of equal (or more powerful) warrior status–yet, historically, there were plenty of examples of knights slaughtering peasants when it furthered their own interests.

Yet the numerous examples of real knights or real men in other contexts violating the code of chivalry does not indicate whether the code of chivalry ITSELF was good or bad. Personally, I am rather less enamored with the code of chivalry than Lewis was–I think it was an amalgam of the values of pre-Christian warrior culture in Europe and genuine Christian ideas. It fully accepts the nobility of warfare (under the right circumstances) whereas I think of war as necessary at times (under my own concepts of just war theory) but never as positively glorious and wonderful, even if a sense of triumph in victory is only natural. This means I am not essentially chivalrous myself–yet I recognize the concept as essentially a lot better than competing ideas that have supported fighting, which mostly amount to “might makes right” or “we love and protect our own and kill anybody who messes with us (without limitations).”

A superhero story is usually a modernized version of a tale of chivalry. A powerful warrior eschews using his or her powers for his or her own gain, but selflessly sacrifices his or her own personal happiness to protect the downtrodden and the weak, and only uses superpowers against evil opponents with greater or equal power. (The main way that this is not exactly the same as a tale of chivalry is that the superhero can be female and perform the same function–which is not the case in tales of knighthood. Also, the powerful evil warrior, which usually was a man in stories of knighthood, can be woman. And chivalrous tales always included a romantic aspect of rescuing a love interest, which is still found in superhero stories, but is less popular than in tales of chivalry.)

Anyway, I thought your feminism-inspired view of chivalry rather missed the point. I’m not sure if me explaining how Lewis actually saw chivalry is going to influence you at all, because you seem to be very firmly locked into one paradigm and unable to see beyond that, but it seemed worth mentioning anyway.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Chivalry pretty much never existed in practice. It was only retrospectively spackled on as part of a romanticization of the past. Nowadays, chivalry is a buzzword used by neckbeards as an attempt to manipulate romantic attention out of women.

Even in the more idealized state, it carries too much baggage from the authoritarian systems from which it sprang to suit my taste.

notleia
Guest
notleia

The internet may have eated my reply, so to sum up: Chivalry never existed back in the day. It was spackled on retrospectively as a romanticization. Nowadays it’s a buzzword used as an attempt at leverage against feminism. No thanks.

Even as an ideal, I don’t care for it because it carries a lot of baggage from its birth in authoritarian power systems, and authoritarianism ruins everything.*

*Okay, prolly not everything, but I feel like making a blanket statement and we can bicker over the littler details at a later point if it ever becomes necessary (how ’bout it never becomes necessary because there are better things than authoritarianism)

notleia
Guest
notleia

Except chivalry pretty much never existed back the day. It was retrospectively spackled on as part of a romanticization of Ye Olden Days.

And I find the idea carries too much of its origins in authoritarian systems. The good stuff can be carried separately from the bulk of the idea of chivalry, so to my way of thinking it’s unnecessary to carry the bulk of it.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I think this needs some larger context in what “strong” and “weak” mean in relation to characters. My interpretation is that not that the characters need to be physically strong, but that they are more than barely sentient story-pieces that only move as the plot necessitates. Maybe we can interpret it as being strongly flavored characters, that their impact is strong?

Leanna
Guest
Leanna

This article is rather frustrating for me to read. While the term “strong female character” has probably suffered from overuse, I believe it was intended to refer to female characters who were more than reactive (or in some cases entirely passive) victims. And that is what we still need more of, regardless of whether the woman is a warrior or a housewife or both.
Also, when was Katniss ever trying to be a boy?? I don’t think she is an amazing character but she definitely has some depth to her.

princesselwen
Guest
princesselwen

That’s true. She was just someone doing what it took to survive. I could actually really identify with her ’emotional obtuseness’ and struggles to understand people. Especially since women are often expected to automatically be better at that sort of thing by default.

Travis Perry
Editor

If I were to make my comment longer than I want to make it, I could explain in a nuanced way that I have a problem with stereotypical ideas of conflict in speculative fiction. It seems quite often speculative fiction sees fighting evil as perhaps punching an alien or super villain or evil wizard in the face. I object to this–fighting evil is only occasionally actual physical fighting. (Which is not to say there is NEVER a time when it wouldn’t be appropriate to punch an alien in the face.)

Since men in the real world are well over 90% more adept at punching someone in the face than a woman (taller with longer arms, heavier with more inertia, and more upper-body muscle on average really DO matter here), the story that primarily features physical fighting as the main form of conflict really should include more men than women. Historically, even currently, men do much more of this kind of work than women do. Though I’m 100% in favor of portraying exceptional women who also do this kind of fighting, I’m against portraying them as supermodels in heels who have virtually nothing in common with real female warriors. (That is, I think feminists have pushed our culture in the direction of unrealistic portrayals of women.)

What I think speculative fiction needs to do, especially as written by Christians, is to gravitate more towards showing people fighting evil without actually physically fighting. I think this would give plenty of opportunities for female characters to shine. Women in fact are very, very important in the real spiritual war against evil. Even if they are not able to effectively punch an alien in the face.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Pffffft, if you think feminists like the Strong Female Characters who punch things in high heels. That’s the product of male authors who were trying to play both sides of the equation by having capable female characters who are also still wearing sexualized fetish gear that generates the clicking and the moneymaking.

The tumblr Escher Girls is a pretty funny takedown of all the stupid posing (and some stupid female costuming/armor) that comics and animation and advertisements do. And there are related tumblrs like Repair Her Armor or Boobs Don’t Work That Way for more of the same.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

My favorite characters tend to be ones that use their brains more than anything else when facing problems. Or, even better, use their minds to maximize/augment any physical capabilities they have. That’s probably why Batman is my favorite superhero. Or another reason I like chars like Kiritsugu and Itachi.

Focusing more on the strategic and mental aspect would actually fix a lot of writing problems some stories have. Shonen anime/manga, like Naruto, tend to be action oriented. But in long running action oriented series like that, there tends to be a problem with escalation. Arcs tend to revolve around characters gaining new physical abilities, and heroes and villains gaining more and more powers. That’s fine, in moderation, but eventually authors start running out of ideas for new powers, which means the authors are scraping the bottom of the barrel until they come up with power upgrades/plots that are kinda disappointing. Authors may also end up writing themselves into a corner (oh no, I’ve built my villain up to be too powerful and can’t figure out a way for my heroes to beat him!)

Focusing on all the various psychological/personality aspect to a story would probably help with that, along with helping stories avoid being as formulaic as so many other mainstream movies are now. Non combat oriented characters would have more time to shine too, as you pointed out.

When it comes to the supermodels in heels type of warriors, I don’t know that feminism is the only factor there. Women wanted more girl characters in fantasy and such, but guys are probably mostly responsible for the more unrealistic things like sexy stilettos and bikini armor. Some girls make chars like that as well, but guys are probably mostly responsible for that part.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Funny comic on “STrong FEmaLe CharaCTers”: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

Travis Perry
Editor

I wouldn’t say what feminists push for is the only reason a fair number of modern female warrior figures are largely ridiculous. But it’s a factor.

As for Batman, while he does use his brain, he still is physically fighting evil. For fighting evil in a non-physical way, I recommend Lelia Rose Foreman’s Shatterworld trilogy, which I publish in one volume as A Shattered World (though this book does contain some physical fighting).

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Yeah, I kinda mentioned Batman as an example of what I meant with a character that uses his brain to augment his physical abilities. Same goes for Kiritsugu and Itachi, so I never meant to say they avoid physical fighting, just that they use their brains to make sure their physical attacks are as effective as possible.

As for a character I like that uses only their brain, Clearsight from Wings of Fire Legends: Darkstalker would probably be a good example. She’s an interesting case since she is mainly analyzing all the information she has, and then is forced to make lots of difficult choices based on that info. She’s basically a regular person trying to keep the whole world from falling down a path to misery.

I’ll try to check out the Shatterworld Trilogy some time 🙂

notleia
Guest
notleia

Funny comic mocking Strong Female Characters: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

now with moar tropes: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=336

Autumn Grayson
Guest

XD

Growing up, what were your opinions of stereotypical strong women chars? Not necessarily only the sexualized ones, like the ones those comics mocked, but also the ones that were always trying to become warriors, etc. as if to subtly prove they were as good as the men?

Travis Perry
Editor

I think also noteworthy is the 110 pound female figure in film that knocks out the 220 pound man with a single blow. At least give the poor scrawny thing a baseball bat!

Rachel Nichols
Guest

Or a magical MacGuffin that endows its wearer with the strength of 100 men.

Keturah Lamb
Guest

I don’t like Amish fiction (because I’ve lived with the Amish and most of the fiction is romanticized) and I don’t like much romance either. But I really enjoyed this article and agree 🙂 We need more women that aren’t trying to be men — and we need feminine things to be shown as good 🙂