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Outside of humans, wolves are some of the most social animals on earth with each other. Last week I discussed some interesting wolf facts about their instincts and behaviors. Here are a few more fun things about wolves that I tried to work into my books about the Heaven’s Heathens (The Lone Prospect and Rodeo’s Run.)
Wolves greet each other by kissing!
Most people know that dogs and wolves get a lot of information about their surroundings through scent. They use their noses to get information about almost everything and if they can’t smell something it scares them. Wolves have strong scent glands all around their body that excrete pheromones that tell other wolves a lot about them. Wolves smell these glands as part of their greetings. There are glands around the cheeks, the flanks on the tail and of course, under the tail.
But wolves also greet each other by what looks like to a human a French kiss. They open their mouths and look like they are kissing each other by sticking their tongue into the others mouth! Of course, this probably sounds disgusting, but you aren’t the ones doing it.
There is actually one man in Europe who integrated himself into a captive wolf pack and actually did exchange wolf kisses with them. (Ick.)
Wolves love to sing!
Of course, we all know that wolves love to howl. 99% of wolf art is either a wolf howling or a wolf snarling. (Frankly, I’m over both types.) Wolves love to sing so much that they start doing it as puppies while their parents are off hunting and they’re being minded by older siblings. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or what time of night. Singing is an activity that wolves will engage in by themselves or in large groups. In fact, one wolf howling can start other wolves howling. (Just like in Zootopia.) Humans can also get wolves to howl with them!
Once wolves really get going, it can be difficult to tell if there is one wolf, two wolves or twenty wolves. This is because they can vary their pitch up and down the key of E.
Wolves love to party!
Neighboring groups of Wolves love to get together for something we humans call a howl. They’ll gather in order to exchange greetings, see pups and basically run around yipping in excitement and of course howling. This is like humans having a big party!
Wolves love to play.
Among each other, wolves can be pranksters. They like to play games on each other involving pouncing and attacking. To humans, this looks like they’re fighting. Sure, wolves do fight as most groups and families do, but many times it’s simply wolf play. Wolves have thick fur and hide so what would really hurt and bloody up a person barely makes a scratch on them. Wolf play is mostly practice for the very important skill of hunting.
Wolves can fish!
Hunting big animals like deer and elk are not the only sources of protein for a wolf. If a wolf pack lives near the water they also get a lot of their protein from fishing! They can snatch fish right out of the water. In fact, wolves also eat small rodents such as mice and a lot of berries. Wolves’ bodies are designed for a feast or famine type of life. So, they eat what they can, when they can, that way when food is scarce, they won’t starve to death even if they get very hungry. A wolf can eat up to five pounds of meat in one go.
Wolf courtship involves dancing.
Yep, like humans wolves like to dance! If a male and female wolf are in the process of courtship or it’s around mating season (October to January depending on weather,) they’ll get to know each other by dancing. Wolves can go up on their back legs and put their front legs on each other’s shoulders and either sway or walk around a bit. This makes them roughly six feet tall.
Apparently dancing in all social cultures promotes intimacy! Who knew?
Raising the puppies is a family affair.
There are three things that happen in wolf families when it comes to raising puppies. Everyone in the family helps take care of them and brings back food from the hunt for them. It’s an egalitarian society because survival is so difficult. When the puppies are very young and are still nursing, an older sister can have a false pregnancy with their mother in order to help her mother nurse her younger siblings. That way there are two females giving the puppies nourishment.
Once the puppies leave the den, for several months they are too young to go on the hunt and have to stick to the den area. (The den tends to be in the middle of the pack’s established territory.) So, the older siblings have to babysit. Now unlike humans who may whine and moan and fight not to take care of their siblings, wolves love their little siblings so much that even the male wolves will fight to stay behind and watch them. Older siblings are very indulgent of their younger siblings and let them pounce on them and even bite their tails.
Lastly, tragedy can happen and puppies can die due to sickness or injury or even starvation. When this happens before the mother buries the puppy, the entire family mourns the loss of the puppy. The mother will take the dead body of the puppy around to the entire group and they will lick it and howl and essentially say their good byes. Then the mother will bury the puppy. Wolves feel loss and sadness much like elephants and humans.
Wolves are fascinating animals and predators and there’s a lot we don’t know about them. These are just a few of my favorite behaviors (mostly geared towards social interaction I’ll admit) that I’m trying to work into my books in fun ways as they meld with human behaviors!
Wolves aren’t dogs. There’s no other way to put it. And let’s face it, in most books that have anything to do with werewolves, they aren’t wolves either. In fact, fictional werewolves have as much to do with real wolves and wolves have to do with dogs. Fictional werewolves are mostly based on legends such as the loup-garou or are seemingly more out of control men that happen to go big and furry and form into strict hierarchical groups that for some reason hate women and homosexuals.
I wrote my book, the Lone Prospect, and formed my werewolves because I was tired of seeing these same tired, angsty, cursed werewolves that had nothing to do with actual wolves. After researching the different and very diverse origins of werewolves and their types, I started digging into wolves themselves and based my werewolves on actual anecdotal and scientific wolf behavior.
Wolves DO NOT like humans.
Of all the apex predators in the animal kingdom, wolves are the ones that have adapted to our presence the least. Coyotes accept us happily. Bears tolerate us and root in our garbage. Wolves hide out in their forest and are okay with our roads and that’s about it. (In fact, some wolves in Russia like to run up and down the highways for fun scaring all rational human beings as they howl.) As much as humans are afraid of wolves, wolves are equally afraid of humans. Wolves are shy. Like humans, they have a fight or flight instinct and unlike ours, theirs is geared to flight first, fight second. Unless a wolf is sick, they are highly unlikely to attack a human. A sick wolf is like any animal, out of control and looking to defend itself.
Because of this, wolves don’t domesticate. They aren’t pets. And they would prefer to stay as far away from us strange smelling two legged animals as possible. (There are a few exceptions.) If a human wants to interact with a wolf, they have to learn the wolf’s language and be accepted by the wolf. Because the wolf isn’t going to do it the other way around. Even if bred with a domesticated dog, a wolfdog prefers the companionship of their human and their human only and needs several square miles of land to roam about in as their instincts to hunt kick in.
Wolves are HUNTERS. PERIOD.
In domesticated dogs, we have all types, guard dogs, bird dogs, scent hounds, dogs who like running, deer hounds and big fluffy things that make big pillows. These dogs love us and we love them. Not so with wolves. Wolves do one thing very well. That’s hunt. Wolves are designed to track down and hunt prey in groups. In fact, the prey that they prefer, animals like deer, elk and moose, are much larger than they are and it is very difficult for a singular wolf to take them down alone.
Hunting for wolves is mostly an act of opportunity. They know how the animals in their territory move. They can find where their prey was and track it from there through scent. Then they work together using group tactics to kill the animal. Wolves don’t go and rip out the jugular of their prey. That’s the purview of action and horror movies. Real wolves bleed their prey out by attacking the front and hind end and scratching it until the animal tires and then they go for the belly, not the throat because the belly is where the good meat is. Contrary to popular belief, the largest animal doesn’t eat first either, the hungriest animal does.
Because they are wearing the prey animal down and trying to dodge horns and hooves, the wolves “tag team” their prey. Two or three will attack the animal while the others rest and watch. When one group of wolves is tired and the others are rested they’ll switch out. In fact, it is believed wolves are smart enough to form group attack tactics and remember them. Wolves know that it’s easier to see things from high up than lower down for instance and if there are ridges in their territory will look for their prey from there instead of in the gullies.
Like I said, wolves are smart. They are smart enough to know that once they get old and blind and maybe disabled that the humans also keep the easy meat penned up. Sheep and cattle are easy meat. And owners can ride horses, have fences and keep big dogs that are mean to scare the wolves away and the wolves will still be able to kill the sheep or cattle. Then the humans get angry and take to helicopters and kill the wolves. (Grimace.)
They also tend not to kill unnecessarily. Sure, you hear hunters complain about coming across a mostly uneaten wolf kill in the woods and how horrible it was that the wolf didn’t finish their food. This isn’t true! (In my opinion, the human hunter is jealous!) Wolves, like humans, are a species that actually save their food for later. Except, unlike humans, they don’t have big metal cold boxes to put it in. If the wolves kill something that’s too big to eat and it’s cold out, they’ll let the meat freeze and come back to it later. This is called cold caching.
Cold caching also helps other animals in the food chain from crows, to vultures, to the wandering coyote or even the bear that wakes up in the middle of winter and may need to eat to go back to sleep. This isn’t waste, but nature’s way of taking care of the entire ecosystem.
If I was going to put another shapeshifting species into the Heathens series, it’d be crows. In the wild, crows help wolves find prey and in return, wolves tear apart the bigger animal so that the crows can get smaller bits of meat. Animals can help each other, especially smart ones (like wolves and crows.)
Because their prey animals tend to be much bigger than they are, wolves live in groups that we call packs.
But the funny thing about packs is that wolf packs are actually FAMILIES.
Wolf packs are not in the wild groups of stranger wolves banding together to take down prey. No. Wolf packs are family units, a mother, a father and a bunch of siblings. Unlike dogs, wolves in the wild do not pack up with complete strangers. Dogs will group and form pack bonds with just about everybody, humans, different breeds, dogs they meet in the street. Not wolves. The only places that stranger wolves that aren’t related to each other live together is captivity. And as with most captivity situations, this changes things and is not good for the wolves. Only in captivity do wolves form groups with a strict hierarchy. Only in captivity will wolves kill their own pups. And only in captivity do males enter the den. None of this happens in the wild.
In the wild, wolf packs are wolf families that are all taking care of and learning from each other. There is no alpha, beta or omega. Mom makes the den for the puppies (and once she has them only she’s allowed inside.) Mom and dad teach the youngsters to hunt. And like all good parents, they allow their older children to lead the hunt in order for the older children to learn how. Then, when the older children leave they become “lone wolves” and may travel up to 800 miles in order to find a mate and create a new family group of their own. (And they may have to lure their mate away from their mate’s family pack and just like in humans, mom and dad don’t like this! They need the youngster to hunt, not leave! They’ll make the lone wolf work to get their mate.)
Mom and dad and all the siblings do an equal part of emotional labor in taking care of the family group. Everybody hunts. Everybody takes care of the puppies and everybody plays together. Mom is just as likely to be in charge as dad. In fact, if mom is mean then one of her daughters might kill her and take care of her youngest siblings herself.
While neighboring wolf packs may be in competition with each other, they are also like your friendly neighbors. Mom and dad wolves mark the territory by peeing on it together. The nearer packs do the same, and if food is scarce they may fight each other over it. If food is plentiful, they are friendly neighbors who like to shout at each other long distance by howling or may get together and exchange greetings, shout and have a big old party. “Hey, hey, haven’t seen you in a while, how are you doing? Any interesting smells?” But they don’t ‘hang’ out on a regular basis and they wouldn’t get along in a dog park!
Wolves and dogs may look similar and seemingly act similar. They are two different species that are wired to do extremely different things. By understanding the differences and knowing about them, humans can set aside their fear and figure out how to coexist peacefully. And you know, maybe hide the easy meat or not encroach on their territory by putting their cattle in national parks and keeping a few rams in the sheep flock.
Yes, FANDOM must be in all caps in that title.
Back when I started this blog as an author I came out as someone who is pro-fanfiction. In fact, I’ve been plenty honest about the fact that I’ve written fanfiction in the past, still write fanfiction and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.
Fandom is a lot more than simply fanfiction. It’s fan art, it’s AMVs, it’s parody, it’s meta. It’s simply talking about a show with you co-workers/friends. Fandom isn’t just about going to conventions or buying merchandise or posting gifsets on Tumblr. Though those are all good fannish things! Fandom is the power of the people putting their time and money and emotions into a piece of media and comes at all levels of commitment. And fandom can be powerful.
Exhibit A: Dragon Ball (Z, GT, F, Kai and Super and every non canon movie ever, etc.)
Dragon Ball started in Japan back in 1984 as a Shonen Jump manga about a genius scientist and a boy with a tail on quest for the mythical dragon balls. (So she could wish for an endless supply of strawberries or a perfect boyfriend. She was 16, cut her some slack.) It started making traction in the US in the mid to late 90s as Toonami started importing more Japanese anime across the pond. And here we are in 2018, Dragon Ball Super is on it’s fifth season in the Universe Survival Saga. That is over 20 years of Goku vs. the next big bad shenanigans.
The only way this happened was through a huge and still in some spaces thriving fandom. Dragon Ball became the bar and the standard for a Shonen (boy focused) fighting manga and inspired another huge fan favorite, Naruto. There is an entire group called Team Four Star that have created a parody of Dragon Ball Z called Dragon Ball Abridged where they cut down the drawn out fights and crank the character’s personalities up to eleven for the humor factor. (Given that Akira Toriyama is a humor writer at heart, this can be entertaining since many of his character are already parodies.) And the success of Dragon Ball Abridged is considered part of the reason that Dragon Ball GT has been replaced with Dragon Ball Super. (Or Super has gone in the middle of Z and GT or something.)
So, boys (and girls) of every age can still debate who is better, Vegeta or Goku, 19 years after Vegeta’s introduction! Thanks to video parody and the fact that DBZ merchandise still sells and sells and sells.
A lot of these super fandoms have a major thing in common, fandom world building.
Exhibit B: Harry Potter
When Harry Potter first came out, my mother bought the first book because she wanted to see what the divisive fuss in Christian circles was all about. By the time I finished college, we ended up having all seven books. Harry Potter still has a huge following, the books are still on the tops of every fantasy book search. There are new movies coming out. JK Rowling created Pottermore and tweets facts about the universe still. There is still a great deal of interest in Harry Potter.
One of the reasons of this, and it happened in Dragon Ball as well, is that the author became so focused on telling their adventure story that the world building was closer to broad outlines than actual sketches. And this left a lot of wiggle room for fans to fill in the blanks with their own ideas and own rules and thoughts. Sure, a lot of it a pre-teen and teenage Harry Potter didn’t actually need to know in the books. (But did we really have to spend half of the seventh book running around the forest either, no.)
In fact, in Exhibit A, Vegeta is an alien that hasn’t been raised on Earth like Piccolo or Goku has and this fact is blatantly ignored throughout the entire series and Vegeta’s inability to integrate with the other warriors is more often portrayed as him being an aloof jerk rather than him just not getting Earth society and not being able to set aside his pride and ask. In Harry Potter, Harry did ask a lot of questions. Whether or not he asked the correct questions is up for debate. But in Harry Potter, given that muggles came into Wizard Society on a semi-regular basis, the wizards had a slight understanding of how to deal with it.
The unanswered questions and the fun that the fans had in creating their own answers to them really prolonged the longevity of the series. (In trying to answer some of the questions, JK Rowling created more questions!)
Of course, there is also the mega-cross over fandoms.
Exhibit C: Supernatural
I’ll admit. Even after 12 seasons, I haven’t managed to sit down and watch one episode of Supernatural even though 2 good looking guys, a classic car and hunting monsters should be my jam. But nothing about that premise (even well done) should have given Supernatural the legs it’s had. And the fandom is or at least was rather rabid in my wide eyed let’s skirt about the edges of this lurking. And nothing would account of that except the rise of the super crossover fandom.
Think Supernatural plus Doctor Who plus Sherlock all in the same universe and the characters playing off each other even if the different story’s rules are completely different and why would Sherlock leave Britain? But, it kept people interested in all three of those shows. It kept people going back and watching for more hints and clues and ideas to put into their stories. It kept Supernatural in the minds of FANDOM.
(And after mega crossovers came the revival of the coffee shop AU and the invention of the florist, tattoo shop AU, then the ABO stuff, and I’m not sure where we’ve gone from there. Fandom, you be crazy and I love you.)
But, as it is, most the intellectual property right holders of these huge mega-fandoms have a love/hate relationship with their fans. While they love the attention that fandom can bring to their works, they want fans to only react in certain ways. It’s rumored the animation company behind Dragon Ball hates Dragon Ball Z Abridged, even though the current writers and animators on the ground are also rumored to love it. (So much that it might have influenced the characterizations of the characters in Super.) Granted, not all fans have interacted with the principals (actors, writers etc) appropriately. It still makes very little sense to bite the hand that buys your merchandise and keeps up your television ratings. Especially over works that 99% of the time, the fan makes no money off of. The fandoms that embrace their fans (Buffy, AtlA, I’m looking at you) deserve all the credit in the world.
Fandom has even managed several times to have movies made for cancelled television shows. Now, the quality of these movies is up for debate. (Personally, I loved the cinematography in Serenity and the way it opened the universe a bit more, a lot of the story was simply meh and would have played out better over a long television show.) Fandom interest has gotten producers interested in continuing that franchise even when the studios have decided not to do more with it.
Now, fandom definitely has it’s dark and ugly sides. However, I’m still going to lean that there are more positive sides to having fan art and fan fic and parody and meta in free publicity than downsides. We, as creators, can always hope to have a fandom no matter how big or how small.
Viva La Fandom! Squeee!
Knowing yourself can be the toughest thing you can do. Really knowing yourself. I know myself in the fact that I know I over think things, that phone calls give me anxiety and that somehow I learned my manners through fiction books written about Southern Belles. And when it comes to myself as a person with job skills, I know I’m creative, organized and have a good eye for matching colors. (And until you work with fabric or paint, you don’t know how important that truly is.) I also don’t mind helping people. I’d rather lift people up than tear them down. But, I’d also like to be paid for it, thanks.
But this came at the cost of a lot of self reflection and self doubt and the echoes of things people have said to me and they’ve put out into the universe. And you know, time and actually doing things and trying things to see what does and doesn’t work for me. (Teachers have and have not helped in this process.)
It’s a battle. It’s a fight. It’s getting up every day and sitting here poking at the words or the designs and going ‘what do I do best? what do I know how to do or know about that makes me stand out?’ It’s hacking at it and going “okay, if I don’t know about this, I know how to find out about it through books or on the internet.”
Back when I started writing in high school. I had no idea what type of writer I was going to be or if I was any good at it. I started because a friend of mine wrote and well, let’s say that was a bonding activity that didn’t turn out well. I tried mysteries. I turned to writing fan fiction and writing romances of my OTPs. And in order to get away from the pain I didn’t know how to express, I wrote funny things, sweet things. I avoided conflict and confrontations as if they were a god given plague from one of the four horses of the apocalypse. I branded myself as a romantic comedy writer. One that didn’t use romantic comedy tropes but still, funny stories with romance. Or romance with funny bits. Pick your poison.
People who read my stories, wouldn’t know that I was in emotional pain. That was the point.
As I grew older and entered college, I still remained a romantic comedy writer. I knew I was good at it. I’d practiced. I could write funny dialogue and silly situations. (Though I don’t think I’m nearly so witty in real life.) But my writing started to change a little, I was headed away from the romance and into adventures. Because, I’ve always loved adventure novels. A beloved teacher read us out loud Mossflower by Brian Jacques and cemented my love for the heroic quest. (And he read the Hobbit too. Awesome teacher.) Star Wars is a science fiction interpretation of the Hero’s Journey and I was introduced to that in Middle School. And my love of these action filled adventure stories with sword fights and treasures began to seep into my writing. I was getting into Role Playing Games too (which are adventure games.)
And by the way, my favorite characters almost always are female, so yes, it is no surprise that most of my main characters tend to be female! Forget Luke, I wanted to be Princess Leia! She shot stormtroopers, led armies and sneaked into Jabba’s Palace to free Han. At the same time as Star Wars I was reading Valdemaar and Pern! I got into Kaaeler and the matriarchal society of Anne Bishop in college. I loved FFX-2 in college, a Japanese RPG game with three female main characters. Yes! That changed clothes for battle outfits. Even better! And I’ve written about Okami too. I wanted strong females in my life, perhaps because I didn’t feel strong myself. So, I tend to put the female characters in pivotal roles. They can be the type of people I want to be, leaders, warriors, people with control over their lives.
But to really get where I am today, I had to fight a battle. A battle with myself. The battle of finding my own voice against the negative emotions and taking back my life and seizing control and not believing what others said. That’s when I was really able to turn that corner and look at conflict again and sit down and really plot out an adventure story with action and stakes and lots of characters. And it took two books to really nail my own style for writing an action sequence.
I’m still learning about myself. I’m still learning my strengths, my weaknesses and having small revelations about “oh, I do tend to give female characters agency as a matter of course, don’t I?” And that’s okay. The battle continues. But I know some of my strengths now. I know that I can use them. They’re my new weapons. And I can swing and fly freely.
I’m kind of hit or miss with twitter, just as I’m kind of hit or miss here. But sometimes I say things that I feel are a bit profound and might make a good graphic. This was one of them. And it might be the height of arrogance to make the graphic myself, but pbthh. If I don’t do it, who will?
This was one of them.
Writing. 25% planned. 75% pure bullshitting.
I mean, this could be said of life too!
If you’ve read any of my blog posts about my writing and writing style, you’ll know that I’m not a pantser. I like to have my outline, my serial list of scenes almost fully thought out and a schedule of the books ‘days.’ This puts me in my happy place when it comes to a book. I have a plan. My eagle/beaver personality meditatively chews their pencil and beams. (Slide ruler firmly in pocket with pocket protector and calculator.)
And then the koala/otter side has to get their say in. The koala/otter type of personality is just like it would seem being those two animals. It wants to have fun. Schedules are for sissies! I try to accommodate it by making sure the plot is fun and there is plenty of character silliness spread evenly around like jam on an English Muffin. But, it is not always appeased and brings me rocks to show me how much it likes me and wants to be friends. (Because that is what otters do!)
And these rocks tend to be story tidbits or odd bits of information or things like happy accidents that make the story that much more fun, rich and entertaining. All in all, while to a degree my world building is planned. Most of it is me going, “okay, I want it to be like this and I’ll fill in the details later when I need them.” And then having to make it up as I go along. Or something I see around me in real life or social media sparking my imagination and/or making me laugh and go “yes, yes, I need to use that in a book!” (This is how some characters end up with pets or tattoos or yeah.)
Case in point, Becca and I have been developing a game together. It’s a game about a girl and her magical horse and I’ve been delegated to writing about the holidays. (Because I love holidays!) I started with Christmas. And first, I did a bunch of research about Christmas and Yule and Saturnalia and being that we are trying to make this a non-religious game as possible, focused on Santa instead of the nativity. I have all this information, come up with all these interesting story ideas. And then I’m browsing my twitter feed and up pops a picture of a horse.
A horse? We don’t have this type of rare, almost endangered, carriage only horse in our game! (Which is shocking since we have been very thorough horse wise.) But this is the exact type of thing we want to talk about in our game, types of horses and what makes them special and how can I use this horse?! Well, for a sleigh ride of course. Horse.
Fortunately, I go to Becca to get permission because we are in this together. And she goes, “I like it!”
And I continue to write along and write along, developing more ideas for further holiday adventures as I do and come to a conclusion that maybe there isn’t just one Santa Claus, there are many Santa clauses and the story I’m writing now is going to tie into this fact later. Go to Becca, say, “I was thinking…” and she goes “That makes sense. We could put them here because reasons.” And I go “Yes, I was thinking same thing! Reward for the player!”
Totally unplanned. But oh so much fun.
(And let’s not get too deeply into the story idea I had about a version of Hanuman fell in love with the sea and the sky, not knowing anything too deep about Hanuman mind you, to do some cursory research and find out that he had a mermaid for a wife/mother of one of his children. Oops! Yay, bullshitting happy accidents!)
It’s okay to let your story run wild off it’s course and go into uncharted waters and bring up zany details and create and grow and become that hedge or a pretty collection of stones from your otter side. Because, if necessary, you can always trim it back. (Beavers have good teeth and access to hedge trimmers just for this purpose.)
It’s also okay to have the ratios reversed and have it mostly planned out in intricate detail. It’s all about what works for you as an author.
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.
New Year. Time for new blog stuff. Time to look for the positives as the new year kicks off. Especially with the specter of the old year and Harvey Weinstein and #metoo and how sexual harassment and gender discrimination isn’t just in the entertainment industry but every industry. (The horror tales I’ve heard about fashion and then there are the things that only female writers hear and oh dear when I worked manufacturing.) And it’s got me thinking about consent issues and female characters and female agency.
Now, back when I started writing the Heaven’s Heathens series, I sat there and pondered the female to male ratio of characters in my books a lot. I fretted. Was I giving into the patriarchy by making Brand male? Wouldn’t it be better to make the leader of the club female? Or should I use this opportunity to show how difficult it’s going to be for a female to take on the international leader role even in a motorcycle club (of the future) that isn’t especially traditional? Can I offset it with other strong female characters, also in leadership positions? AM I OVERTHINKING THIS? (The answer to the last is usually yes. Yes. I am.)
At the same time, these issues are important and I did need to think about them. There are issues I don’t think I’ve begun to cover yet in the books in regards to gender, gender equality and emotional labor and I hesitate to say gender roles. Because, I’m trying to write a good story rather than a creed on “this is how women should be treated.” (Because that just never goes well, okay.)
But the last few months I’ve been doing more “fun” writing than “work” aka original writing as I fight my head/health and work on a portfolio in hopes of getting a job in a creative field. And I’m a fan of a few older shonen anime series. Now, please understand, that fan fiction writing (aka fun writing) is mostly about fantasy. Sure, you can make the argument that most writing is about fantasy, but fan fiction is about fantasy in the most extreme, whacky ways possible where the most out there romance novel tropes and cross overs and cathartic emotional release writing meet in this huge wonderful stew. And for some reason, one of my favorite couples has a very trashy romance novel trope as one of the popular alternate universe story ideas. It always seems to skew in one gender direction and ends up being very smutty. (Romance novel trope.) And there is nothing wrong with this! Fantasy writing for fun, here, take the smut! Take my time!
Then, it occurs to me that it would, at least in my mind, make more sense to turn it around gender wise because that would be turning the world a little less in knots at least. And suddenly, instead of smuttiness in my head, I have female spy adventures with a round of consent issues!
And Becca goes “Well, at least it gives the female character agency.”
I go. “What do you mean?”
Becca replies: “She’s not sitting around being protected.”
Me: “Oh, you mean the usual, Ginny gives the female character something to do.”
Because, let’s be honest here, if you read my books or knew of my fan fiction past, you’d discover that I’m not very good at writing the “girlfriend,” the “Damsel in distress” or whatever the last female that sits on the sidelines trope goes here. I think I have a fun/fan story on my computer that started out as “male character gets turned into a living ice statue to protect country” and turned into “female character has to rule separate country until she grows up and can go ‘save’ the male character.” Oh, he’s not sitting around doing nothing, but he can’t save himself. She has to do it! But she’s little! She needs to get bigger first! (And you know, recruit some pirates to turn into a navy and all that fun stuff.) So, if you don’t like original characters in your fun/fan fiction, then you wouldn’t like this story. The point being, it was a story about a guy and somehow got subverted by my girl going “no, I want to be cool too!” And since she’s so cute, I mean, how could I resist the pegasus, pirate, queenly, save the island from volcanic eruptions adventures?
I fretted about this a lot with the Heathens as well. (Not so much in Dawn Princess because honestly, she’s a warrior and a princess.) Was I giving the female characters enough to do? Is it clear that Esme is more than “the wife” of Brand? (Maybe not at this point.) Did I accidentally make Gideon “the boyfriend?” (Funny if so. Hysterical if so.) Did the female characters have power? Did they have a purpose? Could they choose their own way? I hope all the answers are yes. But I’m not sure how unbiased I am about this.
Maybe I do this because the writers that I read during high school and to a certain amount when I was younger were the romantic fantasy authors that put women in the forefront of their writing, McCaffery, Lackey. During college, I started reading people like Bishop, Briggs, Harrison, and some Hamilton. Female writers who aren’t ashamed to be put females in the forefront and celebrate female heroes. My favorite characters always tended towards the strong brash ones, Rogue from X-Men, Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo, though I preferred Hinata in Naruto. Even in the ensemble books I prefer that are often written by men, X-Wing series and Brian Jacques Redwall, the women weren’t treated as second class who needed to be saved and at times, stood up to the males in their lives and went ‘No. I’m not going to sit here. Here, I am a waste of space. I’m going to fight.” Jesmin Ackbar and Mariel come to mind.
I’ve never been fond of the girlfriend. “Eat a whole meal, would you and stop picking off his plate!” Or the damsel in distress. “PUNCH THE IDIOT ALREADY!” (Don’t watch movies with me, honestly.) Give me a movie like the Parent Trap or the Devil Wears Prada because in it the females are smart and crafty even if there aren’t explosions! (Well, the Parent Trap depending on how it’s written could have explosions.)
There’s nothing wrong with giving the female character something to do. Give her agency. Give her power. Make her an equal or better at something than the male and make that something better important to the story! Because if it isn’t important, why mention it (unless it’s character building. Then it should be mentioned somehow.)
Less TMNT April’s. More Wonder Woman’s! More women of all shapes, sizes, and beauty types that are treated as normal human beings that aren’t expected to smile or be groped or open their legs to get ahead. That would be true agency. And it’s way past due.