Long before I became an author, long before my secret agent persona earned entry into the SFWA, I loved books. I loved books too much, according to just about everyone in my life when I was in my middle and high school years. Things haven’t changed. I love meeting new characters. I still love books. My reading has defined me in so many ways.
When depression got truly bad for me, books gave me the escape I needed from the real world for a little while. In the pages of a book, I found courage, laughter, and many other things. Books still give me an escape, whether I am reading them or writing them, chasing this crazy author dream I have.
There’s a problem in fiction, especially older fiction. Men got to do the really cool things, while women were there to be saved. The really good women in fiction had a spark, but… I found them in middle grade reading, sometimes in young adult reading–before young adult was actually a genre. This persisted, with little variation, for most of my developmental live. It still persists in far too many ways.
My reading has defined me in so many ways–to the point I have had to, by influence of what I have read–accept I either play like a boy or languish like a girl. Secret agent woman me is learning to refuse the prejudice. Secret agent woman me wants to be accepted for writing edgy, interesting women–and equal men. Secret agent woman me wants to break out and write the stories I truly want to tell, and I don’t want to flinch away from writing interesting real women–women who cry when crying is necessary, women who are complicated, confusing, and temperamental. I want to write women–a woman–who is so many different things for so many different reasons.
I don’t want to write a woman who is strong. I don’t want to read them, either. Strength, as of late, is a term for a woman who is hard, cold, and unemotional for the sake of rising above men. I see someone describe a strong woman in a story, and I flinch. I flinch, wondering if I will get a truly strong woman, or a woman who is created to be a stone in a world she is battered in, just so people can see her and go, “wow, she’s strong!” They’re women who have to stand against the flow of their gender rather than embracing it. They are too often not even women: they’re men with breasts, behaving like men, having the emotional stereotypes of men, and doing everything men do just for the sake of being perceived as strong. They’re women defined by social movements to make women grow beyond achievable standards. To be strong, women have to be everything to everyone.
I disagree, and I disagree strongly.
I want women who are real, who show strength doesn’t mean rising above everything, but in endurance, in having the ability to feel, to have the ability to stand up for herself when necessary and right, and have the ability to stand up for others, be they men or women. I want to write women who earn the respect of men, who are as every bit interesting as the women they share they stage with. I want to write men who are forced to earn the respect of the women they are sharing the stage with.
In fiction, the best books are the ones where the women are real, regardless of whether they are strong or weak… and in fiction, the best books are the ones where the men are real, regardless of whether they are strong or weak. I read for interesting characters. Traditionally, men are more likely to fit these roles. It’s gotten to the point where if an author writes an interesting man, the author is at risk for backlash for not having made him a woman. That’s wrong, too–in case it wasn’t obvious.
Dear readers, dear lovers of books, please free us all from the absurd notion strong women are necessary. Interesting women are necessary, and so are interesting men. But most of all, we need interesting men and women we can relate to. The book lovers among us may scorn stories like Twilight, but here’s the thing: Bella was relatable… and she was interesting. She was interesting because she was so relatable. She wasn’t strong, not in my opinion, but that’s what made her strangely wonderful. She was a person readers could relate to. She fit so many lives, and because of that, she opened the door to so many to books. There are themes people don’t like, choices she made many don’t like, but on the page, for so many girls and young woman, Bella opened the doors of reading and showed it’s okay to be that girl–that normal girl who becomes something else. Bella lived so many dreams of girls who wish for something new, something exciting, and something different.
There is absolutely no shame in loving women characters like this. Don’t let anyone take your love of books from you–or your love of characters you can relate to. You read for characters who interest you. You don’t read to be told what the ideal woman or man is. You read for reasons entirely of your own choosing.
In Harry Potter, Harry was a lot of things, but the instant we met him beneath the stairwell in that little cupboard, we related to him. We’ve all be that little boy or girl trapped in a deep hole. We can relate to him. Harry became strong by the end. Harry had amazing women at his side the entire time. Some of them weren’t strong. Some of them never became strong. But they shared one thing in common: they were interesting. From Hermione to Ginny to Luna to Mrs. Weasley, these women rose above who they were when the story started… and they became people we loved, not because they were strong, but because they were interesting and real. Don’t get me wrong, some of these women are very strong. There are so many characters in the Harry Potter world worth mentioning of both genders. Women do not rise above the men, and men do not rise above the women. They’re interesting because they’re real people.
Harry Potter, as a series, accomplished something very little fiction has accomplished: a cast of characters defined by the characters, not the gender of the characters. JK Rowling, thank you for writing interesting characters, not strong ones. JK Rowling gave a lot of women a path to follow, a way to survive in a publishing world where being a woman isn’t necessarily a good thing.
In the SFWA, I’m known by my initials. Gender bias is alive and well. I have navigated waters by my real name–and by my initials. The same story, and two very different results. My initials succeeded where me, as a woman, failed. I hid behind my initials because I had a dream: to write epic fantasy.
Secret agent woman me hides my gender behind my initials. My very-female picture is there for the world to see, but when people browsed for books, they’d see genderless initials–maybe I’d beat the prejudice and get somewhere with my writing. Not on virtue of who I am, but on virtue of what I might not be.
Trillian Anderson isn’t my real name, but in all other ways, she’s the real me I wish I could have pursued professionally from the start in so many ways. She’s the me who enjoys writing some (light) sex in her stories. (The other real me is a bit of a prude…) She’s the real me who is writing a woman in urban epic fantasy fiction without shame of being a woman. She’s the real me who is creating a cast of interesting characters for the sake of their being interesting–not because of care for their gender.
She’s the real me who isn’t afraid of taking big risks. When the Dae Portals novels are ready, I’ll be proud of every element of my profession–including my gender.
Thanks for reading, book lovers.