Five years of writing and nine books' worth of writing can teach you a thing or two about the craft. Character development, world-building, pacing of plot, or even how to write a fight scene without drowning the reader in the minutia of every blow and parry – practice has done my books and I proud. However there's one learning curve that I believe is more important above them all, and that is how not to be a douche when it comes to writing female characters.
I class myself as feminist. I believe in equality across the board no matter where a person sits on the gender spectrum. From education to employment, rights to representation, everybody should be treated equally. Nobody should be judged on their gender in any part of life, but on skills, personality, individual merit.
You might ask whether I have always been of this opinion. The answer is yes. I've always been against sexism in all its forms. One of my fondest memories of school, six years before I even wrote my first book, was watching my friend Claire (in year 8 at the time) not only out-dribble the year 11 football captain, but then knock him on his arse with some genuine black-belt skills when he said she was "a fluke" and that girls can't play football. Score one for equality. However, when I started to write and publish books, my feminist views didn't seem to find their way into my stories.
A bit of background first – I started writing my debut The Written (Book 1 of the Emaneska Series) in 2009 and launched it in late 2010. I was your typical starving artist, writing and editing on my phone between serving customers at various bars and even a pasty kiosk at the local train station.
In The Written, there is a grand total of four primary female characters. Cheska – a blonde bombshell of a character who holds our main character Farden's heart (and testicles) in a tight fist. She's sly, smart, and manipulative. There's Elessi – a slightly overweight maid of Farden's who is hopelessly head over heels for him, but essentially left in the background. There's Svarta – Queen of the Sirens and a class A bitch. Lastly, there's Brightshow – a friendly dragon who is pretty much there to provide information and transport. Writing this now, I'm wincing, especially when I compare these women against my cast of approximately 15 strong male characters, each with a history, a purpose and bags of page-time.
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? For a piece of fiction (film, book or other) to pass the test, two named female characters must have a conversation with each other that isn't about a man. It's a great measuring stick for gender equality. It has been carried out on over 4,500 major films. Surely the majority passes? Wrong. Just over half do. I'll admit that The Written failed the test miserably.
As I moved from book to book, my eyes were opened by a number of key friends and honest readers. I fathomed that a conscious effort needed to be made to make my writing as equal as my personal views. After The Written came Pale Kings, which passed the Bechdel Test, but only just. However, my female characters became more integral and important to storylines. Elessi ended up being so integral that her decisions shaped the fate of the world. In the last two books of the series, Dead Stars Parts One and Two, I’d introduced more female characters so that the male/female balance was almost equal. Simple villains, sex-icons and bitches these were not. These were powerful, detailed characters that had plots and page-time of their own.
When it came to my next series, The Scarlet Star Trilogy, I decided to make a bigger effort to make my books gender-equal. As such, Aunt Lilain was put in place of an uncle. She is one of the strongest characters I’ve ever written. To put it simply, she kicks arse. However, the fact that I even had to make a conscious decision whether Lilain should be female or not is ludicrous. It shows just how deeply ingrained the sense of how women “should” be represented is in us, even in a man like myself, who wouldn’t hesitate to call myself a feminist. It’s like Joss Whedon once told a journalist who asked the question, “So, why do you keep writing these strong female characters?” – “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
I’m not saying my writing is the pinnacle of feminism. To be honest it still has a long way to go, and I’ll be putting a lot more conscious effort into my next books. I suppose the main point I want to make is that sexism is sneaky. I wasn't even aware I was limiting my female characters, even though I've held myself to a high standard of equality in all other aspects of my life. I defend the rights of women to anybody who dares to argue against them. And yet, without realising, sexism hid between the lines of my writing. Even though I could excuse it with “historical accuracy” – that women in Medieval and Western times were under-represented anyway and had none of the rights that are in place today – that isn’t enough. I believe it’s important, especially as a male author, to make a conscious effort to maintain equality, and that simply featuring female characters is nowhere near enough. If we are to be equal and change the status quo, then every hope and dream we have for every male character needs a female equivalent.