Posted by: kshayes513 | March 5, 2015

Kate Elliot on Creating Women Characters and All the Other Kinds

The headline on Kate Elliot’s recent Tor.com post is “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings.” Since I’ve never wondered how to write women characters, I started to read as a curiosity – what answer will she give to what has always seemed to me a rather ignorant question?

I realize, though, that for many men who are novice writers, it is a legitimate question. And that is thanks to a global culture which almost universally portrays women as some other kind of being than men, and less than men in almost every way. In media storytelling, we now have statistical studies showing that women appear far less often than men, and that when they appear, they are nearly always defined by a relationship to a man – sister, mother, lover, wife, co-worker or sidekick. And that’s when they’re more than just background, object of sexual desire or MacGuffin.

Elliot starts from those limited stereotypical roles and shows how the confused apprentice writer might start thinking about female characters to break out of the stereotypes. But this essay goes way beyond writing female characters. In the end, Elliot gives a seminar on how a writer can make all characters, even the minor ones, into believable, three dimensional people with lives of their own, and why accomplishing this is so important to good worldbuilding.

Here’s a little snippet on writing minor characters who don’t have a lot of power:

Let’s say a female character’s place in the plot mostly revolves around a male character or is confined to a small domicile. She can still have her own dreams, her own desires, her own goals and quirks and thoughts and emotions. She can make choices, however small they may seem to be, for herself. This is how I define the nebulous term “agency.” (Others may have different definitions of the word. That’s cool.)

People with little access to external agency can still have internal agency. Furthermore, people with fewer direct avenues to power and influence have always had ways of digging around obstacles, cobbling together leverage, or acting privately through the public agency of others. There was, after all, one person almost all male emperors in a cut-throat world could trust: their mothers.

The whole essay is crammed with all kinds of suggestions for how to rethink and revision the ways you let your characters, major and minor, exist in your story. Go check it out here! And read the comments, too. As always with Tor.com articles, there’s some excellent discussion there, including long comments from Elliot.

By the way, my own favorite example of seeing a minor female character as a full person is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ista from the Chalion series. In The Curse of Chalion, Ista is a minor character, the mother of an important character; and is portrayed as reclusive, mentally and emotionally fragile, perhaps even mentally ill, and needing constant care and supervision. It’s impossible to think of her as anything but helpless.  In The Paladin of Souls, she is the hero.

What’s your favorite transformation from unimportant character to major player?

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