There’s a lot of brouhaha going on over in the land of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America these days about the sci fi/fantasy world old-boys’ network, or the perception of it, and whether said organization buys into it or not. And I have an opinion, yes I do, but I don’t plan to step into that particular steaming pool of kaka here.
Instead, let’s talk about fantasy characters. More specifically, fantasy characters who can do magic. And what they’re called. Because names have meaning (I mean, remember he-who-shall-not-be-named Voldemort? Oops.)
Harry Potter’s as good place to start as any. Here’s the way it works, quite often, in fantasy of all sorts–urban, traditional, whatever. Wizards are male; witches are female. Wizards are more powerful than witches, although witches are often smarter. In the end, however, wizards are more powerful than witches.
Why the hell can’t women be wizards? Men can be witches, after all. There are male witches in the Southern Vampires series (aka Sookie). There are male witches in the Hollows series. The oh-so-enlightened Harry Dresden series has female wizards. Who else? That’s what I thought.
Back in 2009, when I sat down to write the book that would eventually become Royal Street, the first book in the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series, my heroine, DJ, was going to be a shapeshifter. She wasn’t going to be a spectacular wolf or bear or lion shifter. She was going to be a terrier, patterned after my own “Irish terror,” Shane O’Mac. In fact the whole idea started as an idea for a children’s book and somehow took a wide left turn and, all of a sudden, I went from talking horses to rampaging voodoo gods, with DJ the shapeshifter right in the middle of it all.
Then a funny thing happened about halfway through writing the first chapter (thank God). I stumbled across the transcript of a speech given by fantasy’s Sir Terry Pratchett called “Why Galdalf Never Married.”
Was Gandalf too ornery? Did the pointy hat frighten women away? Did he drag his beard through the soup when he ate, creating a smelly barrier to intimacy? Were the ladies not turned on by that whole “You Shall Not Pass” thing with the Balrog?
No, Gandalf never married because there were no female wizards, Pratchett says. And I realized he was right, at least to some extent. Oh sure, the Dresden Files series has a few. But women are usually relegated to “witches” a la Harry Potter, as if their gender makes them incapable of actual wizardry. Now, Hermione is undoubtedly smarter than Harry—no question about that. She’s also powerful in her own right…but not as powerful as a wizard. Professor McGonagall (sorry if I misspelled it; I’m too lazy to look it up) is smart and oh-so-competent, but not so powerful as Dumbledore. Harry and Albus, with their pure hearts and courage, will always be the stronger ones. Hermione got stuck with Ron Weasley, a nice enough boy although not a mental giant. Even JK Rowling is regretting that one, I hear.
I started digging around a bit further and, yes, wizards have been primarily male. And when you have male wizards and female witches, the wizards are always more powerful. Wiser. Stronger.
That kind of pissed me off.
So DJ shed her shapeshifter persona (again, I consider this divine intervention) and became a wizard. She’s not the strongest wizard on the block, but she’s got some skills. Her magic tends to be more of the geeky variety than flashy poof and zap. Her ritual magic is strong, but she has to work at it. She grows with each book in the series.
The male wizards always sell her short—always—especially the bureaucratic men who form the Congress of Elders (patterned after the U.S. Congress, which should tell you they talk a lot but actually do very little).
But DJ is gradually getting them to take her seriously. In Royal Street, she was untested and flying by the seat of her pants (because, not being a witch, she had no broom), struggling to survive in a New Orleans that had just been slammed to rubble and drowned by Hurricane Katrina.
The reason I limited her physical magic and made her specialty ritual magic is because I didn’t want to make post-Katrina life easy for her. Like the rest of us living in NOLA during those sad, scorching, soggy days of Katrina, she has to do without electricity. No air conditioning in hundred-degree weather. No reliable drinking water. No phone. No Internet. “Coffin flies” swarming out of the sinks.
Oh, and an undead pirate Jean Lafitte hot on her trail, an undead Louis Armstrong acting as a spy, and a preternatural power play in the making. And did I mention her new alpha-male, monosyllabic partner Alex? Alex is the shapeshifter, and he turns into a big, fluffy dog. Admittedly, he’s big and fierce. But he ain’t no wolf. He’s kinda sensitive about that.
Female wizards? You bet. Throw out that glass ceiling, Gandalf, and find you a woman.
Have you read books featuring female wizards? Share them with us! I’ll choose one commenter to receive a signed copy of one of my books or a swag pack.