The Emergence of the
Lesbian Romantic Hero
and the Plot She Thrives In

DC Bardfest October 2004

Remarks from a Panel by Authors:
Jane Fletcher, Jean Stewart,
Radclyffe, and Lori L. Lake

...And The Plot She Thrives In
by Jane Fletcher


I'm going to be talking about adventure-romance type plots. I then want to consider the role of the quest and the hero within these plots. And I'll finish by asking what consequences there are when the hero is female in general, and lesbian in particular. And hopefully I won't get too bogged down in abstracts along the way.

To start with basics - what is a plot? It's a good question, and the best answer I know comes from E. M. Forster, where he describes the difference between a plot and a story. So, to quote him:

"Let us define a plot. We have a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but their sense of causality overshadows it."

It is this causal chain, which links all the events in a story together that defines a plot. Of course, not all novels have a plot, and for others, the plot is almost a side issue. Some wonderful books are basically character studies, where virtually the only link between the events is the people involved.

However, to focus on the classic plot; this can be broken down into steps. Just how many steps depends on who you talk to, but most general agreement is for at least 3; the beginning, the middle and the end.

In terms of the causal chain, the beginning is the trigger. It's the intrusion of something, into a previously static situation, that sparks off all the events that will follow. It's the chance encounter, the emergency call over the police radio, the unexpected news that will change the protagonists' life.

The middle of the plot is the big bit, which contains all the twists and developments, but all of these events should still be linked by the chain of causality. And, ideally, there should be no holes, where event D does not follow on from events A, B and C. New information may arrive, but this should affect the existing chain of events in a coherent and believable way.

The end of the plot is the climax, where the chain of events is terminated, hopefully bringing a satisfactory outcome to all the issues that have been raised during the rest of the book.

I frequently see claims that there are only 3, 7 or however many plots in the world. And I always used to think "That's clever", mainly because I couldn't work out what these 3 plots were. Then I'd see the list and it had things on it like, 'boy finds god'. Now, to my mind, that isn't a plot. There is no time sequence and there is no causality inherent in the concept. It's not really a story, and certainly not a plot.

However, in another sense, there is only one plot - this is the quest. The causal chain of events charts someone's attempt to achieve something, and what that something is, pretty much determines the genre of the book.

To give some examples.

For the crime genre, the trigger, at the beginning, might be a murder. This results in the hero, the detective, embarking on the quest to find the murderer. The middle, will follow the steps in the investigation, until at the end, the detective succeeds, and captures the culprit.

For a thriller, often the trigger is an unpleasant event - an airplane crash, or a kidnap which results in the hero entering a state of great personal danger. The hero's quest is therefore the sequence of actions taken to counteract the danger and get back to a state of safety, which marks the end.

A romance will have as the trigger the chance meeting of two people who - even if they don't know it - are 'made for each other'. The hero's quest is then to overcome the various obstacles to love, until a state of blissful union is achieved.

Apart from murderers, safety and love, other common quest objects include; saving the world from destruction, achieving enlightenment, becoming rich, and killing a monster. Sometimes the nature of the quest may change, and what the hero achieves in the end is not what they set out to do.

For example, it might seem that the hero's quest is to defeat a certain evil enemy, but during the course of events, the hero discovers that this person is neither evil nor their enemy. The hero's true quest therefore is to acquire the knowledge to identify and tackle the real bad-guy.

It is also possible have the hero fail in their quest. Tragedy is a valid and underused outcome in modern fiction. It can be very powerful, and shake the reader's thoughts and emotions like nothing else. However, win or lose, it is important that plot shows the hero trying to achieve something worthwhile, otherwise the book is going to seem very pointless to the reader.

In a cross-genre novel, you have an over-achieving protagonist, who will be attempting to complete two interlinked quests. In particular, we are talking here about the adventure-romance, where in the course of resolving a dangerous situation, the hero will also win the heart of their one true love.

From the view of establishing the romantic hero, the dual plot approach offers one enormous advantage. The romantic hero should be a praiseworthy individual. The writer has to make the readers believe that this is somebody that someone else can fall in love with. It would be very hard to sell your readers on an useless, humourless coward as the object of desire. You can have a cutely bumbling romantic character, up to a point, but the interest of their lover-to-be has to be inspired by something more than pity, and you have to let the reader know what this something is.

But there is no point, as a writer, repeatedly telling your readers, for example, that character A is falling for character B's defiant courage, if character B never defies anything, courageously or otherwise. And so, the adventure plot is not just something exciting to be happening in-between the smouldering looks and fluttering hearts. It gives the heroes a chance to show what they're made of. Rather than the author simply telling the reader that the characters have all these wonderful qualities, in the adventure part of the plot the author can show the heroes doing brave, dynamic, intelligent and resourceful things, and ideally cracking jokes at the same time.

Rule number one for writers hoping to engage their readers - show don't tell.

So, who is the traditional hero, and what is his quest? Because, traditionally, heroes are men.

In modern adventure fiction, the hero is dedicated to the fight between good and evil. His quest is to overturn the forces of chaos and destruction. He is the defender of the innocent. However, this limiting of the hero's quest to helping others and doing good is a recent development - although, by recent, I'm thinking in terms the last few hundred years. It has been noted that Europeans work to a slightly different historical timescale than Americans.

Before this it was rather different. The traditional mythological hero's quest was always for self-fulfilment. The oldest written work of fiction we have is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written in cuneiform, well over 3000 years ago. Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king, and the story tells of his mythical adventures in his journey to find a magical plant that will make him immortal. He is not doing this for the benefit of anyone else. The enemies he encounters on the way are not necessarily evil; they just are not on his side. And, incidentally, he fails in his quest.

A more recent book is the Odyssey. Odysseus wants to get home. It's what he wants. It isn't for the sake of anyone else; although he hopes his family will be pleased to see him. When he does get back, he finds his home full of men who want to marry his wife. These suitors are undoubtedly obnoxious louts and freeloaders, but they aren't a problem to anyone other than Odysseus and his family, and nobody else on Ithaca is at all pleased when Odysseus kills them. But Odysseus is not concerned with righting wrongs. He just wants his home.

Today, we are so used to the hero as the champion of good, that it can be quite disconcerting to look back at these amoral heroes. Modern retellings often try to superimpose moral values that are not there in the original, or omit bits that are hard to square with our current ideas of what a hero should be. Consider the story of one Viking warrior, who as a child of eight got into an argument with an older boy. The young hero went off, got an axe, came back and split the older boy's head in two. For the original tellers of the tale, it showed that the hero was born a warrior. To modern readers, it shows that the hero was born a murderous psychopath. We can see nothing heroic in disproportionate aggression.

I could speculate about the cause of this change in perception of the hero. The rise Christianity may play a part. Jesus' teachings have a strong pacifist bias, and it takes a little bit of work to square them with condoning violence. The easiest way to justify a violent hero is to have an enemy who is not only evil, but also the aggressor. In fighting back, the hero then is merely refusing to give in to evil.

Democracy also changes the way we view people's roles in society. If you look at King Arthur, he may be fighting the enemies of England, but he is doing it because England is his. He was the king, he owned the country. If you read Malory, there is never any sense of Arthur defending the ordinary people. He is protecting his own rights, privileges and property. In a democracy this is no longer acceptable; hence we have the hero as defender of the weak.

I would add, that these last two point are just some vague speculations of mine, but whatever caused this shift in the role of the hero, it has resulted in the modern action hero being painted into a rather uninteresting corner. The trouble with good versus evil is that it's a complete no-brainer when it comes to picking sides.

There is no call for doubt, or self examination, or change, or growth. The modern action hero at the end of the novel is unchanged from the start, unlike the older heroes, who generally acquire a degree of self knowledge through their quest. Gilgamesh, the greatest of kings, discovers the limits of his power and that he can only be a mortal. On the other hand, Odysseus is offered immortality, and discovers that he doesn't want it.

Or, compare the Iliad with a modern war story. The Iliad is not about good versus evil. Neither side is in unequivocally in the right or wrong. The Trojans are as brave and virtuous as the Greeks, and Homer has no problem with giving names and families to the enemy warriors. The Iliad is as much about Achilles' personal growth as it is about his fighting skills.

The lack of growth in modern action heroes means that we have the literary breakdown into 'serious' stories, where not much happens but the male hero may change and grow, and 'adventure' stories where he doesn't. There are a few noteworthy exceptions, but generally, from start to finish, the male action heroes are tough, strong, impervious and emotionally self-reliant to the point of autism. They are the 2-dimensional stereotypes known as 'real-men'.

However, women aren't supposed to be like that. Women are supposed to be self-critical. Women are supposed to be open to other people's opinion. Women are supposed to be affected by what they witness. Women are supposed to make compromises. Which I would say is a good thing, since it makes them far more interesting to write about.

The female hero, even the female action hero, will be changed by the process of achieving her quest. The woman at the end of the story will not be the same person as she was at the start. She will have grown, and become a better, and certainly a wiser person. She is thus closer to the traditional mythological hero, in that her quest will take her along the path of self-fulfilment. Our cultural expectations of what a woman should be overcome our cultural expectations that adventure stories should be morally unambiguous.

To take, as an example that will be familiar to everyone here, Xena. In her, we see someone on the traditional hero's quest for self-fulfilment - which in her case is a quest for redemption. Fighting for 'the greater good' was her method, not her goal. The external battles she fights are less important that the internal ones.

Our cultural perception of what men and women are, make it not only possible, but essential, that Xena be changed by her quest, in a way that, for example, Indiana Jones isn't. It is not so much that Xena is striving to do something - she is striving to become something.

Or to consider one of the first lesbian action heroes, Katherine Forrest's, Kate Delafield. Delafield is a police officer - the classic modern defender of the weak and fighter of evil. However, in the course of her investigations, Delafield is continually reconsidering her place as a lesbian in the society that she is defending. She is growing in her understanding of the world and her ethical stance towards it.

And so, I'd like to conclude by saying that normally sexist expectations of women are at best an irritation, but the adventure-romance plot is one case where they work to the advantage of lesbians.

Emotional stagnation is not conducive to romance. However, in a heterosexual adventure-romance the man is unchanging and inflexible in response to the action elements of the plot. If the woman changes and grows, she will very soon outstrip her partner, which will make the relationship unbalanced. Any personal growth on the part of the heroes therefore does not happen in response to the action, which limits the integration of the two strands of the plot.

In a lesbian adventure-romance, both parties can change and grow in response to what they experience. They can learn from each other as they learn about each other. By the conclusion of the plot, neither will be the quite same person as the one who started. They will have become more worthy of each other.

This personal growth invites the reader in. The female action hero may be as tough and strong as her male counterpart, but she is never as remote or unknowable. The reader is able to empathise with the hero's internal conflicts, even as she cheers on the hero's external battles. This emotional bond between reader and hero makes for a more thoughtful adventure, and it makes for a vastly more satisfying romance.

At this point, the four panelists' comments were concluded, and we moved into a 45 minute Question & Answer session, which we wish we had taped as it was enlightening and entertaining. Next time we will get a video.

The lesbian pulp novels of the 50s and 60s are very difficult to find these days. One of the few places that carries any variety of the old pulp novels is BookEmBooks.com, which you can order from by clicking here:

 
An Historical Backdrop
Lori L. Lake
The Hero and
The Lady

Radclyffe
 
The Femme Heroine Archetype
Jean Stewart
...And The Plot
She Thrives In

Jane Fletcher
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