Questions About Medb
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
ike any author, Kevin L. O'Brien gets questions about his works, his characters, and his life as a writer. At his request, we have posted a list of questions he has received, questions that many people ask. If you do not find what you wanted to know here, please feel free to contact him directly. Maybe your question will be added to this list.
Click on a question below to open a hidden panel, then click on it again to close it.
How do you pronounce "Medb hErenn"?
This is explained here, but to answer your question, the name is pronounced "Mayv Hairrain".
Why did you create a female character?
I cannot say why I made Medb hErenn female instead of male. I have created several dozen characters in my writing career, roughly half of which are female. I can say I have a fascination for women, but I don't seem to be obsessed with them. However, since a male barbarian is the expected norm for heroic fantasy, I may have been attracted to a female character so as to create something different. And as I explained in the character profile section, the most direct inspiration for Medb came at the right time in my creative process, otherwise I might have gone with a more traditional male character. Or maybe not, since before I created Medb, I had already created another female heroic fantasy barbarian warrior named Cona, whom as you might guess was to be a female version of Robert E. Howard's Conan. Perhaps the reason why Medb took precedence over Cona is that the latter would have been too much like REH's Conan to be truly unique, whereas I could transfer much of Cona's abilities and personality, though not her history, to Medb.
As a man, how can you write from the female point of view?
This seems to imply that I cannot and therefore shouldn't try. Certainly men and women perceive the world differently, in part because of biology (nature), in part because of culture (nurture), but I have never seen any studies which demonstrate that our respective worldviews are fundamentally different. Also, it is conceivable that our brains may be wired in such a way that certain tasks are easier for one gender or another to perform, but so far all studies have shown that in those few cases where the differences in performance have been significant, they are still relatively small. And it is well known that physically men tend to be larger and stronger than women, but all data obtained from sports and the military show that when conditions are equal, with proper training, women can match men in strength and endurance, and sometimes even beat them. Also, the diversity of human genetics being what it is, there are often women born who are physically equal or superior to the average man just as there are men born who are equal or inferior to the average woman. The result of all this is I have come to the conclusion that there is only one kind of job that men and women were designed for, and that is fatherhood and motherhood, respectively. Otherwise the possibilities for jobs and professions for both genders should be wide open. The point is, there should be no reason to believe that, as far as intelligence and physical ability is concerned, I cannot know how a woman would think or react.
Now, some persons might acknowledge this, but then claim that emotionally a man cannot psychologically understand how a woman feels. There is some truth to this, but only in the sense that in the past, and to some extent even today, men and women were taught to feel differently about the same situations and events. All studies so far have shown that when men and women are tested for their emotional and psychological reactions, any differences, or lack thereof, can be primarily, if not completely, explained by cultural factors. In fact, the ludicrousness of this claim can be demonstrated quite easily. I remember a number of years ago a local ultra-conservative, reactionary, right-wing wako saying, with a perfectly straight face, that the natural reaction of a female fighter pilot to having a MiG on her tail would be hysterical fear. Yet by that time the military had already discovered that, first of all, men who are not properly trained or who are are not psychologically and emotional fit for air combat (or any form of combat for that matter) are just as prone to fear and panic as a woman; and, secondly, that women who are well-trained and are fit for air combat are no more likely to become hysterical than men. Anyone familiar with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, would know what utter nonsense this whole situation is. These women flew military aircraft, not on combat missions, but often in combat situations and in combat theatres. Of the nearly 2000 WASP in action, many found themselves under enemy attack at one time or another, but only 38 lost their lives. This is a testimony to the personal self-control and courage of these women under fire, and there is no evidence that those killed suffered their fate because they lost their heads and became hysterical.
Again, the point is there is no reason to believe that a man cannot reasonably know and understand how a woman might feel emotionally and psychologically, especially if he assumes that the woman has the same cultural education as he has. Besides, all evidence indicates that Irish Gaelic women of the Iron Age, if not treated exactly as equals, were nonetheless expected to be as strong and capable as any man, able to run their own lives without the need of men to help them. This would tend to suggest that Irish women would think and feel the way men would, if from a different perspective and with different priorities. Also, no one seems to be concerned about women writers understanding how male characters think and feel, so why the double standard when it comes to male writers and female characters?
Why does Medb hErenn fight in the nude?
The answer to that question is complex; it did not come about due to one specific influence. Kevin L. O'Brien believes the genesis of this idea came in the mid-eighties, when he was interested in role-playing games. In an issue of Dragon magazine, he was reading an article about creating non-playing characters (NPCs) when he saw an example of a female barbarian warrior patterned after Conan. She was described as being a master of armed and unarmed combat, and an image popped into his head of her attacking a troop of more civilized soldiers in a berserk rage. Since the popular notion of berserkers was that they fought naked, or at best dressed in the skin of a bear or wolf, his imagination made her naked. He is the first to admit that this image was mostly based on erotic titillation, but at the same time it fascinated him with its literary possibilities, because outside of softcore pornographic and sexploitation films, very few fantasy female warriors are depicted or described as fighting partially or fully nude, the artwork of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo being notable exceptions.
Even at that time, Mr. O'Brien knew that nudity in combat was a historical reality and a well-established custom among certain cultures, such as the Celts. Even so, he also knew there was no evidence that women engaged in nude combat, and very little that they even fought at all except as individuals, the Amazons notwithstanding. Still, there have been so many historical women warriors, even in ancient and Medieval times, that the idea of a female barbarian warrior did not seem farfetched. Later he discovered Greek and Roman accounts stating that Celtic women often fought alongside their men. He had also come to realize that in most Indo-European cultures, the deity in charge of war was usually female, and often was also a fertility goddess; this included the Celts.
Thus, it was that when he decided to make his fantasy character an Irish woman, he was predisposed to the idea of making her a fighter. His chosen role model of Medb of Connacht seemed to make this almost mandatory. Even so, there was no indication that the legendary Medb fought nude, or that any Gael did for that matter. One reason he decided Medb hErenn would harkens back to that female Conan NPC he read about years before. Having made her promiscuous, having her fight in the nude accentuated the erotic aspect of her characterization. Another reason was that, while Medb was not herself Celtic, she was being based on a Celtic model, and while the Irish may not have fought naked, their relatives, the Britons and the Gauls, did.
The main two reasons, however, mirrored the reasons that the Celts as a whole fought nude. The first was that their warrior code of honor demanded individual bravery and prowess with arms, and heroic feats. Celts seldom fought in organized, disciplined formations, even as warbands. Instead, they charged as an unorganized group of individual warriors and engaged the enemy in one-on-one duels. Personal honor required that each warrior fight his own battles, to live or die by his own skill, and he neither expected nor wanted help from his mates. Only after he had killed or incapacitated his opponent would he seek another. Sometimes, a warrior expressed this bravado by stripping naked, to show his contempt for both his enemy and death.
The second reason is that the Celts practiced psychological warfare (psywar). Before the battle, the Celts would taunt their enemies, insult and belittle them, and challenge them to duels as they boasted of their heroic deeds. Just before battle, they would raise a great noise as they shouted, sang, clashed their weapons against their shields, and blew great battle horns. They would work themselves up into a battle frenzy, often rushing about on foot or in their chariots. Finally, they would charge headlong into the enemy's ranks, screaming battle cries. The point was to use shock and awe to terrify their opponents and make them break and run rather than stand and fight. Part of this included stripping naked as part of the berserk rage.
Medb was born in the Bronze Age, well before the arrival of Celtic culture, when Ireland was occupied by the Tuatha Dé Danann, Fir Bholg, and Heidhbernigh. Though she would learn martial arts from the Danann, she was raised among the Fir Bholg and Heidhbernigh. All Danann warriors wore armor, but while the Heidhbernigh and Fir Bholg leaders did as well, the rank-and-file warriors did not, because they could not afford it. Instead, the Fir Bholg fought in the nude, whereas the Heidhbernigh fought naked to the waist. Both races also used psywar tactics, while the Danann did not. As a child, Medb came to admire the bravery of the nude warriors, and as she got older she appreciated the effectiveness of nudity as an intimidation tactic. When she learned Danann martial arts, she was trained in the use of armor, but found that her weapons' use was faster and smoother if she didn't wear it. And when clothing seemed to get in the way, she discarded that as well, adopting the psywar tactics of the Heidhbernigh and Fir Bholg as a matter of course. The effect her tall, massive frame had on her invariably smaller opponents was not lost on her, and she enhanced it with her druidical powers, and later her knowledge of sorcery and Faerie glamour. Her magical abilities also leant her some protection, by making her faster, stronger, and hardier than almost anyone she fought. And truth be told, she loved being naked almost as much as she loved sex.
As such, fighting nude became a habit for her, until it became an inseparable part of her personal code of honor. In time, she came to believe that anyone who fought her wearing armor was a coward beneath contempt.
Why make Medb hErenn sexually promiscuous?
I actually had a fan suggest that I make her a celibate like Red Sonja. I responded by pointing out that she wasn't Red Sonja, so why should I make her like that character? Still, I have to be careful here. I could claim it was a natural part of the personality and lore of her inspiration, Medb of Connacht, but in fact that would be a cop-out. Considering the other changes I made, I could have changed that part as well, but I chose not to. Why?
Well, I admit that part of the reason was prurient desire. I was fascinated by the mythical Medb's sexual prowess; it was one of the reasons I was attracted to her as a role model for Medb hErenn. However, relatively few of my females have ever been that promiscuous, though all have had healthy libidos, so I don't normally create nymphomaniacal female characters. It could also be argued that the stereotype of the male barbarian demands that he be sexually promiscuous himself; it's one of the reasons heroic fantasy characters tend to be larger than life (though it is by no means the primary reason, and in fact few male characters are as libidinous as Conan). Since I wanted Medb to be caste in that tradition, it seemed a natural thing. Besides, a highly sexually active woman who was not a prostitute or a priestess of a fertility cult would be fairly different (though not unprecedented; April Bell from Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think, Estri Hadrath diet Estrazi of Janet E. Morris's High Couch of Silistria series, and Thorn from Phyllis Ann Karr's Frostflower and Thorn, are forerunners). However, if we choose to be honest about this, Medb hErenn has such a strong, even overpowering, personality, that it would be out of character for her not to be highly promiscuous. In any event, I believe the point is that Medb is promiscuous, not for some sexist reason or to satisfy some prurient male fantasy, but because it is a natural part of who and what she is as a person.
Why make Medb hErenn a lesbian?
Technically, Medb isn't a lesbian, she is bisexual, but even that is not an entirely accurate statement. The legendary Medb of Connacht is believed to be a euhemerized local sovereignty goddess, meaning that she was once worshiped as the patron goddess of a particular region of Ireland. As a sovereignty goddess, she not only sanctified kings and led the tribe in war, but she also insured the productivity of the land and its people. In short, she was a fertility goddess, and fertility deities were concerned with the fecundity of everything, not just that of the opposite sex. In keeping with this, Medb will have sex with nearly anyone: young, middle-aged, or elderly; beautiful, homely, or ugly; male or female; only children are off limits. And while she is not technically into bestiality, she will fornicate with beings who more closely resemble animals than humans.
Isn't a voluptuous, promiscuous warrior woman who fights in the nude and has lesbian liaisons sexist?
Maybe, maybe not; the problem is, sexism is in the eye of the beholder. I certainly had no sexist intentions. I prefer to think of it in the same way as a fan described it in a letter: "It's amusing, in a way, because it inverts many, many years of fantasy fiction (good and bad) wherein women serve mainly as receptacles to mighty heroes. Now the shoe's on the other foot."
I hadn't thought of it in just that way, but he's right. Even the strong female characters tended to play second fiddle and inferior missionary position partner to the male heroes. There have been exceptions, but mostly from the pens of women writers, particularly feminists, and mostly for one-story characters. I should, however, clarify this by saying that it applies to the run of the mill speculative fiction writer. The exceptions that most people will think of are characters written by the more famous writers. Yet in many ways even these are exceptional, because they were often one-shot characters who were a rarity; these very same writers tended to use strong male leads in the vast majority of their works. Certainly, I tend to find stronger, more independent female characters in myths and legends, even fairy tales, than I do in speculative fiction. Medb hErenn may be the first modern fantasy series character to take the dominant role in a manner similar to Conan and other stereotypical male barbarian warriors; she plays second fiddle to no one, and prefers to be on top in all ways. If true, then far from being sexist, Medb hErenn may be an innovative feminist icon.
As a brief aside, anyone interested in seeing a compendium of both strong and dominant female characters should pick up a copy of Firebrands: The Heroines of Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Ron Miller. The book presents his portraits of over a hundred female characters from speculative fiction works. Though the book has been slammed for the quality of the illustrations (which are not as fine and polished as those of say Rowena Morrill, Boris Vallejo, or Chris Achilleos), its value is in its listing of non-stereotypical female characters and the text by Pamela Sargent. Additional female characters can be found portrayed and described in Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy, by Wayne Douglas Barlowe (text by Neil Duskis).
Isn't it true that you cannot copyright an historical or legendary character?
That is true, but Medb hErenn is not a legendary or historical character. You won't find anyone with that name in any of the ancient Irish sagas or in the history books. It is, in fact, the name of a fictional character I have created. My Medb is certainly based on the legendary figure of the same name, but only in part. This is explained in more detail in the character profile section, but here it is sufficient to explain that Medb hErenn is a personality distinct from the Medb of Irish legend, and therefore worthy of copyright protection. For more information, see this article on protecting fictional characters.
What is the purpose of trademarking her name?
This comes directly from an article on protecting fictional characters. One of the three things the author suggests writers should do to help protect their literary characters is to trademark their names. I have not registered my trademark yet, but according to this article, federal registration is not necessary to protect a trademark. It is, however, highly desirable, so I do plan to obtain federal registration as soon as I can.
Why are you spending so much time working on this website instead of writing stories?
Well, it is possible to do both.
In web design, the goal is to create an interactive website that is both entertaining and informative, and which places high in search engine results, preferably on the first page and ideally in the top five listings. This cannot be accomplished with static sites that never change, or with dull sites no one visits. Those are two major criteria Google and other search engines use to determine ranking: how often does the site change and how many people visit it. Any search for "Medb hErenn" will list the site in the top five results, unless a hundred other sites dedicated to her are created. The trick is to get a page-one listing when people are searching for "heroic fantasy character". That takes some effort, and unless you pay someone else to do it, you have to do it yourself. Yet even if you can place high in search engine results, if there is little of interest for people to see, you'll get few visitors, which will hurt your placement over the long haul. Making a site entertaining and interesting also takes some effort.
As for writing, the Medb hErenn stories take place in fantasy and science fiction settings; even the stories set in our modern world contain some fantastic element. That requires a certain amount of world building to make it believable. Many writers build their worlds as they write. This can work, but often the results are ad hoc and show it. Orson Scott Card, on the other hand, recommends that writers take the time to build their worlds before they start writing. In his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he states:
Good stories don't come from trying to write a story the moment I think of the first idea. . . . [A]ll the stories I was still proud of six months after writing them have come from ideas that ripened for many months — usually years — between the time I first thought of them and the time they were ready to be put into a story.
The "ripening" process he refers to often involves a great deal of world building — "outlines and sketches, maps and histories, jotted scenes and scraps of dialogue" — and he goes on to add that all this
is the writer's equivalent of what a composer does when he plinks out a new theme on the piano, just to hear it. He doesn't immediately score and orchestrate the theme — first he has to play it over and over, varying it, changing rhythms, pitches, key, imagining different voices and timbres playing the theme, imagining different harmonies and counter-melodies. By the time the composer actually starts to arrange and orchestrate the piece, the theme will have been transformed many times over. The first version is all but forgotten.
Whether you agree with Mr. Card or not, I tend to write as he suggests, by plotting and planning and testing and playing with the idea, until I have a story worth writing. While some of this occurs while I am writing, most of it happens before hand while I figure out how the milieu within the story works. In essence, this website helps me to develop the milieu that is the universe of Medb hErenn. While 95% of the information I formulate may never be used in a story, knowing it helps to create a stronger, more believable, world. And at the risk of sounding egotistical, I believe knowing it also enhances the enjoyment of the stories, and so I present it here for people to read.
Back to the Fictional Universe page.