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Martha Wells

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Older Women as Main Characters

I was talking to Sharon Shinn in email (whose books you should all be reading, especially if you like romance in your SF and F) a bit about writing older heroines. I'm trying to think of SF/F books with older women, say in their 40s or 50s, or old enough to have adult children, as the main character. I've done it once, in Wheel of the Infinite which has Maskelle (see icon) as an older woman main character. And Ravenna is an important presence in The Element of Fire even though she's not the main character. But my other female main characters have all been in their early twenties.

Part of this for me seems to be the idea that adventures tend to happen early in people's lives, if they're going to happen at all. Writing Maskelle as an older woman was a very conscious choice, that was sparked by watching a Jane Wyman movie made in the 50s. (In the movie, Wyman's husband dies, and her college-age children basically expect Wyman's life to stop, and do not react well when instead she falls in love with their young gardener, played by Rock Hudson.)

But I thought it would be interesting to ask people to comment and name their favorite characters in SF/F who are older women. I'm looking for female (human or alien) characters in their 40s or 50s, or old enough to have adult children or grandchildren.
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Bujold's The Paladin of Souls has a wonderful older woman heroine in Ista.

I loved that book, it's one of my favorites by her.

I second Ista. And Cordelia, naturally.

I also like Moon's _Remnant Population_. Company kicks colony off the planet, grandmother says no thank you, then she saves the world. But the "saving the world" part is much less interesting than the part where she figures out how to say "I'm a crone and I don't *care* what you think."

edit for punctuation fail.

Edited at 2010-06-14 02:22 pm (UTC)

Butterfly St. Cyr, in the Eluki bes Shayhar (Rosemary Edgehill) Hellflower books is, if I remember correctly, older and kick-ass and a lot of fun.

Oh, somebody down below was asking about the age of Swan in The Z Radiant.

Oh! I will go "down" and tell them. She's in her forties.

It's been a long time since I read any, but I think some of Barbara Hambly's books have older women protagonists. And I second Paladin of Souls...great book!

The book I'm writing now features a 42-year-old mom (exactly for the reason you said, because why should the kids get to have the adventures?), but I can't say when or if it will ever see print...

She's not fictional, but Chinese pirate Ching Shih (Cheng I Sao, Zheng Yi Sao, etc.) looks like she was probably 30-something when she became a pirate leader. Admittedly, she married a pirate leader in her 20s and was a prostitute before then, so she may have had adventures ... but the ones that she's remembered for among Westerners, which are an entertaining story, happened maybe between her 20s and 40s, and I think that's a notable real-life example to back up that adventures can happen to females even after they're in their 20s. ;)

As for fictional older females, there's former-Senior-Weyrwoman Leri in Anne McCaffrey's Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern. I don't remember her exact age (possibly because it wasn't mentioned?), but I have the impression that she was old enough to have adult children, though it has been a while since I read the book. And while hers was mostly a supporting role, she did play an important part in the conclusion to that story.

Oh, and I LOVE Kit Ping Yung in McCaffrey's Dragonsdawn, who has a grandchild who shows up in the same book, so she's definitely old enough. And she only, you know, engineered the dragons that drive most of the storylines of the rest of the Pern books.

There are older women in Terry Pratchett's stories, too. Witches and the like. ;) Now I really want to remember more...

Thanks for Maskelle, by the way. I'm not in danger of nearing her age yet, but I still like it when people who don't fit the standard mold have legitimately entertaining adventures. I usually identify with characters more the less standard they are, so she was refreshing. :D

Pratchett did the Granny Weatherax books, including Three Witches, which I really like.

And thanks :)

Personally, I'm a huge fan of Nanny Ogg- she's terrifying in a much more subtle way. :D

Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey.

Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet books have multiple POVs, but in most of them there's at least one awesome older woman protag. The first book in particular features Amat Kyaan, one of the coolest fantasy protags I've read in ages -- she's basically a past-middle-age Asian-analogue accountant but she KICKS ASS!

FWIW, I think that, while readers are more likely to accept an older man as a protag than they are a woman, there's still a huge bias against older heroes regardless of gender. (He said resentfully, having just finished a novel featuring a fat old semi-retired man as the main character.)

Yeah, I think that's true, unfortunately.

For main character the first one that comes to mind is Ofelia in Elzabeth Moon's Remnant Population. I can think of several secondary characters, filling the more traditional mentor function to the young hero or heroine but she's the only main character that springs to mind.

Ah, the commenting before reading other comments. There are many middle aged female protaganists in Eliazabeth Moon's Heris Serrano books, they just aren't the main character.

Edited at 2010-06-14 04:48 pm (UTC)

I think Heris Serrano qualifies; I don't remember her age being specified but she thinks of the younger adult characters as children.

I'm trying to remember the name of the Patricia Wrede book that starts with a woman coming out of retirement for one more adventure. Caught in Crystal maybe?


I agree that Heris counts (I think she's in her 40s), and so does Cecilia (70s or 80s, I think?), from the same books. She and Heris are really co-protagonists for the first books, and Cecilia positively revels in being a cranky old lady, at least at first. Heris and Cecilia also get points for being an incredibly rare female example of the common action-adventure plot "odd couple gets thrown together by circumstance, forms unlikely friendship, saves day."

I think of Heris as late 30s looking at the 20 year olds like kids, but she might be older.

Caught in Crystal is it. But she has younger children and I got the impression she was in her 30s. I *still* thought it rocked to have an older woman trying to figure out how to save the day and take care of her kids at the same time, and not automagically fail at one or the other.

Moon writes the kind of aunt I want to be. Seeeeeriously, do not mess with their nieces.

Oh, and another one that I think counts is Mary Griffith, from Kage Baker's The Empress of Mars.

Raven's Shadow/Raven's Strike by Patricia Briggs.

I have notes from a Wiscon panel on the subject somewhere.

Oh, that's right! I forgot about that one, that is a good example.

Oh yay! I have those on my pile of books to read.

Ista and Maskelle are definitely my favorites, but also of note are Teinar from Tehanu, Martha MacNamara from Tea with the Black Dragon (and Sara from MacAvoy's Damiano series, although admittedly she does spend most of her time looking young), and the narrator from Cathrynne Valente's The Book of Dreams.

There's also Jane Yolen's folklore collection called Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World, although that's not restricted to women.

I'd forgotten about Tenar, too, mostly because I remember her most vividly from The Tombs of Atuan. But Tehanu was an excellent book.

This isn't quite within the age range you specified, but one of the things I liked about Cherie Priest's Boneshaker was that the main character was a 35-year-old mom with a teenage son. Not over 40, but still older than the average female protagonist in SF/F.

I'm pretty sure Sheri S. Tepper has had some middle-aged female heroines as well, though I can't offhand remember which books had whom. And I seem to vaguely recall some of MZB's Darkover books did also, though often alternating POV with one or more younger characters.

in Tepper's Gibbon's Decline and Fall, most of the ass-kicking happens when the heroines are parents of grown children. The book does carry you through most of their lives, from college forward, but the adventures happen later. Also Marjorie in Grass.

And she's not the primary protagonist, but one of the pivotal viewpoint characters, Ronica Vestrit in Robin Hobb's Mad Ship Trilogy.

in Tepper's Gibbon's Decline and Fall, most of the ass-kicking happens when the heroines are parents of grown children. The book does carry you through most of their lives, from college forward, but the adventures happen later. Also Marjorie in Grass.

Ah, thanks. Clearly, it's been too long since I read them!

Yes, I liked that about Boneshaker, too. I'm more than halfway through the book now and still enjoying it.

Maskelle is definitely one of my favorites - ♥!

Also, the protagonist of Tea with the Black Dragon, a quirky musician who goes on a mission to rescue her daughter. And has tea with a dragon, too.

Marjorie Westriding in Grass, who as I remember it is the only human to have any sense and who realizes that hey, maybe alien creatures aren't just horsies for human colonists to ride.

And Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, of course! There's got to be more, though...*ponders*

There's some good suggestions in the other comments, too. I'll have to go through and make a list.

Nancy Springer's Fair Peril and Larque on the Wing would fit (though the latter is strange because Larque magically changes age and gender for extended passages).

Nalo Hopkinson has at least one in the Salt Roads, which is a multiple p-o-v book. And the protagonist of the New Moon's Arms is menopausal, but that one's still on my to-read shelf.

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I doubt Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle counts, although it was an interesting twist -- Sophie the old lady felt much freer to do, think, and be as she wished than the young twenty-something. But I have adored that book since the age of nine and am not an unbiased witness.

I cannot at the moment remember the age of Isabel -- protagonist of Louise Marley's Child Goddess -- but I believe she was old enough to qualify. Another story that does wonderful things with our perception of age and aging.

Ista from Paladin of Souls has already been mentioned. Jenny Cruisie has had a few older women in her romances, but you specified sf/f.... Only other I can think of offhand is Jenny Casey from Elizabeth Bear's Hammered trilogy.

*goes off to think some more*

I love your Maskelle!
older and of color!
I don't think I've EVER read another.

Will be reading some of the mentions in the other comments here... can't think of any other SF/F older women characters...

Miss Marple in Space? ;~)

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A few more women in speculative fiction who are in the mother-to-grandmother age range:

*Not sure how old she actually is, but there's Lady Jessica in Dune. She does have an adult child in the book(s), arguably. ;)
*There are a ton of older female characters in the Wheel of Time books. Of course, there are tons of everything in the Wheel of Time books.
*Dr. Maureen Robinson in Lost in Space — does she count?
*If so, then Captain Janeway from Voyager should also count.
*I also think Swan in Jessica Reisman's The Z Radiant is old enough to have adult children, or close. We could ask the author to make sure, of course. ;) I do like Swan.
*Oh, and has anyone mentioned Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter yet? Love her!

Almost all of the older women I can think of in speculative fiction seem to be supporting characters rather than main characters, though. Hmph.

Swan's in her 40s, yep. So glad you like her!

The main character in LE Modesit's Spellsong Cycle has grown children, and I think is in her fifties. Granted, she's magically granted youth at the start of the first book, but all that does is make people underestimate her. It never changes who she is in her head, and her love interest is an older man (who looks like a cross between Sean Connery and Robert Mitchum. Strangely, I think it's also one of the few books I've seen with a woman having a realistic, giggly crush and not letting it rule her every thought and motion.)
I don't remember which book of Shinn's I read, but I liked it a lot, greatly because it did have an older protagonist.

Yoshiko in 'To hold infinity' by John Meaney is that rarest of creatures, not only an older female protagonist, but also a believable female SF character created by a male writer. Gasp.

Wasn't there an older female protagonist in 'Mirabile' by Janet Kagan? It's a few years since I last read it, so I can't remember whether she comes within the right age group...

Yes, the protagonist of Mirabile was in her 50s, at least.

This is probably stretching it, but one of Sharon Shinn's own characters, Senneth from The Twelve Houses series, would have had a 17-year-old-ish child if he had lived. Senneth herself is in her mid-30s, I believe. I know one of the minor, although plottily important, characters is an older women with children and grandchildren.

I also believe Casey in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition is somewhere in her mid-30s. I'm almost positive she's not in her 40s. And I can't remember the name of the female lead in Bruce Sterling's Distraction but she's definitely in her early- to mid-40s.

I keep forgetting I wanted to add my share ^^

I haven't read it yet but the protagonists of Louise Marley's The Maquisarde should be an older main character

When Parisian flautist Ebriel Serique loses her husband and daughter in a terrorist attack, she seeks justice from InCo, the global agency that rules the civilized world, only to find her protest rewarded by imprisonment in a mental institution as part of a government cover-up. After a group of resistance fighters rescues Ebriel and introduces her to a movement known as the Chain, she discovers her true goal in life-the liberation of her world from a tyranny of politics and technology. The author of The Glass Harmonica weaves a complex tale of one woman's struggle against a corrupt regime. Set in the near future, this fast-paced, thought-provoking novel belongs in most libraries.

http://www.amazon.com/Maquisarde-Louise-Marley/dp/B000IOF2X8/

And there's the mother of protagonist Sasharia in Sherwood Smith's duology Sasharia en Guarde - she's an ex-hippie in her 50s and gets abducted alongside her daughter to Sartorias-deles, then she has to find her daughter again and help stop the bad guy from taking over the country.
I squeed over the first book here on Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com/review/R26V7S9FJJ2JX9/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

Late to this thread ... in addition to the Moon books already mentioned, in her latest, Oath of Fealty, one of the main viewpoint characters is Dorrin. I'm not sure of her age, but she was one of Duke Phelan's senior captains before he went off to be king (at the end of The Deed of Paksenarrion), so she's at least in her 30s and perhaps her 40s.

And I'm also a big-time fan of Maskelle and of Ista.

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