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.
A 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.