Agency and Staying True to Character

I try to keep an eye on The Galaxy Express and SFR Brigade posts simply because those are great ways to find new-to-me Science Fiction Romances. The authors often delve into the political. Rarely do I agree with their takes on a situation (most of the authors there are liberal; I’m a libertarian), but it does provide for interesting brain fodder.

Elizabeth Lang, author of The Empire Series, posted an article on TGE, “My List for Strong Female Characters in Science Fiction,” in which she recommends six classic books meeting that particular criterion. Awesome recommendations, by the way, though I might be a bit biased. One of my favorite books heads out that list.

In that article, Elizabeth brings up a really good point about Science Fiction, particularly classic SF:

Fewer female characters in sci-fi and fantasy have agency compared to their male counterparts. A woman’s part in a story invariably revolves around a male, whether she is the goal, the inspiration, the thorn, the follower, or a source of melodrama. Often, she is the only woman in her plotline and she rarely has a chance to interact with other females in the story, because her life revolves around the men. Often her weakness is an excess of emotion, or she’s headstrong or childish, or she is strong but secretly, or not so secretly, yearns for a man to dominate her. Things happen to her and she reacts instead of taking proactive action.

I agree with her…and I disagree, too. Women in SciFi often lack agency. I’m not going to bring up the whys of that as they are myriad and varied, but those whys don’t always include the female character’s willing or unwilling lack of control over her circumstances. Sometimes, she lacks agency simply because she doesn’t have the courage or strength to take it, just like women in real life can absolutely lack the strength to take charge of their own destinies.

In case you’re wondering, that’s the disagreeing part, but not exactly the way you might think.

I’m absolutely ecstatic that more strong female characters are being written in SF&F. I have a few of those myself: Hawthorne from Tempered; India, who made an appearance in The Enemy Within and will eventually have her own story; and Rebecca Upton, aka the Blade.

Unfortunately, Ziri Mokuru of The Choosing is not a strong character. She’s not exactly weak, either, and she does eventually come into her own, but she often lacks the courage to take control of her own destiny.

If given the choice, I would still portray her exactly the way I did, apparent lack of agency and all.

When I first started writing fiction, I made a solemn vow to always follow where the story leads, to stay true to each character’s personality (flaws and all), and to never, ever, ever allow popular opinions and values to influence the way I write, no matter how much I might agree or disagree with them. That leads to some, er, interesting situations, like the method in which Moira the Reluctant took revenge. (It was bloody and violent.) 

It also leads to having characters that don’t reflect the appropriate “rightness” of modern cultural dogma touted by those on both the left and the right. In discussions involving books, one popular undercurrent most people aren’t even aware of (it’s often very subtle) is that fiction should not reflect reality; it should reflect a Utopian ideal of reality. I strongly disagree with that sentiment. When we start picking and choosing which characteristics are appropriate for characters to have, we don’t open the way for tolerance and diversity. We stifle it.

Further, we alienate people that lack those ideal characteristics. In real life, women are not always emotionally and mentally strong, and even otherwise strong women have moments where their strength falters. Tyelu suffered one such moment near the end of The Choosing, yet she’s an incredibly strong character, often to the point of being obnoxious. (That’s a commentary on her personality. It has nothing to do with her sex.)

Should I have erased that weakness merely to adhere to an unreal ideal? No. Doing so weakens her story considerably and robs her of any real depth of character. Would you truly be interested in reading more about her if her strength never wavered? I’m guessing the answer to that is no. It’s what my answer would be. (And I’m not alone.)

Frankly, I’m not interested in reading one-dimensional characters. I want to read characters that struggle with the choices they’ve made and that have some depth and nuance. It’s one of the biggest reasons I made the above vow. Staying true to characters and their stories is the only way I know of to offer readers the best books I can. If I deviated from that simply to comply with the appearance of rightness suggested by many culture warriors… 

No, I’m sorry. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to handcuff my creativity. I’m not going to lie to you simply to achieve the shine of enlightenment in the false cult of Ideal. I can’t do it, and maybe that has something to do with my own lack of agency, with the absolute fury of being pinned under my mother’s controlling thumb for far too long, with the helpless frustration of knowing deep down that no matter how hard I try to break free of society’s ridiculous rules, they will always be there, binding me.

Women often lack agency in the real world, sometimes through their own inadequacies, sometimes through no fault of their own. Ignoring those circumstances in fiction won’t magically make reality better, but it does insult the hell out of those of us struggling to be accepted regardless of our outward weaknesses.

1 thought on “Agency and Staying True to Character

  1. Thank you for the link to my article, I am somewhat humbled to have such a good solid article and writer do so. I am also delighted, because this is a very interesting article.

    You are, of course, completely correct about the portrayal of women in much of literature, particularly sci-fi. Female characters all to often have no agency (except, as you note, as some reflection of the male lead and their desire). Alternately, they they have limited agency… monomaniacally driven towards one thing, with no other interests, or “bold” “manly” style agency. In my own works, I hope I avoid this, but one can never tell. At least I do manage to have more than one female character.

    Regardless, I look forward to exploring your writings more deeply.

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