Middle Aged Women Characters?

Denise Tanaka

Denise RobargeTanaka
Jun 2, 2006
San Jose, CA
I attended the BAYCON convention in the San Francisco Bay Area (USA) this weekend, and I suggested/moderated one of the panels. The topic was: Wonder Woman After 50, or, mom are you too old to dress up in silly costumes? It turned into a very lively discussion of age-ism in comics, movies, t.v., etc. I was in costume as General Leia Organa and mentioned how refreshing it was to see Carrie Fisher reprise her role.

Are there examples in fantasy or sci-fi literature that go against the mainstream Hollywood or Anime ideal of women? Maybe I don't read enough, but my impression is that a lot of SF/F heroes and heroines are youthful. Are there any strong female characters in the 30 to 60 age range who are forceful POVs?
Nathan Lowell has a fantasy novel about a middle aged woman that gains magic after menopause, i cant remember the title, but i enjoyed the book!
I can think of a couple obvious examples in mainstream/popular fantasy: There are several such characters in Harry Potter, although none are POVs (McGonagall, Sprout, etc). In ASoIF most of the female characters are quite forceful and strong, although I don't know all their ages... Brienne of Tarth and Cerci Lannister (both POV) come to mind as particular powerful and older women (probably closer to 30 than 60). Olenna Tyrell is not a POV but she is closer to the 60 side and tough as nails. In LoTR you could point to some of the elves I suppose, but non POV. In Sanderson's Stormlight archive Jasnah Kholin (infrequent POV) is ~30, and Navani Kholin (non-POV) is ~50, both very independent non-idealized women.

YA is a large portion of the audience for SF/F, so it makes sense that many books will focus on younger characters, as readers can more easily relate to someone of their own age. Also teenagers are particularly popular to read by all age groups, because emotions are so charged and everything is so dramatic... makes for easier storytelling. Not saying this is right or best, but it might at least explain the gap.
I have a mom in my books. (Well, I have 2 but one has the maternal instincts of a ... Actually, there is no analogy. She doesn't do nurturing.)

Anyhow.... i digress.

Cordelia Vorkosigan. Great role model for a sf woman (there are a couple of others in Bujold's books, too - Alys and her late-flowering relationship with Simon comes to mind, as does Ekaterin)
It's quite true that older characters in general are rare as protagonists. Older men often fill mentor roles, but again, these are support positions. I haven't read any, but I hear Lois McMaster Bujold has one or more novels with older female leads under her belt: Best Lois McMaster Bujold fantasy?
Tenar is the main (maybe the only, I can't recall) POV in Tehanu, by Ursula K Le Guin.
I can't think of many POV characters off the top of my head. There's the Spider in The Lies of Locke Lamora, who is a sort of female fantasy George Smiley, but she's definitely secondary. I always assumed that Offred from The Handmaid's Tale was over 30, but given her miserable life that might not be the right sort of thing. Actually, she does rebel against the regime as best as she can, so I think she would count even if she isn't very dynamic in the usual sense. Susan Calvin from Asimov's robot stories was almost certainly over 30, and a POV character. Would Jessica from Dune count? She has POV sections, but she rather fades away among the identical Fremen, like most of the interesting characters in Dune.

Oddly, films may well do better here than books. I always thought that Ellen Ripley was in her 30s, and Furiosa from Mad Max has to be 35 at the very youngest. Trinity from The Matrix always seemed a fair bit older than Neo to me, but then everyone looks older than Theodore Logan esquire. The cutoff point appears to be about 40 rather than 30, at which point you are expected to become immobile and wise.

Anyhow, I agree that this is a sort of dead zone for characters. It's not so much that characters aren't pretty enough to be in a book, I suspect, as that they're just too old to be allowed to do anything except have children and stay put. For what it's worth, I've written three older POV women, although only one of them has seen print.
Sheri S. Tepper - Marjorie in her book Grass. Fantastic character and fantastic book. I can't remember exactly how old she is but old enough to have adult children.

Dora in Tepper's Family Tree is another good one - I'm not sure how old she is, but she comes across as about forty to me. She's got a responsible job - police officer - and she's just left her husband, and she's basically a steady, middle aged type of person, and a wonderful protagonist.

Both these characters are both frustrated by their responsibilities/families but also essentially responsible people, which creates an interesting conflict and in many ways makes them more interesting that younger protagonists.
A fair observation, though I can see everyone else has named a few exceptions.

Personally, I wouldn't be comfortable going so far out of my life experience to write for such a character, not because it could be 'weird' for a guy in his 20s to write from such a perspective, but because I don't feel like I could do it justice. Maybe when I'm older. If, however, I realise I can work an older woman into any number of my future outlines - and make it work in a meaningful way - then sure, I'll try it.
I can think of a bunch of movie/TV ones. Laura Roslin in Battlestar, Clarke's mum in the 100 (can't remember her name, can't be bothered to Google it), Xena ??? She's easily 35. Helen Mirren and Cathrine Zeta Jones in RED/RED2, Jean Grey in X Men, Eva Green in Penny Dreadful. Judy Dench as M in Bond. Not all are 100% POV characters but they are all strong ass-kicking characters in their own way.

Less so in books though.
I have a short story with a fantasy element due to be published in January 2017. The story dynamic is between a middle aged woman and a much older woman. I watched (and helped when I could) my mother care for my 97 year old grandmother until her death (let's just say that she was a very strong character). The experience helped immensely when it came to writing.
Bujold again, but in fantasy: Ista in 'Paladin of souls'. Forty or so, and undergoes as much change as one of your immature, probably not out of teens yet ordinary heroes. Even Heinlein, criticised as he was for his female characters, with a tendency towards very young protagonists (possibly due to his juveniles novels) has some mature main characters - I would start with Hazel, in 'Space Family Stone' and add both 'the Number of the Beast' (Hilda) and "The Cat who Walked through Walls'.(Gwen Novak)

McCaffrey's heroines might start young, but after a few sequels achieve the required maturity, and military SF has a number of more seasoned POVs - if only because achieving rank takes a certain time, and only writing about gifted privates gets extremely limiting. I cite specifically Elizabeth Moon's 'Serrano' series, or even Weber. Vonda N. McIntire's 'Snake?' Lots of mature female leads, and not all recent.

Obviously, in realistic mediaeval fantasy there are going to be fewer examples, as reproduction had such a predominant rôle in female life. And this was essential, with the high mortality (particularly in childbirth): when a woman passed her childbearing years, and could reasonably be expected to go heroing, she was essentially worn out. So only the juveniles, not yet in the breeding cycle, and the barren ones, had the opportunity to adventure.
In another post recently about older characters in SF someone mentioned Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon.
In that novel the character being somewhere near 80 years old was a definite plot point as it made her expendable enough that she's abandoned on a planet where the colony has failed and everyone is being relocated.

She's very much an anti-hero who ends up in some relative sense a hero by the end of the story.
Personally, I wouldn't be comfortable going so far out of my life experience to write for such a character, not because it could be 'weird' for a guy in his 20s to write from such a perspective, but because I don't feel like I could do it justice.
I have the same problem writing characters who are young men in their 20s!