I revised and reposted this from my other blog because it fits better here, where I write more about books. Last Summer, I hit a big birthday milestone — which I celebrated by hitting the road and traveling and camping solo down the coast. The trip gave me plenty of quality reading time in the hammock. I wanted to indulge in some fantasy books; perhaps ones that had solo female protagonists. But how many did I find? Zero, really.
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Last Summer (and I’m glad I went then before COVID hit), I spent a few weeks, mostly traveling alone and camping down the coast to celebrate a significant birthday milestone. This trip was escapist, as many vacations are; it was a chance to get away, challenge myself, be able to do things spontaneously — have an adventure.
Adventure. Maybe not a big one, just a little one, but that’s enough. I’ll read just about anything but love to indulge in a good fantasy novel or series. This time, I felt inspired to find some books with older female characters, maybe to motivate myself to continue seeking new adventures into my later years. I had put the very beginnings on a non-fantasy story I called, tentatively, “Millie Goes Mobile,” about a widow hitting the road in a VW minibus in the 1970s, somewhat inspired by a friend of the family who traveled around in one well into her eighties. But then I realized that at least the premise sounded slightly like “About Schmidt.”1
But, apparently, old ladies just don’t take fantasy adventures. When I started to think about older female protagonists in fantasy or sci-fi novels, my mind drew a blank. My husband is an avid reader, and he couldn’t think of any suggestions.
In fantasy, older women tend to be side characters: mothers, merchants, shopkeepers. Or they might be a strong family matriarch like Lady Olenna Tyrell from Game of Thrones. She’s fierce, but not exactly out on the road adventuring herself.
Since that trip, I’ve finally started making my way through the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. The Aes Sedai are very old, though don’t appear so, and are very powerful and adventurous, but still don’t fit the bill for the main protagonist of a story. 2
I think one reason for the shortage of older female characters as protagonists is reader interest. It’s a general rule-of-thumb in writing, possibly particularly in the fantasy genre, that you’re writing characters just a bit older than your target audience. This, of course, is a rule that is made to be broken — look at all of the Harry-Potter-loving adults — but, generally, a young readership is going to be more interested in reading about young protagonists.
Another possibility is that many fantasy novels have a medieval-era setting. Perhaps the characters just don’t live that long. In such a world, 40 might be ancient.
And, maybe there’s just some truth here. As I age, while my mind tells me not to slow down, my body is reminding me that I would have no chance of keeping up if I could challenge my former self of just six years ago to a race. Still, it might be satisfying to see the protagonist of a novel deal with hip pain at the same time she’s dealing with villains. Maybe it’s time for me to stop blogging and pick up the pen.
Patrick Rothfuss, the author of the must-read Kingkiller Chronicles, is one writer who is penning a notable exception to this lack of older female characters in fantasy with his Tale of Laniel Young-Again. Laniel is an older woman who sets off on an epic-fantasy adventure after her husband is gone, and her children are grown (see him read from it below). Precisely the type of story I wanted! Only problem? It’s not yet published.
My adventure last Summer was much less epic than Laniel’s. Nobody will write tales of my exploits, which involved bravely checking into B&Bs on a couple of nights instead of braving the scary campground. Nor would I want those tales told; they would be not only dull but embarrassing. However, I almost gave in to the temptation to purchase a ukulele at one point and write some of my own. The people of the campgrounds narrowly averted terrible fate.
But getting out, getting on the road, can make you feel young again. And, faced with not being able to get out, it might be nice to be able to adventure along with a fantasy character with which you can relate.
Did I find any fantasy novels with older female protagonists?
What novels, fantasy or otherwise, are available that feature older female protagonists? I considered Howl’s Moving Castle but rejected that one as the protagonist only appears old. She hasn’t had the changes incurred by a lifetime of experience.
The later books in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon may have been a contender. Claire is older there, and continually has adventures, though they fall more into the area of time travel, romance, and historical fiction than epic fantasy.
What were the books suggested by Twitter book bloggers? As I mentioned, they suggested some excellent books (and I’ve read some since then), but none were the types of fantasy I wanted.
Here are their recommendations:
The Mrs. Pollifax Series by Dorothy Gilman
Thanks to Ellie the Bookwerm for suggesting this.
Mrs. Pollifax is a New Jersey grandmother who, tired of the same routine and the garden club meetings (I’m with her!), decides to become what, once upon a time, she might have been — a CIA spy. The books are short and light reading but are extremely fun. The books were written in the 1960s and 70s, and Mrs. Pollifax reflects that era. Most grandmothers I know now don’t wear crazy flowered hats, but Mrs. Pollifax misplacing hers while she engages in espionage is a recurrent theme here. Fantasy, no. Fun, yes.
Now is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker
Thanks to Our Traveling Zoo for recommending this one.
The protagonist of Now is the Time to Open Your Heart is 57, and so fits right into the demographic group that I want. She leaves her lover and sets out on her own and encounters (according to the summary from the inside flap: “celibates and lovers, shamans and snakes, memories of family disaster and marital discord, and emerges at a place where nothing remains but love.”). I have yet to read this one, but it may be next up on my reading list.
Thank you to the Uncorked Librarian for suggesting Indelible by Adelia Saunders. I’ve been on a trend, it seems, of reading novels set in France in WWII, so this one fits right in. Its premise of a woman being able to see the lives of people written on their skin is fascinating. I’m probably reading this one on my trip, but the protagonist has two small children, so she doesn’t fit into the “older woman” demographic.
Bring Me Your Tales
Have you read any good books featuring an older female protagonist setting out on an adventure? Let me know in the comments! If you can find a fantasy novel featuring a female protagonist over 50 setting out on an adventure, you are honored above all others!
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- As an aside, for a little while, I was also playing an MMO and made my character buck the norm by being a tiny person with a grey bun and glasses. She was notoriously bad at healing but made excellent cookies.
- I’ve started to be annoyed by the characters in that series constantly ruminating on not understanding women.