Where Did All My Female Characters Go?

Like many people, I grew up aware of how often male characters dominated the screen and novel, doing all sorts of cool things. Meanwhile female characters were mere background furniture / “love interest” / “woman who cruelly seduces man but it’s okay, she dies shortly afterwards!”

I assumed that if I ever wrote fiction I’d be sure to create amazing heroines with agency and heart thumping storylines of their own.

So I was a bit surprised to realise my idea for a second book was packed with men. At this point I was just at the planning stage so had the chance to reevaluate. How much did it really matter to me that women were thin on the ground? More interestingly, might the novel turn out stronger if I gave it all more careful thought?

Many of the characters came to me quickly, their voices and personalities taking shape as soon as I put fingers to keyboard. At the time I was pretty pleased with myself. There’s something incredibly nice when it feels like a story is already inside you and is just waiting to be written. People talk of tapping into the subconscious and letting ideas flow… But what if my subconscious was a lazy ass?

 On reflection I felt like my characters weren’t even interesting men. They were merely tired variations of characters I’d spent years seeing and reading about.

The real problem, then, wasn’t solely to do with having too many male characters. It was more that I’d thoughtlessly reproduced the characters of other people’s fictions, rather than creating them from scratch based on my own actual lived experience or imagination.

Going back to my plan, I started seeing what it felt like to swap each character’s gender and how that affected the story. Women fighting, women doing dangerous things… It all got more exciting as if I was breaking apart all these preconceived notions and coming up with something new.

I’m not arguing that all stories must feature half men, half women. More that we should question the ideas we are fed by mainstream media which we inevitably internalise over the years.

Isn’t fiction about creating our own worlds? Expressing our own truths?

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