Traditional gender roles are hard to combat for the fiction-writer, especially in a genre like fantasy which has a long tradition of distressed damsels being captured and needing saving. Even for a writer who is aware of this problem and wants to defy it, knowing how to let the females drive the story takes a lot of thought and practice. Today's guest, Blair MacGregor, generously shares her advice.
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I've always wanted to write epic, sword and sorcery, and dark fantasy stories with female characters as central players in the plot, but my younger self lacked the greater perspective to do so with depth. I didn't understand how to build a society that permitted female characters to get on with the story rather than be sidetracked to prove relevance and competency. I lacked the experience to create characters able to interact without the trappings of gender inequality.
The Bechdel Test is a baseline, but was never meant to be more. After all, I wanted my characters to inhabit a culture that didn't use gender as its guiding measure of value, competency, and ability. In my novel-length works, I chose to focus on three primary aspects of character and culture creation to reach that goal. They aren't exclusive or exhaustive, but provided me a foundation upon which to build.
First, one woman is not enough. The solitary woman operating in a male-dominated setting often spends time and energy struggling to gain and keep respect, and the cost is often a separation (physical and/or social) from other women. It also reinforces the notion that female influencers are Rare and Special—quite the opposite of what I wanted. I needed many female characters—primary, secondary, and beyond—to balance my created world.
Second, I didn't want my female characters to need a mentor to convince them they were both worthy of their goals and able to attain them. Instead, the culture itself should be one that didn't set gender-based limits to begin with. That doesn't mean the characters don't encounter mentors. Quite the opposite. But the decisions wrestled with center on moral choices rather than barriers to acceptance. Guidance focuses on the best way to achieve goals, not whether women are deserving and capable of pursuing them.
Third, I wanted to take a step beyond character agency—that ability to make decisions and take action. Agency (and its partner, competency) are critical in the creation of likeable and robust characters, but agency and competency can be practiced in isolation. My characters had to have influence, too—the accepted and expected power to change the course of events, lead others, and face consequences. Agency alone is hollow if not coupled with influence.
So could my novels still "pass" the Bechdel Test? Ayup. A goddess and a chieftain discuss waging war. A soldier and an outcast debate the morality of power. A pair of dead warriors struggle to help an ambitious ruler. Two powerful women can't decide if they should be allies or enemies.
But—and this is just as important—the men also have conversations that aren't about men. And men and women together have conversations about men and women. Certainly the characters sometimes talk about sex and desire and relationships because that's part of the human condition. No one, however, treats them as defining parts.
Best of all, I didn't have to deliberately include those conversations because the created culture itself—filled with both women and men of agency and influence—requires them to take place.
We absolutely still need fiction that splashes glaring spotlights on gender inequality—work that provides women and girls pathways to achieve their own agency and influence in real life, and provides men and boys an understanding of the positive roles they can play in the process. But as a writer who tells stories within created worlds, I opted for a culture in which questioning gender equality would be the odd conversation rather than the norm.
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