Dragons and Gender Bias…huh?

Back in the mid 1990s, shortly after Dealing with Dragons came out, I was asked to join a panel of folks to talk about dragons, and the topic I was handed to talk about was “Dragons and Gender Bias.” After blinking several times, I asked the moderator just what he expected me to talk about with a title like that, since I didn’t think he’d be too happy if I stood up and said “Dragons don’t have any gender bias. Thank you very much.” and sat down again.

He laughed and said blithely something along the lines of, “Oh, I thought you would talk about why you decided to use a strong female heroine (sic) in your first book Dealing with Dragons, and how you went about creating such a wonderful strong female-” for some reason, people who ask about this (and he’s not the only one by a long shot) always refer to Cimorene as a “strong female” and never as a woman or girl “-such a wonderful strong female. And if there’s time, maybe you could talk about the reasons you made her become the princess of a female dragon, and why you decided to make ‘King of the Dragons’ a title that has no connection with gender. That sort of thing.”

“I see,” I said. “All right.” And I hung up the phone. I was somewhat taken aback, partly because “female heroine” is redundant, but partly because I was in the rather rare position of being able to answer every one of the questions he brought up.

The problem was that every last one of his basic assumptions was wrong.

Dealing with Dragons was not only not my first book, it wasn’t even the first book I’d written in the Enchanted Forest chronicles. Talking to Dragons was published in 1985; Dealing came later, in 1990. And it is in Talking to Dragons that Cimorene and Kazul appear for the first time, as relatively minor characters. In that first appearance, Cimorene is not a “strong female heroine” – she is the main character’s mother, and she is exactly like all the mothers (mine and my friends’) that I remember having to deal with when I was sixteen. Well, maybe not exactly like them…

But in any case, the character who appeared later, in Dealing with Dragons, had to be someone who could reasonably be expected to grow up into the character in Talking to Dragons. Most of the things the moderator was asking about were my attempts to explain why Cimorene had turned out the way she did, not attempts to write about “a strong female heroine.”

It is also in Talking to Dragons that I first mentioned that “King of the Dragons” is a genderless job title (so far as dragons are concerned, anyway). I happen to remember very clearly writing the particular scene, because I was looking for a way to demonstrate that dragons were, in essence, aliens, not just very large human beings in lizard suits. I wanted a shortcut to show that they thought differently from humans, and I was very pleased when I came up with the idea of making the King of the Dragons a female. Similarly, Cimorene having been Kazul’s princess was an off-the-cuff invention that was intended to be a shock to the main character, the way it often is a bit shocking to a teenager to discover that his/her parents were once rowdy teenagers themselves.

In other words, pretty much all of the things the moderator wanted to know about were dictated by the needs of the first story and the personalities of the characters, not by the author’s desire to make a point in the second book.

This is something I think too many readers and would-be writers forget: most stories are not allegories, and the vast majority of characters in a non-allegorical, realistic piece of fiction are not going to work if they are portrayed first as a member of a group (“a typical ___”), and only second as an individual with whatever strengths and weaknesses, quirks and phobias, that particular individual happens to have.

And I would argue that regardless of what traits or attributes a character has – race, size, ethnicity, sex, age, hair color, etc. – what shapes them most is the interaction between their own personality and the attitude of the culture they grow up in toward their particular traits, because that pretty much determines both the way the characters think of themselves (and others) and the ways they expect other people to think and behave.

Dragon culture, as it developed in the Enchanted Forest books, pretty much ignores gender because dragons get to choose which sex they’re going to be. It’s important, but it’s important to a dragon in the same way as choosing the right hairstyle is important to human beings. They wouldn’t judge another dragon’s intelligence, competence, or abilities based on what gender that dragon was. Kazul is a fairly normal, mainstream member of that culture, so she doesn’t think twice about being king, and she’s perfectly happy having her princess learn magic and carry a sword.

Cimorene, on the other hand, grew up in the fairy-tale-kingdom culture…and rebelled against it. That’s what I mean when I say it’s the interaction between the character and the culture that really makes them who they are in the story. If I had written Dealing with Dragons first, and I’d reversed the personalities and made Cimorene a normal, mainstream princess and Kazul a rebel against dragon culture, they’d have been very different characters…and I could have chosen to do that. Which would, of course, have led to a very different story, but that’s another matter.

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12 Responses to Dragons and Gender Bias…huh?

  1. Emily says:

    Great post! I have the Enchanted Forest books practically memorized, and it’s fascinating to read about how things in what I think of as the “earlier” books actually developed from the plot of Talking to Dragons. It gives me a whole different way of thinking about the early-series versions of the other characters, like Morwen and Telemain, who also made their first appearance in Talking.

  2. Louis Robinson says:

    IIRC, your dragons choose their own names as well as their genders. The youngling in Talking to Dragons doesn’t have either yet.

    That raises two interesting questions: how much of the alieness of the dragons and other non-humans did you plan ahead of time, and how much just came out of who they turned out to be when you first wrote them? and, how much alieness is too much for readers to connect to?

    BTW, thinking about the Enchanted Forest, it occurs to me that not only would it be nice to see how Daystar and Ciara are getting on, but it would be really interesting to know how Morwen & Telemain’s kids turn out :)

  3. Julie says:

    Wow! I had no idea Talking to Dragons was written first! Now I have an excuse to go re-read the series in the order that it was published. Thanks!

  4. Mary says:

    I have told younger readers that Talking To Dragons came first, and sometimes they don’t believe me. . . personally, I think the series works better when read in publication sequence.

  5. Tiana Smith says:

    I love getting a peek behind the curtain :) And I love that you thought about how to make the dragons “real” instead of humans in lizard suits. Makes me rethink about the dragons in my own novel …

  6. Emily says:

    Louis: Would Morwen and Telemain have kids, though, or would they just stick with Morwen’s cats? I’d imagine them (especially Telemain) being more inclined to keep their time free for their own work.

  7. Louis Robinson says:

    I’m _sure_ Telemain would be inclined that way. Morwen, though…

    Especially if she decides that’s just what he needs: Half a dozen rug rats, and all for your own good ;)

  8. Pamela Klinger-Horn says:

    The 6th grade Book Club that I facilitate is reading DEALING WITH DRAGONS this month. Many of our best conversations have been about Cimorene as a non-traditional, feminist princess. The girls are also enjoying comparing other aspects of the novel to the traditions of the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson. Thank you for a great book.

  9. Nannina says:

    I always felt Talking to Dragons should be read first! I’m happy to hear that it was published first, and my instinct was correct. I by chance happened to read it first because I grabbed it as mom and I were leaving the library when I was 10. No premeditation, just attracted by the Trina Shart Hyman cover, best thing I’ve ever done by mistake.

    I find these days people are so concerned about having a “strong female character” that they shoehorn “strong traits” onto the character without having them make sense or the character be interesting. As you put it needs to happen organically. I love having strong women in my books and films, but I hate being condescended to with these “strong female characters” who aren’t actually full characters.

  10. I was delighted by this post as I am just reading the Enchanted Forest chronicles to my dragon-obsessed 7-year-old and Kazul is his favorite character. At first he said, “Even though she’s a girl,” but now he just says “Kazul is my favorite.” :)

    Tonight we finished SEARCHING FOR DRAGONS and he mused, “Why do people always get married at the end of books?” I suggested that this was because it was most people’s idea of a happy ending, and he replied that HIS idea of a happy ending would be “And then the dragon ate them all.”

    Anyway, thank you once again for giving me a series I not only delight in as an adult reader, but enjoy sharing with my children.

  11. Kate says:

    “This is something I think too many readers and would-be writers forget: most stories are not allegories, and the vast majority of characters in a non-allegorical, realistic piece of fiction are not going to work if they are portrayed first as a member of a group (“a typical ___”), and only second as an individual with whatever strengths and weaknesses, quirks and phobias, that particular individual happens to have.”

    It’s something most English teachers forget. I always appreciate when an author points out that not everything has some deeper meaning, because it is so easy for readers to read too deep into a book.

  12. Ariel says:

    Greetings from Rochester!! When I read this article I immediately thought of you and Kazul.

    http://us.cnn.com/2013/01/31/world/africa/king-peggy-otuam-ghana/index.html?iref=obinsite

    I know you came up with the idea on your own but in a case of life echoing art it turns out king is a gender-neutral role in this community.

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