The Guard Was Female: Extending Gender Representation Beyond Your Main Characters

So you’ve finished writing your next novel, and you’ve done great work making a complex female lead.  Or maybe you have a band of adventures, and were very conscious to make it a 50/50 split, or maybe even decided to have more women than men!  You’ve succeeded at passing the Bechdel test and are ready for the world to fall in love with your amazing women.  But there’s one area you might have overlooked while striving to write a gender-equal book: your background characters.

51iot-2bgyclA couple of years ago, I was reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF BLADES, and I had a moment where I went back and reread a page because of momentary confusion.  A random female soldier had walked up to deliver a message and then disappeared from the story.  In a book that had never once displayed sexism, that had multiple female leads, my brain still tripped over the fact that random soldier #3 was a woman.  My brain has been taught that women in the background are the exception, not the norm, and I was convinced for 30 seconds that I had missed a character introduction, that random soldier #3 was an integral part of a plot point I had somehow missed.  But nope, random soldier #3 was a woman who was just….random soldier #3.  And that’s FABULOUS.  And that’s also the moment I really clocked this ingrained problem we have of making non-main characters male.

Fantasy and sci-fi have made great strides in the last few decades at putting female characters in leading roles.  But it’s just as important to make sure that the background characters share that same gender diversity, otherwise you are unintentionally reinforcing that these women are exceptions, not the norm.  (And yes, there are always going to be plenty of books where, because of the culture you’ve built, gender equality doesn’t make sense.)  If your goal is a fantasy world where genders have equal opportunities, then we should see women in every role, from council member to stablehand.  It’s a simple thing to fix, but all too easy to overlook.  Think about it: when you imagine a town guard or a brigand on the road, how often do you automatically picture them as male?

This phenomenon was best encapsulated in a fantastic episode of the podcast Scriptnotes.  Titled “Changing the Defaults,” guest Christina Hodson, a screenwriter, discussed how often she goes into her scripts and realizes she’s made every one of her one-line characters a man – to wit, she “defaults” to making characters male. (It’s a fantastic listen, and if you’d rather read, there’s a link to the transcript for the episode as well.).   That phrase “changing the defaults” is something we as society have to continue to work towards.  And that includes making sure that when you write a gender-equal society, you make sure that it extends BEYOND your main characters, all the way down to no-name characters and your bands of ruffians waylaying helpless strangers on the road.  Your guards, your mages, your bakers, your town drunks, there should be women scattered throughout them.

So what are some of examples of books (aside from the aforementioned DIVINE CITIES trilogy) that excel at putting gender equality into every aspect of society?  K.B. Wagers’ sci-fi adventure A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK has men/women/other existing in all roles without a second thought, with pronouns part of basic ID information transmitted wirelessly to people when they meet for the first time.  Recent fantasy debut LEGACY OF ASH also does a wonderful job of making sure that the army that allows women to serve…actually has women serving.  And you’ll find women in every other social strata of the story.

So as you put the finishing touches on your gender-equal book, remember to check your defaults.  You might be surprised at what you find.

9 thoughts on “The Guard Was Female: Extending Gender Representation Beyond Your Main Characters

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  1. OMG! This is … perfect!
    About a month ago I had that same ‘wait, this background character is a woman?!’ moment and questioned myself for reacting. Because once you’ve noticed this sort of thing you can’t un-notice it, can you?
    Great post Caitlin! Thank you for the reminder that I need to get on and read some Robert Jackson Bennett too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right?? Certain fantasy tropes (and gender tropes) are just so engrained in my head that I have to stop and think about it, and that’s just me as a reader. Writers have so many other balls they’re juggling, I’m sure it can be an extra challenge to stop and think about what your ratio of male to female background characters is.

      And definitely read Robert Jackson Bennett!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh this is a GREAT POST. One of the things that I love so much about Melissa Caruso’s world building in her Swords & Fire trilogy is that there are tons of diverse background characters. I remember in book 2 I think the main character is strolling through the city and notes a couple and refers to them as something like ‘the woman and her wife’ and she does things like this multiple times throughout the series. I think it’s important to world building in general to make the background reflect what you’re trying to show otherwise a character winds up being The One which turns out to be…not the right kind of The One that fantasy should be known for LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. EXACTLY. K.B. Wagers is great at this too (with the exception that her Hail Bristol books are a matriarchal society, but her LGBTQ rep is all over the background characters.). Looking forward even more to Sword and Fire!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been noticing this more as well. Mostly I see it in the random soldier or guard. I’m not sure I’ve noticed it in other roles. I admit the first few times it threw me too because I was like “wait wut?” I went a while without reading much fantasy some years back and so when I came back to it one of the first books I read was Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth which had a non-binary character and it was the first time I’d come across a character with a “they” pronoun. It really threw me and I kept thinking I’d missed something. But now I see non-binary characters a little more too. Little by little I think it’s becoming more normative in fantasy which hopefully makes representation more expected elsewhere. Great discussion post!


    1. Yes! I’ve also found myself needing to mentally adjust for they/them pronouns, especially when the author doesn’t specifically reference a character as non-binary. Great seeing more representation across all the genders!

      Liked by 1 person

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