A couple of weeks ago, the Handsome Sidekick put on a movie for our Offspring to watch. It was Paper Planes, an Australian film about a boy trying to make it to the World Paper Plane Championships in Japan. It’s a sweet story, if a little cheesy at times, and there were some elements with which I could really identify, having grown up in country Australia. We thought our Offspring might also enjoy it. As it began, though, Second Offspring noted that the main character was a boy, and said, ‘Why do these movies always have boys in them? Why not girls?’ and I replied, ‘I KNOW, Second Offspring! I have asked myself the same question, when it comes to stories.’
So I asked around, specifically on The Toast, where I know there are lots of people who care about women in film, and who have children, and who are feminists, and I got some really good suggestions about movies I can show Second Offspring where girls are the main characters. And we do have lots of books where the story is about a girl character, but it’s been a good reminder to think about what messages our Offspring are getting through their exposure to films and books.
I often think about this in terms of my own stories, as well. Almost always, my protagonist is a woman, and that’s in part because I think it’s important that there are women characters who have a central role in fiction, but it’s mostly because it helps me explore my own thoughts and emotions and helps me question my beliefs and prejudices. I find it easiest to do that through characters who are women, because I’m a woman, not a man. That’s not to say that I never write as a man, but I don’t want to come across as inauthentic, and I don’t feel like my male characters are as well-developed as my female ones. Perhaps I just need to practise! But whatever the reason, I like to write about girls and women.
More often, though, in the last couple of years, I’ve found that I’m changing the way I write these characters. Considering this has been an interesting exercise in thinking about my relationship with people in the real world, and how I view our culture, and what’s important to me.
In many ways, writing, and especially, having that writing published can feel like you’re putting yourself on show. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. People will have read it (regardless if it’s only a few people!) Even on this blog, I look back over some of the posts I’ve written, and I want to edit them, or even delete them, because I feel like the writing is immature, where, for example I’ve tried too hard with a metaphor, or I’ve not really made the argument as clearly as I would have liked. Sometimes, I do edit them. But most of the time, I leave them as they are, because they’re evidence of the way my thinking and my writing has developed.
Fiction is like that, too. Several years ago, I had an idea for a novel (the one I’m trying to finish). While writing that, I came up with a short story which took place in the same world, but set a few decades before. After I had that story published, I also wrote up an outline for a novella which I’d like to do as a prequel to this novel. Why don’t we just leave aside the minor issue of time constraints and the many other projects I have, and concentrate on how these characters evolved?
When the short story begins, it’s a young woman and a boy. Just them, alone, because she feels she has to protect him above everything, and she doesn’t think she can risk letting anyone else getting close to her, because she might lose him, and it’s a hostile world in which they live. The novella built on this story expands on that, showing how the main character grew into the person we meet in the short story. She’s had a lot to deal with, and as a result, she’s wary and independent. She has learnt to rely only on herself.
But in the novel, which takes many years later, our new main character is still in a hostile world, however, her attitude has changed. She is also alone, often, but this is more due to her difficulty in relating to others. She is often surrounded by people but doesn’t know how to interact with them. When the crisis occurs, she feels lost, but then others come into her life to help. And when that story arc occurred to me–that she could collaborate, that she didn’t have to do it all on her own–I realised just how much I wanted that to happen.
The first short story is set in a world where the main character has nobody upon whom she can rely. She has to forge through without any assistance. She has to fight, constantly, for change, and she wants it now. She rages against the unfairness and brutality of it all. She’s my young feminist. At least part of her is me, in my twenties, fists up, ready to take on the world.
In the second story, my character doesn’t really know what to do around other people, but at the very least, she realises that she’s out of her comfort zone, and she asks for help. This doesn’t make her weaker, and it doesn’t mean she’s no longer the main character. Instead, she’s opening up, she’s spreading her arms out, inviting others to come on board. She facilitates, but she accepts that others can contribute. Even others who might think differently, who might be different.
And I realised that this shows where I’m at, compared to where I was. Less willing to take on the world head on, and more willing to invite others to join the struggle. Less angry, more pragmatic. And it’s made me think about what stories I want to introduce to our Offspring. Stories where girls take the lead? Of course. Stories where they can be tomboys? Certainly. But also stories where they can be princesses, or wear makeup or ride horses… and also stories where girls and boys collaborate and work together. Because fighting against everyone takes energy, and if we can welcome some others on board, then we can work together, instead of against each other. Maybe it’s the non-confrontational side of me, but I like that so much better.