I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days, and it’s because of one of the last main characters I was working with, and the new one that I’ll be working with for NaNoWriMo in November. They’re female characters with dreams, and their stories are about them chasing those dreams and the obstacles they run into, and what they’re willing to do to achieve their dreams.
A lot lately, I’ve seen agents and readers alike saying they want to see “fully fleshed out characters with dreams and goals.” Whether they say it or not, they usually mean that those dreams and goals should be more than getting married and having children.
I’m gonna grab some examples: Hiccup from “How To Train Your Dragon”: at the opening of the story, he wants more than anything to be a dragonslayer like all the rest of his tribe. Taran, from the Prydain Chronicals, in the opening scene of the series is complaining about making horseshoes because he wants so badly to make a sword and learn to fight like his hero Prince Gwydion. It’s fairly common for a young main character to dream of heroism. Sure, they almost always regret it later when they realize how much they’ve bitten off, but that’s beside the point.
If they’re male.
But female characters? Look at a couple: Katniss – she’s a warrior – did she choose it? Hells no. How about Xena, Princess Warrior? She was driven to it after being shattered by the destruction of her village.
And someone’s going to point out “But male characters are often forced or driven to become warriors too!” But that’s not actually the problem. See, there seems to be some equality in the cases where characters are forced into the warrior role – at least it’s commonly done with both male and female characters. Where the inequality appears is in the former case – when it comes to hopes and dreams. Can anyone even think of a story where a female character dreamed of being a hero and went off to chase that dream?
If fact, can anyone think of any story where a female character dreams of taking on a role that is typically filled by a man, and goes on to chase her dreams? And again, I’m not talking about cases where she’s either forced to, or driven to by a negative experience – for example, a woman’s police officer father is killed in action, and she feels driven to take his place or finish his unfinished business in some way. I’m talking about a young woman who idolizes her police officer father and wants to be like him.
I’m not saying there’s a problem with the stories being told. I’m saying there’s a problem with the stories that are not being told. We’re flooded with stories of women making desperate choices to protect those they love, fighting for the tiny shreds of happiness the world offers and then rips away. Women’s dreams in fiction are the simple humble dreams – they just want to live a simple, peaceful life and the events of the story tear that away from them. And yes, there are male characters with those simple, humble dreams too, but that’s not the problem. The problem is we so seldom see stories with female characters who walk onto the set and say I want something, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it.
Well, not unless what she wants has something to do with a man, of course. Belle from Beauty and the Beast wants so much more than this provincial life, but it turns out what she was looking for was just a different man than the one she was first presented. Ariel? Part of that world means specifically part of Prince Eric’s world.
I think in the near future, there might be some shift in the popularity of this sort of thing. Dystopias are hot right now, and I think that reflects the hopelessness that my generation feels. But I think, or at least I hope, that things will shift towards something more positive, and we’ll see more characters who dream about a life that’s better than what they have. Characters who dare to dream of making the world a better place, or just dream of something more for themselves than get married and pop out kids.
In any case, I’m crossing my fingers that it’s going to spark something in the hearts of my readers, because that’s what I write, and I can’t help it.