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When I was young, there was one book in the house I loved more than any other. That book was Tales from Central Russia by James Riordan, and it contained forty-seven fairy tales that seemed to come from another world. A world of tiny villages and deep forests, where it always seemed to be winter and that winter had a personal grudge against you. Magic and Christianity existed side-by-side–every village had its priest, who was usually depicted doing something foolish–and the animals all knew more than they were letting on. Riders with spiked helmets cantered through the forest, bringing night behind them.

And when it came to boys and girls, the girls would end you. Nicely.

Let me explain. When I write a female protagonist, my goal is to balance the trifecta of “strong,” “female,” and “character.” “Strong female character” has become shorthand for “karate in high heels,” but a strong character who is also female is a different kettle of fish. I’ve always believed that if we want to depict women as equal to men, we have to embrace the whole spectrum of human behavior. A female character doesn’t have to be a GIRL POWER! ass-kicker any more than a male character has to be an emotionally-constipated super-soldier.

Yet the Strong Female Character(c) is at the same time a reaction to a perceived standard from days gone by: the delicate fainting flower, the princess that’s only there to be rescued. In trying to escape from one extreme, we risk going to the other.

When I get confused or annoyed trying to balance this all out, I find myself remembering the Russian stories from my childhood.

Of course, those fairy tales had their share of ladies who served to be rescued. Fairy tales are ancient survival guides in story form, and a princess needing rescue was a good all-purpose reason for the hero to go journeying and learn some stuff. But comparing them to the Grimms’ on the same shelf, what struck me about most of the characters was their ambiguity. Things seemed a little more fluid in the Russian stories, and the eternal roles of prince, princess, witch, and wizard didn’t act like they were supposed to.

Take Baba Yaga, the biggest and baddest of them all. Our Grimms’ Fairy Tales had the original unaltered text, but while witches abounded, they were usually nameless baddies and justly dispatched. Baba Yaga, on the other hand, was a distinct personality who turned up in multiple stories. Sometimes she was bad: in “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she plans to cheat and possibly eat the heroine. Sometimes she was good: in “The Archer Who Went I Know Not Where to Fetch I Know Not What,” she shows hospitality to the hero and helps him on his way. Sometimes the heroine is her granddaughter. She is ambiguous and mysterious, and we don’t know anything for sure about her except that she is not to be disrespected.

Or the prince? Ivan Tsarevitch as he was usually called, Ivan the Tsar’s Son. Ivan Tsarevitch was … nuanced, for a fairy tale prince. When he was frustrated or afraid, he might cry. Though brave and determined, he usually made dopey mistakes and had a fatal sense of curiosity: told not to open a door, he immediately goes and opens it to see what happens. In “The Frog Princess,” Ivan has been forced by his father’s capricious whims to marry a frog, and when the frog turns out to be a pretty damned good wife (smart, magical, capable), he doesn’t deny her positive qualities but instead struggles to reconcile them with the fact that she’s not human. And when he screws up, what saves him isn’t his strength or blue blood but a stereotypically feminine trait: kindness to animals. Multiple stories depict Ivan Tsarevitch sparing the life of animals who then return to help him beat the bad guy of the day.

Then there were the heroines. They usually had the expected fairy-tale virtues of beauty, humility, piety, patience, and so forth. But they were very, very far from being prizes to be won.

Vasilisa the Beautiful went into the forest to borrow fire from Baba Yaga, despite being absolutely terrified. Vasilisa the Wise had serious magical power at her fingertips and she used it, crafting a device that would not only get her husband to Hell but lead him back out. Maryushka of “Fenist the Bright Falcon” was an ordinary peasant girl, but when called upon, she made an impossibly long journey (wearing out three pairs of iron shoes in the process!) to rescue Fenist. Dobrunka of “The Twelve Months” was a survivor, working hard enough that she impressed the very personifications of the year into changing the order of the seasons for her. And Marya Morevna, a woman who by right should have a ten-book series of her own, was the Xena of old-time Russia. She was so tough that she slaughtered entire armies and locked up Baba Yaga’s male equivalent, a dark sorcerer with the magnificent name of Koschei the Deathless.

(Who then promptly escaped when the local Ivan acted like a doofus. Go figure.)

These aren’t complex stories. Defying a simple set of cliches isn’t unheard-of in children’s literature. But when I was six, I was fascinated with princesses that could be wise and strong and scared out of their wits at the same time. I liked princes that screwed up, bad, because they made impulsive decisions and later had to pay for it. And I loved Baba Yaga, who could sometimes be benevolent while still living in her dark cottage surrounded by a fence of skulls.

If you want to make a writer who likes damaged heroes, horror, and inappropriate uses of magic … read them fairy tales. The good stuff, the kind with skulls in it.

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