Am I Part of The Problem?

Alternate Title: Am I a Sexist Asshat?

One of the major topics that pops up on blogs and on forums is the question of sexism. Especially, it would seem, in regards to the genre of fantasy. And I agree that it is terrible when women are solely portrayed in restrictive and stereotypical roles. Or when they are flat and lifeless. Or when they are solely there to aid the male character’s story and no other reason. Female characters need to be interesting in their own right. They need to have their own dreams, motives and goals. And they need to want to achieve them and strive to achieve them. Otherwise, what’s the point? In books (or films or games or series or cave paintings), it’s so frustrating to see a true ‘token female’ character. If she were cut from the story completely and no one would notice she had gone (unless of course, she had been distracting you from the whole affair with her boob plate and chain panties), then what is the point in her having been there in the first place?

In Book 3 of the trilogy I’m writing, there is a character named Charlie who I love more and more with each scene she is in. She is fun to write. She is complex. She has a number of very strong motivations for her actions. And I thought to myself – as a female character, I think I’ve managed to avoid forcing too many stereotypes on her. I think she comes of as pretty well rounded and she sure has hell as enough motivation to be there. This got me thinking to myself – are ALL my female characters like this? That’s when it hit me – what female characters?

Oh crap, I did I just fall down the Sexism Well?

Let’s have a look starting with Book 1, Through the Black. There are a grand total of four female characters, two who are extremely minor.  For various reasons, their screen time is relatively limited. There’s a lot of movement and travelling and the only characters who are seen for an extended period of time in the story are the three main characters, all male.

Book 2, The Fairy Godfather, does a little better with a female Ambassador driving the war plot line while there is also a female support character helping the MCs along with the revenge plot line. There are a couple of minor characters thrown in there but overall the screen time for the women doesn’t measure up to that of the men. The thing is, I’ve always worried about making my characters well rounded, believable and relevant. Now I’m faced with a lack of female screen time. Is this worse?

I have always felt that I would rather read a book completely devoid of female characters than have a book where half the cast were women who had been shoe-horned in because sexism. Isn’t having a flat and lifeless female character there just to make up numbers more damaging than having none at all? Or is this attitude adding to the sexist feel in fiction? Am I a part of the problem?

In tackling the issue in my own writing, there is always the option of gender swapping characters. This is another subject I’ve seen pop up across the world of internet discussion and it is a legitimate option. There are characters within the story who could be swapped to being female. The only issue, and I admit it is a selfish one, is that I don’t want to. I’ve said it before from my Twitter account, potentially quite a few times. I write what pops into my head. No, really. I sit, I daydream, then I write. In my head, my characters are who they are. I’ve found that one of the most important things with writing is to go with my gut. To write what feels right. I’ve written my characters in the way that I envision them and I don’t know if I could bring myself to make such a drastic change to any of them. Unfortunately, it might be a sacrifice I just have to make.

Another option, the one I’m leaning towards currently, is that the screen time of my current female characters is ramped up when I go back for the big edits once Book 3 is finished. I already have women who are interesting but perhaps they don’t get to shine as much as they deserve. This does however still leave me with the issue that in Books 1 and 2 none of my ‘main’ characters are women. Is this an issue if I have good female support characters? Or conversely does that make it WORSE to have good, strong female characters that are, when it all boils down to it, just support characters?

Any and all opinions are welcomed and asked for.

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2 responses to “Am I Part of The Problem?

  1. First of all, kudos to you for even considering all of this, and for being honest about your reluctance to gender-swap. I certainly understand that attachment to the way the character first appears to you.

    The issues with any kind of marginalized character are mainly down to realism and visibility. You’ve obviously already figured that out, and it sounds like you’ve already done a lot to make sure your female characters are realistic instead of being stock types, so yay!

    So, visibility. As a fantasy writer myself, I sympathize with both the issue of having a ton of characters, and of writing a series where a character might be supporting in one book, but have a more major role in the next (as is the case with many of the diverse characters in my first book). Not everyone can be a major player, because not all writers have the wiggle room to write giant novels like George R.R. Martin. Sometimes we have to accept that interesting characters still play second fiddle, and you know what? That’s okay. To answer one of your questions, it is better to have good female characters in secondary roles than to not have good female characters at all.

    That being said! I encourage you not to think of gender-swapping as a drastic change. If you realize that personalities are not really based on a person’s parts (gender experience, maybe, but certainly not by biological sex), then a personality can be applied to male, female, anything in between or beyond. I recently gender-swapped one of my characters and LITERALLY the only thing I did was change pronouns. Dialogue, action, description, even her name all remained the same.

    Take another look at your characters and think about whether it really matters what gender they are. The role of your female characters can make a huge difference, not only for female readers, but for how male readers think of female characters in general. If you like, I’d be happy to beta your MS and discuss all this more specifically.

    Someday we may get to a point where we don’t have to think this carefully about the internalized messages of our books, but for the time being, we absolutely need to.

    • First of all, thank you for your amazing reply! Such effort is greatly appreciated.

      I completely get what you mean about gender swapping as I have been considering this. It would really only cause any major changes for one character and that is because of how child custody works in this country. My reluctance comes purely from a little block in my head saying “No, no, that’s no right.” Silly, I know, but I’m sure as a writer you know how attached to characters we can get after a few years of work. The actual gender isn’t important, it is just how I’ve come to think of them. That said, as a writer, if it was needed to improve the work then it would be done.

      However, your comment on wiggle room to write a behemoth novel has given me some inspiration. It would be glorious! I certainly wouldn’t have to worry about female representation then, that’s for sure. My secondary plan of ramping up the screen time of my female characters could be a serious option. Where the first novel is fairly short as it sits, I’m growing increasingly confident that there are some points I could write in that currently occur off screen, pushing certain people into the limelight more. I’ve gotten a few good ideas from this actually. The plotting hat is back on.

      I am completely delighted by your offer to beta and, if said offer still stands when the MS is ready for it, I would definitely take you up on it. As a female writer, I certainly would rather be a part of the solution rather that part of the problem and as such am quite conscious of making books that aren’t going to make women feel disconnected.

      Thank you again for your comment, it has been a wonderful thought point.

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