The 2018 Golden Globes kicked off this year with stirring speeches from celebrities about this is the year that we’re going to stand up to gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the work place and hopefully our daily lives and work on making things more equal for men and women and hold those who do harass others accountable! I applaud this goal. I say “about time!” I hope that in the future female writers can submit their works and not be told you need to use a pseudonym or your initials. (Look, I use an initial for my last name because no one can spell it properly!) I dream of a time where female models don’t have to worry about whether or not they have to have sex with the photographer to get a good shot. Or where the fashion houses founded by females are again run by females. (Because somehow ‘female’ work only becomes legitimate when done by a male, again, like being a chef.) And where I woman can walk into a manufacturing plant and not be snubbed or should be cleaning just because she’s female. And I say those things because those are the fields I’ve worked in or trained for.
Last Tuesday, I talked about how it’s good to give female characters agency, to give them power and something to do in a story. We are in 2018. Wonder Woman shouldn’t be an outlier. Mad Max Fury Road shouldn’t be an outlier. Hidden Figures shouldn’t be an outlier. They should be normal. What else have women been fighting for since the 1960s? (Why in the world in the 50s did we let men chase us out of our factory jobs from during the war? Why? Argh. Rhetorical.)
Giving female characters agency is sometimes almost as simple as making them a male character then switching the pronouns. I don’t recommend this method honestly. But it can be a good place to start if you don’t know how to give a female power, choice and something to do.
The first way I tend to give a female character agency is that I normalize my character. What does that mean? I treat them as a human being. For instance, I try not to sexualize my female characters if they are doing something simple like eating or showering or getting dressed. I try not to draw attention to their private parts or act like they even notice them. (As a female the only time I notice my boobs is if they’ve shrunk, grown or are caught badly in my bra. I’m going to assume it’s the same for men in some ways. They don’t notice their junk unless it’s uncomfortable.) If my female character is licking an ice cream cone or a popsicle, that’s all it is. There’s nothing sexual involved. Why? Because I’ve lived with boys that have made me trying to eat a popsicle as something sexual and it is irritating as all get out.
Another way to normalize your characters is to not treat hobbies as gendered hobbies. Look, I know I gave Savannah the hobbies of cookie making, gardening and well, other artistic pursuits such as sketching, painting and candle making. None of these are technically gendered hobbies. My uncle is a fantastic cookie maker. His wife is into the amazing decorating aspect of cookies now but cookie making started out in that household with my uncle. (I mean it, best chocolate chip cookies. Yum.) Both my grandparents gardened though Grandpa tended more to the veggies than the flowers. And go to art school and I dare you to tell any of the male students that art is for girls. On the other hand, Savannah’s “job” is as an auto mechanic, which is stereotypically a male job. She rides a motorcycle, another supposed male activity. (Hah! 1/3 of motorcyclists in the US are female.) I think my favorite is Blake, who is male, into steampunk and likes to knit. (Because sailors knitted during the world wars so there.) Though Frankie is a close second who is female, teaches self defense at a local dojo and enjoys shopping. (After that it gets really difficult.)
The next good step in giving your female characters agency is allowing them to make choices. Sure, you’ve got your plot railroaded along in your head but oh gee, does this female character have any conflict? Or are they certain of their path? And is there a place in the story where they can stop and make a decision between A and B or C. (Choose C. Always choose C.) Giving a character a choice, giving them what looks and feels like control over their lives to the reader is in fact, giving a character agency no matter what your plot is. Especially if that choice ends up being against the character’s self interest. Because that’s part of the writing fantasy, sometimes readers feel so out of control of their own lives that they want to escape into a world where the characters do have choice and control. That way when they leave they feel like they have some choice and control. That having power is possible.
Empowering your characters gives them agency. And to be fair, that could be what your entire story arc is about, showing the character that they have power and control over their own lives and that they aren’t at the whims of others. And hey, that’s a powerful story in itself. There are many people who need that hope that even if the world seems against them, that they can get a smidgen of power and take their life back. Watch Hidden Figures. That is a story about women who never got their full appreciation still taking control of their lives and their power in NASA during the 60s. (While still being wives and mothers. So there.)
The next step towards giving your characters agency in a story is I find, to give them something to do in the story. Give them a reason to be there! Female characters that sit on the sidelines or wait to be rescued or have to be defended don’t have agency. Whatever the character does or has talent in can be and should be part of the story. If it’s a series of stories it doesn’t have to be in every story, but the female character’s talents should come into play somewhere.
A good example of this is in St. Trinian’s. During one scene, Annabelle comes in to find her Aunt, Ms. Fritton, painting. She didn’t know that her Aunt painted and they have a good chat about it. Then they go box because this is St. Trinian’s School for Girls after all. The edit I have cut out two important scenes that involved Annabelle and Ms. Fritton (that possibly gave the whole game away and why they were cut, but I feel the story isn’t complete without them.) In one, Annabelle, whose father owns an art gallery and would know a bit about art theft, suggests the ruse they end up using to get the money they need. And in the other, it’s made clear that Ms. Fritton knows what is going on and is an active participant in the entire scheme. Both of these scenes show that Annabelle and Ms. Fritton (our two main characters) clearly are major influences to the rest of the story. They are there for a reason and the entire scheme couldn’t happen without them!
Now in my own writing, the way I give Savannah (in particular) something to do in the Heathen’s stories is by giving her jobs. Whether they are paying mercenary jobs or assignments given by Brand varies. But she has agency because the way she goes about these jobs is left up to her and she’s in charge. Sometimes her skill as an auto-mechanic comes into use. Sometimes she’s just ‘the planner’ and shoots things. And I do try to bring in the different talents of the team into play. (Because it’s more FUN that way and I have watched the Ocean’s Franchise a little too much.) But Savannah doesn’t sit around and wait for others to tell her what to do, she can’t. Not and be V.P. of a motorcycle club.
As for Roxana in the Dawn Warrior, Roxana is a particular kind of mage, the type of mage that can take on evil mages and win. But evil mages don’t run around looking for light mages to fight, that’s just not an evil mage’s style. So, she has to go hunt them down herself. And there are certain things that only she can do that are integral to the story. (As in, if she didn’t do them, there would be a world full of werewolves and while that might be fun for me, err, not everyone wants to be a werewolf.) In this world, Roxana to an extent holds the cards. She’s got a skill set that people will pay her to use. Because no one likes nasty evil magicians taking up residence in their back yard/forest/mountains.
Now, the next bit here is purely something I’m tired of seeing in fantasy writing whether it’s normal fantasy or urban fantasy or even action stories or female led stories whatever. Please, for the love of god, avoid your female characters being kidnapped. (Unless they are working their way out of this themselves.) And avoid your female characters being raped. There is no faster way of stripping your female characters of all agency, power and control than these two things. And yes, in a way, I’m going to be dealing with some of this in the Dawn Princess and how horrifying it is and I never, ever, want to do it again. Once again, these are severely personal issues. Yes, I’ve read Briggs and I’ve read Bishop and let me tell you, the rape scenes are not why I read those books and when they happened I was severely disappointed in both authors. (Especially Bishop in her Tales of the Others series. We’d spent what, four books trying to get away from that nonsense. I do not recommend the Black Jewels Trilogy to anyone without a major talk first.)
Giving a female character agency, that is, power and something to do is only as difficult as it is to wrap your mind about the idea that females are people, they are normal human beings with hopes, dreams and fears. They aren’t mysteries. They come in all flavor personality wise. They have done great things in the past (many we might not know about because men took the credit), the present and in the future. Don’t discount 50% of the population due to their gender!
We need strong role models that all types of feminism and females are possible. We are human beings that deserve respect. It doesn’t matter the size, the color of your skin, what you wear, your hobbies, if a female thinks she can do it, then she can. Period.