So this weekend my buddy Craig and I were kicking around ideas for the comic book we eventually want to put together. Following the Rule of Cool–or maybe it’s Rothfuss’s Law*–we are throwing every awesome thing we love into the mix. We’ve got Amazons riding flying bears and wolves and whatnot; we’ve got super-advanced ancient technology, the secret of which is now lost; and of course we’ve got sky pirates! We’ve got two main characters, the sky pirate captain (older, male), and a young Amazon warrior (younger, female). Then, as we were populating our sky pirate crew (cynical captain; ex-nobleman; Viking berserker bear-warrior), I said something like,
“We need a woman in the crew.”
Craig looked at me funny. “Are you sure?” he said. “Once we’ve got the Amazon girl travelling with them, the other woman won’t have much to do.”
“That’s fine,” I said–rather emphatically. “More women equals better.”
He still seemed a bit confused, but I carried the point, and we’ve got at least one female in the pirate crew. (I think I can finagle some more.)
The incident got me to thinking, though, about the difference between my POV as a creator, and his.
I can’t read minds, but it seemed like what he was thinking was, “Why do we need another female main character? We’ve already got one.” And I was thinking, “Women kick ass! Let us therefore have a variety of kick-ass womenfolk in our story!”
Craig’s line of thinking (or the line of thinking I am attributing to Craig, anyway) is based on the erroneous idea that, while men are good at lots of different things and have lots of different characteristics, women are basically only good at being female. That is their character trait. So you’ve got the Captain, the Former Nobleman, the Viking Warrior Badass, and the Girl. What does the Girl do? Well, she’s a girl, right? What more do you need to know?
Stated baldly like that, of course it’s a ridiculous notion. Think of any two women you know. Are they exactly the same, interchangeable? Of course not. And yet it persists. Check out the TVTropes page on the Smurfette Principal for examples.
Yet, when I think about some of my favorite stories, in whatever medium, they share a common characteristic: The main characters are defined by their role in the story first, and their sex second.
Think about Firefly. (I know I do! Almost all the time!) Your main characters are: The Captain, the Stoic Badass Warrior,
the Merc, the Mechanic, the Pilot, the Hooker, the Preacher, the Doctor, and the Damaged Psychic. (That’s a lot of main characters! Way to go, Firefly!) On a typical show, who do you think would be female? Probably only the Hooker, and
maybe the Doctor also, and the rest would be guys. But! We already know that, on the show we loved and lost too soon,
nearly half the main cast is female! Even better, it’s not the characters you’d expect: Zoe Washburne is perhaps the most badass of Stoic Badasses, and if anyone can fix up a ship better than Kaylee, we haven’t met that person yet. As for River, she can kill you with her brain, and Inara, though she is the character most dangerously close to cliché-ville, is still a living woman with a complex relationship both with her job and her clients, and the life she’s chosen to lead aboard Serenity.
Similarly, maybe you haven’t read The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequel, but you should. Women are everywhere in these novels; they are brilliant thieves, politicians, gymnast/gladiators, soldiers, pirates, guardsmen … any job you see a guy doing, you see women doing it too. The best part is, it’s completely taken for granted. Not, “Hey little lady isn’t that sword a bit heavy for you there hur hur hur?” but “Oh ergh yeah please don’t impale me ma’am please ma’am.” (The pirates in book 2 are hands-down awesome.)
Every time I encounter a work like that, like Firefly or Locke Lamora, in a world where women just do awesome things and no one remarks on it, because of course they do, I stand up and cry, “More like this, please!”
More pirates, adventurers, thieves, badass warriors, scientists, teachers, preachers, merchants, captains, rulers, rebels, sorcerers, mathematicians, grammarians, librarians, artists, writers, postal workers, good people, bad people, people who love cats and hate children, or who love children but hate people, people who get the job done, or who would rather let the job wait and just enjoy a nice cuppa, people who are women.
*I don’t remember the context at all, but I’m fairly certain Patrick Rothfuss once said something on his blog about throwing lots of disparate elements into his books because he loves them and thinks they’re awesome–and what other justification do you really need for flying bears, sky pirates, amazons, etc? I think this should be called Rothfuss’s Law.