Five Real-Life Princesses to Inspire your Next Character
March 26, 2018
Princesses and Princes get the short end of the royal scepter. Blame it on the fairytales if you want, but we just don’t give them the same respect we give their family members. Princesses have ended up becoming a juvenile symbol. We associate them with little girls, pink, and make-believe. And if you overlook real-life princesses as viable historical characters, then think again.
The princess dilemma—and how we reserve them for adolescent audiences—has been bothering me, because princesses are just like kings and queens. Some of them do incredible things, others are crazy, but they’re all entertaining. Maybe Disney just gave them a singing-to-birds and pining-for-prince-charming aesthetic. But I assure you, Elizabeth Báthory was having none of that.
And Disney Princesses are great, but you’re probably not just here for the family-friendly themes. There’s murder, betrayal, heartbreak, and lust to be had, and Disney just pushes that under the rug and sprays the room with febreze. See? You can’t smell death anymore, just fresh linen!
So today let’s honor some princesses that didn’t get that wholesome, wholesome contract with Disney, and that you probably haven’t even heard of. And hey, if we’re lucky they might even inspire a character.
Khutulun (c. 1260-1306 AD)
Khutulun was a Mongolian princess and the great-great granddaughter of Genghis Khan. Naturally, we can already assume that this girl was one to be reckoned with. Now, for some quick background on Mongolia—they love horses.
In many areas of Mongolia, people are the minority. Roll this around in your noggin—for every 100 people, there are an additional 66 horses hoofing it around the countryside.
Khutulun loved horses. And she was great at riding them into battle against the Yuan Dynasty. She was an excellent warrior as well. For a princess with a lot of heads to lop off, marriage was kind of a concept she’d left in the slow cooker. At least, that was until she combined all three off her interests: romance, fighting, and horses into one intense competition that rivaled the WWE on all accounts.
She released a statement saying that she would wrestle any man who wanted to get punched by a Khan. If he won, he could marry her. If she won, she’d take his horse. Easy enough right? All you’d have to do was fight a girl.
And Khutulun fought like a girl indeed, defeating around 10,000 men with only her fists. She emerged victorious with an equal army of horses. And Khutulun did find love as well, but not with any man who challenged her.
Khutulun is an incredibly compelling historical figure. Was she really so confident in her abilities or was she afraid that she might lose? While Khutulun might seem like a fearless badass, there was a lot riding on her wager. If she lost, had a bad day, or was injured, she could risk losing and marrying someone she hated. Why’d she even do it? Did she like horses that much or did she have something to prove in the shadow of Genghis Khan? You might even think about the men that opposed her. How did they feel about losing? Maybe some sought revenge.
Chilonis and Arachidamia (Events took place c. 270 BC)
So our story starts off with a fellow from Sparta named Cleonymus. He was the heir to his father’s throne, but on account of his misbehavior, specifically violent and unforgivable behavior, he was not allowed to take the throne. Now let me remind you that we’re talking about Sparta here. Its safe to say that this guy was as fun as a box of nails.
His young wife, Princess Chilonis, disliked him so much that she resorted to sleeping with her great nephew. Things were pretty
messy for our boy Cleonymus, so he made his way to some buddies of his who were part of the Molossians, a neighboring tribe. After a few nights of drinking and feeling sorry for himself, Cleonymus and the Molossians ponied the hell up and grabbed their spears.
Now Chilonis wasn’t stoked to hear that her husband was coming back. She’d been having a great time with her nephew, after all. Unfortunately, Cleonymus’ return wouldn’t just put a stop to Chilonis’ paradise of a healthy relationship. No, no. Her husband wanted revenge on everyone who ever called him violent. He might of rethought his plan, but of course, hindsight is 20/20.
Chilonis’ longtime friend, Princess Arachidamia wasn’t up for the consequences of the King’s return, so she polished her sword and mobilized an all-women army.
While the ladies charged into battle, Chilonis showed her support for Arachidamia by tying a rope around her neck to use just in case the women lost. She never did use it, because while the army of women engaged the Molossians in battle, Chilonis’ great nephew and regular Don Juan, swept into the fight and killed Cleonymus by stabbing him in the rear end.
Our two Princesses take very different roles in this story. Chilonis is passive. She waits for almost everything to get fixed for her, even threatening to end her life if her husband returns. Arachidamia is active. She starts an all-woman army and really messes up Cleonymus’ day. Protagonists that react differently to conflict is always an interesting juxtaposition. Not everyone reacts in the same way. Sometimes characters don’t even want to deal with their own problems. How does that affect the conflict and how does the conflict, left unmended, affect them?
Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614 AD)
Elizabeth Báthory was not a nice person. In fact, she was a really bad person. I don’t like to extend judgement like that, but when you’re responsible for the murders and associated torture of six-hundred and fifty people, then I guess I can say whatever I want.
Elizabeth wasn’t a princess, but she was the niece of Stephan Báthory, who was the King of Poland at the time. They called her the Blood Countess, one of the most prolific female serial killers
Elizabeth had a much higher station than her husband who was just a baron. He went away to war, leading the Hungarians against the Ottomans as Chief Commander. In his absence, the estate’s success was all in the hands of Elizabeth and she was a little stressed out. To get her way, she would tell those around her “You will find a man in me,” which was her cuddly way of saying that there wasn’t an ounce of nurturing, caring, or loving inside of her and that she was willing to kill anyone.
And surprise! She really was. People could only pin thirty murders on her, but the fact that six-hundred and fifty women (all servants) went missing at her estate raised some questions. I won’t go into the things she did, but I will tell you that after she was finished, other servants would have to come into the room and soak up the blood with ashes. And if that’s not enough of a story for you, her family was crazy messed up. Like, Borja-crazy.
There something really fascinating about writing about a villain, because justifying their behavior is never as easy as saying “She did it because she loved being evil!” Everybody thinks they’re the hero of their own story. They have motives. Sometimes they’re crazy, sometimes the logic is flawed, but to them it’s completely justified. As a writer, how would you even begin to justify Elizabeth Báthory’s behavior? If you’re interested, check out Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which she heavily inspired.
Princess Alfhild (c. 650 AD)
Did Princess Alfhild exist? Well, we don’t know. Whether she was fact or fiction, what we do know is that her story was embellished.
Our story begins in Scandinavia where Princess Alfhild is wrapped up tight like a burrito in several layers of fabric because her father Siward, King of the Goths, is incredibly paranoid about her purity. As a way to keep her safe, he gives her a live viper to raise, which is so goth. He has one stipulation though–if a man can kill the viper, then he can have Alfhild.
No one wants to try to kill the viper. It’s just too much work. But Prince Alf, son of the King of Denmark doesn’t doubt his viper-slaying abilities for a second. So he goes to the castle, marches into Alfhild’s bedchamber and stabs the viper in the mouth, right before it lunges at him.
After this, King Siward is a big fan of Alf. Not only is Alf a good looking kid, but he can kill a snake, too. Everyone is excited that Alfhild finally found a nice boy to get married to, but now that the fabric isn’t covering her face anymore, she isn’t all that impressed with him.
Alfhild leaves right away. She dresses as a man, steals a boat, and sails around collecting women to join her crew. Apparently, she sucked at sailing and fighting, but because of the way she managed her crew, she became an incredibly successful pirate.
Alf is upset and goes after his fianceé. A few years later, he finds her and goes into battle with the crew. Most of the women on her ship die in the battle, but Alf is really happy to see Alfhild again.
The ending isn’t happy for Alfhild. Alf makes her change back into woman’s clothes, because you know, pants are gay. Then, all that’s said is that they have a daughter together. But if Alfhild didn’t like him a couple years before when he killed her beloved pet, chances are she doesn’t like him after he killed all of her friends.
There’s a lot of freedom in writing about people who we don’t know much about historically. You don’t need to be precise and nobody’s going to be there to go “Alf didn’t have brown hair. He had purple hair.” Stories with unhappy endings are hard to do right, but there are also a hundred ways to tell this myth. Everywhere I read this myth is was sold as a romantic reunion between two star-crossed lovers. Yeah, okay.
Princess Pinyang (c. 600 AD)
In Sui Dynasty China, Pinyang is living the good life. She enjoys taking care of her father, a general named Li Yaun, and her husband who works as a palace guard. Unfortunately, not all is good in the world.
Emperor Yang, a real gem of a fellow, not only caused 6 million deaths in his pursuits to rebuild the Great Wall of China, but
everyone knew he poisoned his father for the throne. He was leading China into a civil war.
Yang soon decided the biggest threat to his Kingdom was General Li Yuan and marked him for execution.
Understandably, Li Yuan wasn’t happy about this, so he tried and stage a rebellion from prison.
Pinyang was thoroughly out of her mind at this point and knew she was going to have to make some real changes. Her and her husband were at risk so they fled the capital separately. Pinyang made her way back to her hometown and put together a plan of how to mobilize an army on the way.
All the peasants wanted were food at this point. Pinyang broke into the city’s food stores and fed everyone.
With a bunch of well-fed peasants on her side, she was able to start the “Army of the Lady”. She got more recruits either by making deals with rebels or by completely destroying armies in battle and absorbing the survivors.
Now with 70,000 men, she marched back towards the capital and tore through all of Emperor Yang’s forces. Eventually his armies turned their back on him and killed him. At only twenty years old, Pinyang overthrew the government for her father and became a Princess.
Everyone loves a good military story. There isn’t anything cooler than a military strategist who’s also a princess. She’s soft, but she’ll kill you, too. Princess Pinyang is especially interesting because she actually lived a fairly domestic and normal life–and she enjoyed it. She overthrew her government because she felt she had to to save her family and her country. For some reason people forget that badass women might not hate washing laundry (or doing any kind of female-coded work!). It’s really not that scary. I promise.
These are five real-life princesses that weren’t anything like the fairytales. Let’s write better princesses and let’s start by realizing how absolutely crazy, amazing, or messed up they actually were. No more of these princesses that are dispassioned by a life of royalty and are devoid of an actual personality. Not only is that overdone, but it’s just not likely. Whether you’re looking for inspiration for an original princess character or you want to write about a real person, these real-life women are a great place to start.
Do you have a favorite real-life princess I missed? What do you think about the women on this list?