By Christina Ochs
Let’s face it- bad girls are a lot of fun to write. They’re interesting, they break the rules, they make things happen. And it’s a great time for creating empowered female characters. Readers love them.
I’m writing an epic fantasy based on the Thirty Years War (1618-48), set in an alternate early modern Europe. My world had a considerable amount of gender equality, so my female characters have few limitations. There’s a pragmatic, diplomatically astute princess, a vicious marauder, a talented young cavalry officer, a Machiavellian cleric (or three), an intelligent, ruthless empress and a megalomaniacal military genius, among others. And yes, it is a lot of fun to write all of these bad-ass women.
But my biggest problem is a character who is essential to the plot, but also demonstrates the human cost of war. She is a good girl. A refugee who’s lost her home, who’s trying to keep herself and her children safe. She’s done nothing wrong. She’s not feisty, strong or resourceful, and is just pretty enough to attract the attention of predators.
I spent a long time thinking of ways she might plausibly develop into a ninja, but couldn’t make it work. She is a frustrating character. I’ve brainstormed ways to make her more awesome with a few of my beta readers, who also find her frustrating. And yet, as I go through the final edits of this manuscript, I’ve decided to stand behind her non-awesomeness.
This is why. As a military history buff, I know full well that war is glorified and often reduced to discussions of the technical side. Princes make policies and generals move their armies all over land and sea while using cool weapons and wearing great armor. This can be fun to study and write about, but doesn’t take the human cost into account.
It’s easy to recount a conflict from the perspective of those who make things happen. It’s fun to write characters who make decisions and take action, even when they’re the wrong ones. Especially when they’re the wrong ones.
It’s much less enjoyable to write about the average person affected by those bad decisions. Just think of how frustrating it is to watch the news and see human suffering we can do little to ease. It’s far worse to be the victim, unable to stop terrible things from happening to ourselves or those we love. That’s the true ugly side and easy to overlook when we create characters who take charge and overcome.
Most people in a bad situation however, won’t rise to the occasion. Most will muddle through somehow, coming out on the other side worse for the wear, and in extreme circumstances, simply dying.
I don’t feel like I can do a story about a major war justice without showing that side. It makes sense to do it through the eyes of a character who quickly learns that being a good girl doesn’t prevent bad things from happening. She will develop as a person by surviving (for now), becoming a lot sadder and a bit wiser. She will never turn into an awesome, empowered Amazon, because like most of us, she just doesn’t have the wherewithal.
It’s great that empowered characters of all sexes have become prevalent in fiction. But please, spare a thought for the non-awesome among us.