Thanks to a retweet by Ashleigh Bonner I recently came accross a blog post that significantly changed the way I’ve been looking at one of my central characters. The idea behind the post was to demonstrate what separates a good female character from one that is simply good at kicking butt. According to Chuck Wendig, the defining characteristic of a truly strong female character is agency; more specifically she asks writers to consider whether their story would have gone any differently if one were to remove or replace the ‘strong female character’.
If the story is not influenced directly by your character, if events don’t unfold as a direct result of her own decisions, then you’ve created a character without agency. No matter how physically strong she is, no matter what struggles she gets through, if all of her adventures simply happen to her then she isn’t demonstrating true strength.
To be honest a sense of agency seems so pivotal to the construction of any main character that I’d go so far as to say that the lack of it in any character (especially the protagonist or any secondary characters) is a key indicator that what you’re writing isn’t very good.
The main characters in my books are children, they can’t help but live in a world with a moderately reduced sense of agency (adults have a whole additional set of rules that they expect a child to follow). However, I try to ensure that even where the rules are followed, we nonetheless see a degree of choice from the characters.
Jack and Thea both typically do what their parents tell them to. However, I’ve been sure to include moments where circumstances change in such a way as to leave them the freedom to choose. When these moments arise I have to admit I could feel the personalities of both characters at their strongest.
Thanks to Chuck Wendig‘s post I’ve now got a clearer understanding of how important those moments of agency are when writing believable characters (even children). Children will experience a myriad of controlling forces during their young lives. In an ideal world most of these controls will be there to keep them safe. However, what shapes them as individuals are those very moments when they recognise grey areas in these rules and take the initiative to make their own choice.
Perhaps this is what makes young adult and teen fiction so popular; the very trait that we treat as the key indicator of adult agency is being explored in a raw and striking manner at precisely that life stage. We meet these fictional young men and women when they are claiming their own individual personhood. When thought of in this way, no matter how many butts your female character kicks, if you aren’t letting her make her own choices (good or bad) then you aren’t creating a person, at best you’re writing an exciting bit of furniture.
Thanks again to Chuck for opening my eyes, I’ve got an interesting new perspective on my writing now.
What’s your favourite female character, and why? Do you, like me, find yourself drawn to stories that focus on the development of a adolescent into and adult? Are there any books of this type in particular that resonate with you?
As always thanks for reading, all the best, John
(Also you’ll make my day if you pop over to have a look at the first book in the Jack Reusen series 😉 )
NOTE: The original post has been edited. I accidentally misattributed the author of the blog post. Many thanks to Ashleigh Bonner for helping me sort out my blunder. Ashleigh also writes her own awesome blog which you can find here.