I can’t get too frustrated with my children as they sneak an extra five minutes of reading time instead of brushing their teeth, or sit on the toilet with a book after lights out, because I understand their desperation to read just a little more, just one more page, just to the end of the chapter, just to the end of the book. Engrossed in the adventure, enchanted by the brave, funny, talented and quirky characters and lost in another world, I feel cruel dragging them away for something as mundane and sensible as basic dental hygiene or a good night’s sleep. I can see them falling in love with the protagonists, wanting to be them or know them.
My eldest dressed as a certain beloved boy wizard for world book day, complete with scar, a handmade replica of his wand and the copy of Salazar Slytherin’s locket housing a note from Regulus Black that she penned herself. She knows those books inside out and every tiny detail is important to her. As she marched proudly to school, we all gasped as one when a wise bearded eleven year old Gandalf emerged from his house en route, for we are reading the Lord of the Rings together and the fellowship has just left the mines of Moria.
In my own writing I hope to evoke those amazing connections with characters; the ones whose wisdom and strength makes you feel safe, the selfish ones that infuriate you, the irreverent ones that make you laugh, the powerful ones that make you quake and the struggling ones whose bravery you admire. Despite being set in a dystopian world, I want readers to wish themselves into my book to share in the magic, to dream themselves into the garb of the characters, so that they themselves form part of the fabric of the world they create inside their own minds from the words on a page.
As my book grows and develops, I can hear the voices of my characters before I write their words. As I put them in different scenarios I can see the indignation on their faces or their eyes lighting up with glee and my job is simply to describe it. They have eccentricities and foibles, friends and adversaries, strengths and weaknesses and sometimes their flaws are what I love about them the most. They are complex blends of a thousand different traits, some admirable, some not, and are motivated by their own ambitions, hopes and fears.
Reflecting on the characters that have most drawn me in over the years, there are certain qualities they have in common; the ones that spring to mind are determination, loyalty, bravery in the face of adversity, kindness, inner strength, humour, integrity, diligence, a willingness to stand up for their beliefs and to protect those they love, humility, trust. Whether displayed by hobbits, humans, anthropomorphic animals, wizards, elves or aliens, these characteristics are universally admirable. Some characters transcend their fictional worlds and we take them into our hearts, they can inspire us, amaze us, impress us, leave our hearts racing, make our cheeks ache from smiling or leave our faces damp where tears have rolled silently down our cheeks.
One factor that has never been of relevance to my admiration of a character is their gender. I lived the journey to Mordor with Frodo and Sam with my every heartbeat; swapping them for Freda and Sara would not have impacted my ability to put myself into their hairy feet. I have seen a lot of excellent articles about the lack of strong female characters in books and how this is poor role modelling for girls. It would be ideal to find a wide range of inspirational characters, of different genders, races, backgrounds and abilities. But what sickens me far more than the lack of strong female characters is the inclusion of women and girls who lack any aspirations or meaningful character traits of their own; I can look up to a man as a role model, but I find the plethora of vapid female characters offensive and confusing.
Perhaps as a result of the significant existing gender bias in children’s literature, girls who are avid readers are encouraged to read and enjoy books with male protagonists; a book about a boy can be marketed to all children. Very often in these books, the story is not about gender and thus the main characters being male is fairly incidental. If I were to gender swap the characters in many children’s books, the newly female characters would often make near perfect sense. The questionable personalities would be the newly male peripherals who are jarringly subservient and whose lives revolve entirely and inexplicably around the women. In my opinion it is those roles that most need to change; two dimensional people don’t make sense as men and they don’t make sense as women either.
Of particular additional concern to me, first as a children’s writer who aspires to be published but also as a person who would like to live in an equal society, is that a book with strong female characters is often not perceived as a book for children at all, but as a book for girls. The main protagonist of my first novel is female, and yet it is not a book for girls. It is a fantasy adventure story, with dragons, magic and danger; it is a book for people who like fantasy adventure stories and the gender of the reader and the main character ought to be irrelevant to anyone’s enjoyment of the story. I have not yet reached the stage of discussing publishing or marketing the book, but already I have had feedback that there ought to be a boy as the main protagonist in at least a few chapters, or boys won’t want to read it.
Boys won’t want to read it, because it isn’t about a boy. That statement may not seem shocking or offensive, but I think our society needs to move towards finding it so. It is not only girls that need strong female characters that they can relate to, but boys as well. What message does it send to boys if books with women or girls in them are perceived as somehow beneath them, somehow less exciting, less worthy, less interesting. Like so many of my favourite stories growing up, my book is not about gender at all, and I hope that every character would stand up to a gender swap. At the point where that is achieved, the only objection to reading a book with a girl as the main character is an objection to girls in principle. And if my generation of women has looked up to strong men, I would like to challenge the next generation of boys to look up to strong women as well as strong men.
In an equal society, we would not even need to think about the gender of our mentors or role models, for the characteristics we seek to emulate are not usually sex based. Why would I insist on keeping my main protagonist female, you may ask, if it may well impact the book’s potential sales significantly? Because in an equal society, books aimed at all children would have a balance of male and female protagonists, with children reading the stories with content that appeals to them, rather than limiting themselves to books where they have genitals in common with the people who happen to feature most prominently. Of course we all want role models that look a bit like us and to whom we can more easily relate, but we can also admire and appreciate those who don’t. In an equal society, having a female protagonist would not impact sales at all, they would come down to whether it was a good story and well written. But to get there, we need to make plenty of those books available and encourage both boys and girls to read them so that we all get used to a world where there is no debate about books starring boys and books starring girls, just people seeking stories that inspire and move them.