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Know Your Lore: What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore?

Know Your Lore: What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore?
Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|June 24, 2012 4:00 PM
Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Between Rossi, myself, and those who came before us, there have been a metric ton of Know Your Lore columns. If you're wondering exactly how many, I suggest you take a look at our lore guide for a categorized list of them all. Occasionally, I'll go back and look through the list just to see what we've missed and what needs to be filled in or updated from old columns. And I've been looking at that lore guide and going over the things in it, and I keep noticing one really particular thing about it.

There are hardly any women on that list. There's a scant handful compared to all the other heroes and villains and history and everything else on it. And it's not that women don't exist in the Warcraft universe -- they're all over the place, honestly. It's that there is only a handful worth of them that have enough character development and story to warrant dedicating a column to them.

To which I say wait a minute, what is up with that?

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
The lamentable state of female characters

To be perfectly clear, this is not a case of there not being female characters. It's more of a matter of female characters that don't seem to have any development allotted to their character, and I can't really figure out why that is. Blizzard is certainly more than capable of writing characters with depth. Varian Wrynn, Garrosh, Thrall, Anduin -- they all have incredibly compelling stories behind them.

And we do have female leaders in Warcraft lore, and they should be taking a heroic stand, right? While you can point at Tyrande Whisperwind as a female leader, ask yourself what exactly she has done in Warcraft lore. What was her main focus in the novels she was written into? The War of the Ancients trilogy showed Tyrande stepping into a leadership role, but it also showed her as incredibly dependent on others around her -- in particular, Malfurion.

When Tyrande was introduced in Warcraft III, she was a hard-nosed leader who had little patience for Malfurion. Did she love the guy? Yes, she did -- but she also resented all that time he spent in the Emerald Dream and was quick to point that out at every opportunity. The Tyrande of Warcraft III was a survivor, a fighter, and someone far more steely than the woman we were presented with in War of the Ancients. And that, again, is understandable -- there were 10,000 years between War of the Ancients and Warcraft III.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
I was entirely willing to accept the Tyrande presented in War of the Ancients as a result. She was young, incredibly young by kaldorei standards, when she stepped into that leadership role. She was also approaching that end of adolescence when the question of settling down and choosing someone to settle down with was at the forefront of her mind. Tyrande was best friends with both Malfurion and Illidan, so there was an awkward kind of triangle there that had to be dealt with. Couch that in the middle of a war against the Burning Legion, and you've got an interesting story.

But when Tyrande was reintroduced in Stormrage, it was like seeing the Tyrande of the War of the Ancients trilogy all over again. Instead of more of that strong warrior we saw in Warcraft III, we saw a return to the Malfurion-obsessed Tyrande of War of the Ancients. As a result, it seemed like she had almost regressed in age between Warcraft III and Stormrage, which just felt really, really odd. Keep in mind this is all character development in novels. None of it was done in game. In game, Tyrande stuck to the Temple of the Moon and did, well, absolutely nothing.

Seeds of Faith was a short story written as part of the Leader Short Story series. Originally titled Tyrande Whisperwind: Seeds of Faith, it had its title changed to Malfurion and Tyrande: Seeds of Faith when readers rightfully pointed out that Tyrande did very little in this story -- the focus was almost entirely on Shandris Feathermoon and Malfurion Stormrage. The new title is, presumably, because Malfurion and Tyrande lead the night elves as one unit.

And this makes me wonder who, exactly, led the night elves and led them successfully while Malfurion was sleeping in the Emerald Dream? Because given everything we've been told about Tyrande, it certainly couldn't have been her. The Tyrande we've been shown hasn't appeared to be the type of person who could lead an entire race. What has been implied here is that Tyrande is not a leader unless Malfurion is there at her side.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
Barnacle characters

This essentially relegates Tyrande Whisperwind to something I like to call a "barnacle character," a character whose entire existence is dependent on and wrapped around the existence of another. That title isn't reserved for female characters, by any stretch of the imagination. There are just as many male characters who have been created solely as a companion, best friend or sidekick to another, stronger character. That stronger character is the rock the barnacle clings to; without the rock, the barnacle would wash away.

When you create a character for a story, that character has to have a reason to be there. If you make that reason solely based on the existence of a main character, the character you've created is automatically relegated to a sidekick kind of status. Whatever backstory the character may have, none of it is deemed important or necessary in the face of how they relate to the main character. In a way, it's kind of a cheap way to write a story.

Rather than create a host of strong characters with rich backgrounds, all you have to do is create just one. Everything else in the universe is built up around that one main character. Other characters aren't created with the presumption that they have their own lives. They're created by asking questions: Who is the main character's best friend? Who is their mortal enemy? Who is their significant other? Who do they go to when they are looking for advice? Those questions are then answered with a cast.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
When you go into character development from that perspective, you'll invariably end up with one main character who is utterly amazing and well-developed and a cast that falls flat on its face if the main character isn't around. What would Alice in Wonderland be if Alice weren't there to ground the cast and give a real counterpoint to all the silliness? Obviously, Alice in Wonderland is still a fantastic book -- but it is its own title, with a beginning, middle and end.

Let's look at the world of comic books for something that correlates more closely to what Warcraft is, an ongoing story with a massive cast of characters. What would Batman be if Batman weren't in the comic? Well actually, it'd be a pretty interesting title, because Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Barbara Gordon and the rest of the cast are all well developed. There aren't any barnacle characters in that ongoing universe. They all interact with each other, but they can exist wholly on their own.

That's the kind of character development I like to see. It's hard to do when you're working with a video game, but it's something that desperately needs to be addressed. We have stand-out characters in the Warcraft stable, but we have so many more that simply cease to exist when the main character is out of sight. But there's something really disturbing that happens in Warcraft when the barnacle character is a female one.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
The overwhelming disappointment of Aggra

Let's talk about Aggra, former Warchief Thrall's new main squeeze, introduced in the novel The Shattering. When Aggra was introduced, it was as almost a foil to Thrall, a character who was entirely unwilling to put up with any kind of deprecating self-pity the warchief wanted to throw out there. In fact, she was terribly quick to put him in his place, repeatedly, stating that he was in Garadar to become a shaman, and his status as Warchief had absolutely no place in any training he was trying to do.

And she was right. She was totally right, and as Thrall learned more, she pushed him farther along. I wasn't sure what to make of Aggra initially, but by the end of the book, I could see that there was a character here that had potential depth, and that made me happy enough. What made me happier was that she was a female character, which we don't see a ton of in Azeroth, generally speaking. Warcraft's got quite a few really amazing characters with a ton of backstory and potential development sitting around out there, and Aggra fell into that niche with the rest of them.

And then we had the Firelands patch and the quest line that led players on a merry chase with Aggra as she tried to put her beloved back together again. It ended in the orcish equivalent of a marriage, which is about the point my heart sank and I realized that whatever potential Aggra had, it didn't really matter -- she'd already been created as a barnacle to Thrall. The end of Dragon Soul confirmed this, when Alexstrasza revealed that Aggra was pregnant and therefore could fulfill her true purpose in the Warcraft universe: having a baby for Thrall.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
This is what sucks about female barnacle characters: They are generally created as a romantic interest for someone else. There is no other purpose to their existence. Their entire being is bent around this theory that being a woman means obsessing over that magical day in which they will settle down with some strong hero and have a bunch of babies. They are, essentially, baby cannons.

Vereesa Windrunner? Hitched up with Rhonin and had a set of twins. Alleria Windrunner? Had some emotional angst, hitched up with Turalyon and had a kid. Tiffin? Married Varian, had a kid, promptly ceased to exist. Tyrande Whisperwind? Tied inexorably to Malfurion Stormrage, and though they have had no children, Tyrande makes it clear that she wanted them. Aegwynn? Used a guy to have a baby in order to get out of handing over her power -- a different take on baby-having, but baby-having nonetheless.

Sylvanas Windrunner? Technically dead. Obsessed with procreation. Sylvanas actually stands on her own two feet, but her story is leaning more and more away from a competent leader and more toward someone who may just be a little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, if you know what I mean. Garona Halforcen? Had tremendous potential and was a pretty interesting character until it was revealed that she knocked boots with Medivh and gave birth to the savior of Azeroth as a result.

Look, there is nothing wrong with having children. My sister has four wonderful boys who I happily babysit at every opportunity. However, having babies is not the be-all and end-all of female existence. If it is, then there is no purpose for my existence, and I frankly don't buy into that at all. There is a giant chunk of life going on between being born and making more children, so why aren't we seeing any of that here? Why are the women of Warcraft apparently possessed with nothing more than the ability to create children and being relegated to that purpose only? Where is the rest of their story?

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
A shining exception

If you'll notice, I've systematically gone through and defined every female we've got on our lore guide with one exception, and that's because she's the one notable exception to this rule: Jaina Proudmoore. Jaina could have been defined as a barnacle character. The novel Arthas had her hopelessly dependent on Arthas Menethil and happily pondering the idea of creating dozens of little Menethils. But that fell apart somewhere in the midst of Arthas' madness, and that's when Jaina did something we rarely see: The barnacle peeled off from the rock and evolved into a rock of its own.

Jaina stands on her own two feet, and her existence isn't tied to anyone in particular. Arthas is dead, and while Wrath of the Lich King had her crying every other moment, that was understandable. Jaina as a character was peeling away from how Arthas had defined her and coming into her own. This is the Jaina Proudmoore of Warcraft III. Unlike the baffling example we got with Tyrande, we actually saw the development of Jaina between the events of Arthas and who Jaina was in Warcraft III. She had to come back and revisit that moment in her life in Wrath of the Lich King, but she came through to the other side stronger for the experience.

Jaina gets her own novel relatively soon, and her story is progressed in Mists of Pandaria. The woman who strives for peace and diplomacy learns that those two things are almost impossibly out of reach, and she is forever altered as a result. I am really looking forward to Tides of War, but I am equally dreading it. I'm afraid we're going to see a novel that ends not with Jaina standing on her own two feet but leaning on someone else. That we'll see a barnacle character created solely for her, a significant other for her to lean on. It is absolutely the last thing she needs, but it seems to be what Blizzard has decided female characters are for.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
How to write a female character

To make it perfectly clear here, I am not upset about this subject, really. I am not angry about it. I'm just baffled by it. Blizzard is perfectly capable of creating strong characters with a really compelling story, but it seems like that focus is relegated largely to male characters. What I'd really like to see is every character developed well, and I can't understand why that hasn't really been done yet.

I've had people ask me before how exactly to write a strong female character that has a lot of depth. And I've answered this before on Twitter, but it's worth answering here, too. There's a really easy way to make a female character who has a ton of depth and plenty of interest, one who isn't a barnacle clinging to another character, one who has depth outside of a main character's influence.

Write a character. Give that character a really good backstory. Give the character a totally grounded reason for existing and something to be up to in the world. Give the character an interesting history, a believable background, and a purpose for existence. Make this the kind of badass character you love writing more than anything else in the world.

Then make it female.

Know Your Lore What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore SUN
When you focus on gender before you focus on character, you lose the character itself. When you say "I am going to make a female character," your focus automatically turns to what makes this character female instead of what makes this character fantastic. Gender should never, ever define a character. A character should have all the reason in the world to exist before that gender is assigned.

If you do this, what you end up with is a character who is utterly human. Men do not sit around thinking about being men all day, nor do they indulge in the typical male stereotypes you see out there. Neither do women. Can you find examples of these stereotypes in society? Absolutely. But they are the exception, not the norm. The norm is just a person like you, like me, a person who wakes up in the morning, has some breakfast and goes about their day. A person who looks at their favorite video game and wonders why it seems to be next to impossible to find an example of a person just like them.

I don't know if there really is an answer to the question of why Warcraft women are the way they are. But with all the giant leaps and bounds in storytelling that Blizzard has made so far, it would be awfully nice to see them take one more step with it. And it'd be really nice to have more than a handful of really well-developed women to write about, when I look at Warcraft lore. Until then, I will quite happily keep devouring Warcraft's story, writing about the characters I love, and occasionally thinking about all the things that could be instead of the things that are.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.
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Know Your Lore: What exactly is up with women in Warcraft lore?