My 2011 contemporary fantasy Sarabande is a dark story because darkness and growth are essential components of a heroine’s journey.
The hero’s journey has gotten a lot of traction in novels and films. That motif had an excellent leap out of the starting gate when Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. Almost everything out there about mythic heroes stems from that book.
For years, the heroine’s journey was either said not to exist at all (because women were supposed to stay home) or that it was simply a woman following a solar journey like one of King Arthur’s knights on a quest.
While a male protagonist on a traditional hero’s journey faces well-established perils (dragons, Orcs, wizards) and, in the process, undergoes a great many gut-wrenching psychological changes and challenges, the female protagonist’s lunar journey is less widely known. One of the few mainstream feature films brave enough to seriously look at a heroine’s journey was the 2010 production of The Black Swan with Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, and Mila Kunis.
The Black Swan
Unfortunately, many viewers thought it was a horror film on drugs rather than a dramatization of a woman’s inner journey. In a post called Me and My Shadow, I explored the symbolism behind the apparent weirdness: “Black Swan film director Darren Aronofsky blurs reality in the movie by tangling up Nina’s inner battle with her repressed shadow qualities with her literal confrontations with the sensual Lily. By portraying Nina’s battle as literal, the film has many opportunities for dazzling and chilling special effects as well as an exploration of the old folktales about people being tormented by their doubles–or doppelgangers.”
I appreciated the film’s approach because I often approach my own fiction in a way that blurs what’s happening within a character’s mind with what’s happening in the so-called “real world.” My greatest challenge with Sarabande was that of understanding my own title character well enough to not only know how she would think about the darker aspects of a heroine’s journey, but to present those thoughts in a believable fashion to both male and female readers.
Making a Woman’s Story Believable
Before the novel completed its final edits, I asked two female readers if they though my character’s thoughts truly sounded like a woman’s thoughts. I was happy that they thought so. In her Smoking Poet review of Sarabande, editor Zinta Aistars said that while reading the novel, she had to keep reminding herself that it had, in fact, been written by a male author:
“Campbell describes a rape scene that is difficult to read, yet at the same time, earns my respect with his skill in describing this scene, and its aftermath on the woman. Indeed, I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the writing of a male author. It is rare to find this ability in an author to cross genders even in everyday basics such as conversation, mannerisms. To do so in describing the effect of rape on a woman’s body and psyche is nothing short of amazing. Campbell nails it: her anger, her pain, her humiliation, her ferocity that eventually takes her from victim to survivor to avenger.”
As an author, I will never go into those dark places again. For one thing, men do not really belong there. For a fire-sign Leo who almost always writes about and attunes to the light, the darker world of the moon is a rather cruel and unforgiving realm even though everyone who enters that world as survives it, returns with insights that are truly awe inspiring. Nonetheless, my next fantasy novel will be another hero’s journey!
Frankly, I was much more comfortable writing about Sarabande’s “real world” fight than writing about her thoughts. Goodness knows, I threw everything but the kitchen sink at this character: a mother who wants her to stay at home, a ghost who taunts her every waking moment, an attack on a lonely road, a male friend who doesn’t want to help her, a sister who humiliates her and then tries to kill her, a flock of murderous crows, and an evil wizard who appears to be impossible to defeat. On the other hand, there are plenty of lighter moments:
Throwing Mother in the Lake
“Control yourself, Standing Cat,” said Gem.
In the gathering celestial light, Sarabande saw that Gem had drawn her knife.
“Is this where you wish to die?” asked Sarabande. While her question was well measured, her tone was not.
Standing Cat looked over her shoulder, saw Gem’s raised knife, and screamed.
“Seth, help me. Seth, my daughter has gone mad.” It was scream that could easily curdle milk.
“I’m no daughter of yours,” whispered Sarabande. She grabbed Standing Cat from behind in a fierce hug, one hand firmly over her mouth, the other around her midsection. “Pick up her feet, Gem, will you?”
Standing Cat had more strength hidden away in her seldom-used muscles than Sarabande expected. But it was not enough. The two women lifted her off the ground and wrestled her toward the lake. She was like a fractious house cat resisting a bath. Her teeth tore into Sarabande’s fingers and her finely sharpened finger nails easily slit the damp fabric of Sarabande’s linen dress and drew blood.
Sarabande pulled her hand out of the old woman’s mouth. While she feared she might crack Standing Cat’s ribs, she didn’t care. She squeezed her all the more.
“Seth, help me, it’s murder. Help.”
Her banshee’s scream remained unfinished. She became airborne over Lake Gordon. For a small woman, she created a large splash, unsettling the pristine reflection of the reds and greens of the northern lights that filled the valley from the plains of Pyrrha past the leading edge of the Angel Wing into whatever worlds existed on the far side of the arêtes that formed the Boundary Wall.
Standing Cat sat, mercifully without words, and stared at Sarabande with an expression that was difficult to decipher. Later, she would wonder about it. But for the moment, her mother seemed a bit surprised, somewhat in awe, and wholly ashamed of the tall young lady in the torn white dress.
“On this night, I have blundered,” Sarabande told her. “Look at me here, torn and bleeding. You have told me a thousand times not to fight in my good clothes.”