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.