Revivify: The Gothic Heroine

Hello, everyone! We’re between batches on a Friday again, so before I return to working on The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear, I wanted to try this new class of article out and see whether there’s demand for it. It’s like the Wheel of Archetypes which scholars say spun for a brief time during the Non-Sparkly Era, but, er, less useless to both other writers and to general audiences.

In short, I’m to take a long look at a character archetype or type of story that’s fallen from grace, examine why I don’t think it works in shorter terms, and then see if I can’t breath some life back into it. If this finds favor with you fine readers, then I should like to do more of these in future days. Let’s introduce our first guest.

I said, let’s introduce our first guest!

Damnation, where has that fool girl run off to? I apologize, dear readers, it appears the Gothic Heroine will not be joining us for supper at this time. I don’t understand why a young woman with such great promise insists on poking her nose into the old catacombs. It’s not as if the poor guardsmen can withstand her wiles long enough to keep her out, they’re just young lads themselves. Why she won’t calm herself and settle down with that lovely Lord Montworth, I don’t understand–

–ahem. Excuse me. Citing the components of the Gothic Heroine appears to have caused me to vomit all over my gown. Let’s break off the narrative approach, even if I must admit I was having a tad too much fun with it, and offer a direct summary of the key points.

The archetypal Gothic Heroine was a young woman of noble birth who, surprise surprise–this archetype does come from the late 18th Century, after all–existed primarily as a goal for the Gothic Hero to achieve. Rescuing her was often a key point of his job. Given the kind of women we generally discuss on this blog, you can guess how well that’s going to go over with me.

Now, there’s a final key point: the Gothic Heroine’s frequent obsession with the occult, the otherworldly, or some other dark secret. Seeking this secret generally led to the loss of the Gothic Heroine’s innocence and a considerable amount of trouble befalling her. There‘s something we might just be able to keep!

Obviously, the original Gothic Heroines were a direly unsubtle form of social programming intended to indicate to young women that they should stay in their place and let their men take care of them. This is something of a non-starter for us here at the Northborn Sword school, and we will be disposing of this nonsense forthwith.

Let’s move into our fixes then, shall we? Ah, goodness me, your headmistress has forgotten something, it seems–a new name! Well, it has been two hundred and some years since the archetype’s zenith, so why overcomplicate matters; let’s call her the Neo-Gothic Heroine.

Look, just… just don’t think too much about the fact that Neo-Gothic architecture came to prominence during the same period as the original Gothic Heroines, please? Let me be a little silly.

The defining principles of the Neo-Gothic Heroine shall be as follows: she’s a woman. That is, my darlings, rather explicit in her name. However, if you wish to apply any of the principles we explore here to a male or non-binary character, just replace every instance of “she” with “he” or “they” and I suspect you’ll do just fine.

We’re all people at day’s end, no? Now, back to business: the Neo-Gothic Heroine need not be of noble birth or even any particular social standing, but will likely be a more effective character if she retains the propriety we associate with these things. Her conditioning to politeness and reserve will help to explain her rebelliousness even as they contrast it–I grew up acting very proper, and we all know how long that lasted during my adulthood–and the ease with which she is lured from the “correct” path.

I must emphasize: propriety does not mean being prevented from pursuing fields of study which would have been considered unfeminine for the classical Gothic Heroine. Depending on the story’s broad strokes, these might even be considered proper in themselves. The Neo-Gothic Heroine’s naivete is still a key character point, as is her obsession with dark secrets and the otherworldly, but in her these traits exist to drive her later character development and the course of her own adventures, not as hooks through which to draw in the Gothic Hero as a protector.

Ultimately, the Neo-Gothic Heroine’s journey is not one in which she learns the… ugh… “value of timidity and submission”, but one of disillusionment. In confronting the supernatural powers she seeks, she learns not that she is incapable, but that the naivete she carried with her, which others may call innocence, is a liability she cannot afford.

The exact execution here will vary with your story, of course, but it should generally be the case that the Neo-Gothic Heroine feels betrayed by the idealistic perspectives she was inundated by in her youth. It may be that an eldritch being’s brutal power completely overmatches whatever resources she may have, leading her to reject the whole idea of heroism because it usually hinges on the idea that morals provide more power than actually seeking power–look how well that turned out–or it may be that her own people ostracize her for engaging with the supernatural, showing the same cruelty to her which they claim is what makes the realms of night and fang so perilous.

Again, generally speaking, the goal here should not be for the Heroine to reclaim her innocence. There may be other things sacrificed with it, as we’ll explore in the second half of this article, which she should seek to regain, but blissful ignorance of the world and its harsher truths is anathema to her own goals; her story should embrace this as a core theme. I cannot overstate this: full-circle character arcs in which the protagonist is told their journey was realizing that they didn’t need to go on a journey–see also: every young male fantasy protagonist of the past thirty years–are the worst plague ever to strike the craft.

However, it’s possible that in rejecting that childish soul-baggage, the Neo-Gothic Heroine also discards traits which are genuinely worthy: kindness, patience, an open mind, and so on. Depending on how complex a character arc you wish to create, she might go through multiple stages of disillusionment, becoming ever-more conflicted about her place in the world, the nature of good and evil, and so on.

I expect this arc will resonate with many readers for generations to come; our present era has been a masterclass in disillusionment. Where do you wander now, fellow children of the nineties? What has become of your dreams? Is it the same desolation which became of mine?

As I said, most resonant.

What of the Gothic Hero, you might ask? If you do not, I will discuss his Neo-Gothic Reincarnation briefly in any case. His role is no longer to rescue the Heroine, but neither should he be useless. We can go ’round and ’round about male insecurity and the like, but such discussions are less important than not having a useless character. If he’s to be in the story at all, he should absolutely serve a purpose. That purpose might be to cause more trouble, of course!

We’re speaking generalizations and that never makes things easier for anyone, so how about some examples?

For one, a certain Gratai Lin is a Neo-Gothic Heroine. However, I’ve written at considerable length about her and will continue to do so. That most demanding woman already gets a quartet of books to herself; let’s allow others the center stage, no?

Outside my own work, and with the forewarning that it is a sexually explicit comic, InCase’s ongoing series The Invitation features the characters of William and Annie. It’s a very obvious and exceptionally kinky callback to the Gothic novels of old by way of role-reversal, with some Lovecraftian overtones thrown in for good measure.

Annie has all the requisite traits to be a Neo-Gothic Heroine–a veneer of propriety disguising extreme discontent with the society which inflicted such rigid structure on her, for a start–but I can’t quite call her one because it’s William whose obsession with the search for real magic leads them both into the sexy, eldritch clutches of an entity known only as The Master.

If you’re looking for titillation, excellent lore, or both, I suggest looking there. For this article’s purposes, however, we need look no further than the first deliberate Neo-Gothic Heroine I devised, my very own Ermina von Schebel–an NPC in my primary campaign setting and one of my favorite characters. For the second half of this article, we’ll go through a much-condensed version of her personal history and experiences up to the present; keep in mind all the traits mentioned earlier. You’ll find that Ermina exemplifies them.

I’ve mentioned her a number of times in the past, but I don’t believe I’ve ever gone into depth about Ermina’s character. Let’s correct that, shall we? Presently twenty-one, Ermina is the younger of the two von Schebel siblings. Her older brother, Gottfied, is nominally the heir to the family legacy–we’ll come to what a nebulous concept that has become soon enough–but while Gottfied is a wise and clever man, and the more imposing at first glance, Ermina has arguably become a far truer successor to their father, Kreisich.

By all accounts, Ermina’s parents were lost at sea years prior while voyaging to oversee the family’s main holdings; she was just four years old at the time. Thus, her childhood was shaped almost entirely by her grandmother, the ruthless Adamant Duchess Wilhelmina von Schebel. While loving in her way, Wilhelmina was also a strict disciplinarian who did her utmost to keep Ermina busy enough that her granddaughter couldn’t get herself into trouble.

The girl’s lessons ranged from archery and swordfighting to political intrigue and espionage. In her free time, Ermina took what solace she could from studying music, especially the violin, dance, song, and cooking.

Combined with her considerable beauty, it must be admitted Ermina grew into a most enchanting young woman. Despite this, her life was a lonely one; though her family lived as expatriates in the sprawling port-city of Gran Xandria (a city from a friend’s campaign setting, where Ermina and many of my other characters first developed), and were rightly regarded as among the uppermost levels of the city’s nobility, Wilhelmina made it difficult for Ermina to meet friends, and nigh impossible for her to keep them.

Kind, naïve due to her seclusion, and full of energy, Ermina found this lifestyle unbearably stifling and came to long for excitement. The young Lady did, however, amuse herself by sneaking out sometimes to the estate of the Chenester family, where she masqueraded as a “simple” cook. She grew quite skilled in this game, and but for a shift in circumstances, it might have been a very long time before her grandmother discovered her misbehavior.

A young knight by the name of Lloyd von Schtauffen was invited into the Chenester estate for dinner, and you already know part of how this ends. They were smitten with each other, a bond only deepened when they discovered a mutual admiration for the swordmaster Salle Norza, and for some months, a happy courtship ensued. Wilhelmina deemed that the knight was himself too innocent and pliant to be a threat to her granddaughter, and sanctioned it.

It eventually came to pass that Lloyd emerged–through a peculiar series of events–as champion of the First Gran Xandrian Passage of Arms–and during the celebrations immediately afterward, it all fell apart. While a liberal woman in nearly every regard, Ermina had and retains two unimpeachable rules with regard to courtship and romance: she is only interested in men, and she requires monogamy.

Young Lloyd was polyamorous, and did not consider the possibility that his highborn Lady might not be. Ermina, meanwhile, took his chivalric pledges of love and faithfulness to connote exclusive love and faithfulness. Lloyd did not consider a celebratory tryst with a lovely bard in violation of his oaths. As the Grand Champion, he was under considerable scrutiny, and thus, news of these events soon reached Wilhelmina, who in turn informed Ermina. The young Lady von Schebel did not agree with Lloyd’s interpretation.

An aside: Lloyd was a player character and self-insert of this first campaign setting’s primary DM. Despite this, he generally came across as I’ve described him–a kindly but oblivious dolt–and it remains one of the cruelest ironies of Ermina’s life that the first blow to her bright-eyed naivete came from the character who most deeply shared it. There was no villain to rail against, no evil to punish for this. Just mutual, mutually-undeserved pain.

Returning to our tale, Ermina and Lloyd’s courtship ended soon after in spectacular fashion, with a much-distraught Ermina hurtling through the von Schebel estate until she entered the old sections–sections long sealed off. There, she discovered that her parents had not died at sea; the old sections were marked by fiery gouges in the walls and ancient blood splatters. In a once-elegant bedroom, she found a mattress and frame sheared clean in two; here, her grandmother and Ermina’s own repressed memories revealed the truth.

Her father, Kreisich, was a great warrior and administrator; during his scant appearances at home, he was a good if somewhat reserved father. Yet, he was also a neglectful husband, and in time his wife, Lady Marianna von Schebel, turned to a paramour to fulfill her emotional and, eventually, sexual needs.

Kreisich, as brilliant as either of Wilhelmina’s sons, was bound to find out. When he did, he arranged a deception to convince Marianna that he was departed on another long trip. Then, clad in his adamantine armor, wielding his dread flamberge Hellfire Sovereign, he tore his way through the manor and slaughtered the lovers with a single sweep. After that he killed any guards who tried to stop him and fled into the night. What became of him after, none could then say.

This was the truth Wilhelmina unfolded at last, and which Ermina was left to simmer over after sending Lloyd away.

Fate was hardly through toying with Ermina. Some days later, while strolling through Gran Xandria’s sprawling markets with none other than Salle Norza, Ermina witnessed the swordmaster fight off a group of assassins commissioned by the city’s corrupt guilds. More accurately, Salle eviscerated them in a shrieking fury, and visibly enjoyed doing so. For Ermina to know that her childhood heroine taught and practiced a killer’s arts had been one thing; to see Salle use them against other humans, and with such relish, was devastating.

Ermina fled the scene, and would not see Salle again for many months. She led an abortive attempt to destroy the ancient mage-king Hilod, Who Forged Chains For Death, but was forced to turn back in humiliation as Hilod’s fearsome power became clear. She regained her stride, somewhat, by a bizarre romance with a psionic known to her as Devlin Ross–in truth a powerful fey trapped in a human body, who had no memory of his status.

Along with others, she and Devlin played their part in thwarting the manipulative Guildmaster’s final, crazed gambit: to steal the entire city of Gran Xandria and seal it in a pocket dimension as a rebellion against the gods themselves. Then, however, the world broke; the veil between Ermina’s home universe and another tore asunder, and through it went Ermina, and Devlin, and many of their friends.

In a cruel twist of life-narrative synchronicity, while I’d always planned for Ermina to embody the Neo-Gothic principles discussed above, this last scenario wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation. It was the in-universe explanation for taking some of my favorite characters, and those of a then-friend, with me when I left the group and campaign setting Ermina and the others were created to participate in.

Be that as it may, things seemed stable for a time on the other side–perhaps a month or so. Ermina took a leading role in organizing the refugees on this new world, which they soon learned was called Creation’s Fringe, and through the efforts of Devlin and others, she found a promising new home in the ancient fortress of Selmengwacht–at the time, one she intended to keep stewardship of so that her adventurous friends would have somewhere to rest their feet between quests.

Then, without warning, without a chance to say goodbye, in a single cobalt rending, Devlin disappeared. Ermina was left heartbroken, again, and spent the better part of the next month barely eating, endlessly playing the violin her lost love gifted her. So fierce was her denial, her despair at the reality in which she found herself, that she became a psionic. Yet even with this power, she could undo none of what had transpired.

Another explanation: Devlin was a player character run by a former friend. We split over irreconcilable political differences, but of course I as a writer felt I still had to play out the consequences. We were playing in my own system, SpiralBrew; under its rules, any sapient character with a soul may roll up to three times to unlock psionic potential provided the DM believes they have sufficient impetus to do so. Only a Natural 20 is a success.

Three failures mean the character is locked for some unknown reason, and can never become a psionic except by special exemption. This whole sequence of events was the player’s idea to begin with, with Devlin being excited–in his lovably fey way of expressing it–to help his lover become a psionic. Of course, it was only on Ermina’s third, final attempt, taken in the aftermath of our falling out and the in-game tragedy required to explain it, that Ermina finally succeeded her roll.

I half-wish I was inventing all this; it was as if the dice themselves wanted to make this whole scenario as painful for both Ermina and myself as possible.

Thus it comes to pass that Ermina von Schebel, a woman once determined not to become as hard-hearted and calculating as her grandmother, instead shifts into the elder von Schebel’s second coming. The Countess of Selmengwacht is a dour woman; cold, ruthless, and ever-scheming. Her knight-retainers, the legendary Brazen Pates, whisper among themselves that there no longer seems any limit on the lengths Ermina will go to in her quest for power, or perhaps for control: control, that she need never turn her back on a world she no longer trusts not to plant a dagger in it.

I apologize for the sheer length of the recap, but once I got started I felt I must see it through. What happens for Ermina now? Well, she’s a major NPC in a campaign setting, so that’s not entirely in my hands. Ideally, I hope that she’ll come into contact with a party of player characters who help her recover her balance. This is the path to the theoretical ideal Ermina: retaining her kindness, joy for life, and high energy, but now equipped with the skill, power, and discipline to protect those things both in herself and others.

Alternatively, we could end up with a nightmare scenario in which Ermina is pushed and tormented until she becomes an anti-villain, a plotline I would still enjoy because I am an utter, unsalvageable masochist. I don’t think that’s likely, but it could certainly happen.

That said, you can see it all, can you not? The early naivete coexisting with the early skills needed to survive and the character hooks for later growth, the obsession with supernatural powers which could be Ermina’s salvation or her destruction, and the long barrage of disillusioning blows which forced Ermina’s character to develop. A fully-realized Neo-Gothic Heroine–or Anti-Heroine, perhaps. Again, there’s much left to be decided.

I hope all this has spurred some interest in this character archetype, not to mention this potential run of articles as a whole. As always, please do tell me your thoughts in the comments, leave a like, and share this post wherever you believe it might find favor. Oh, and you might follow me on Twitter if you were looking for a day-to-day dose of yours truly. Farewell for now, readers mine!

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