The Big Idea: Adrienne Kress
Hey! My pal Adrienne Kress has released her new novel The Friday Society, and in doing so, she’s not only put together a kickass YA adventure tale, but she’s also checked off some personal goals as a writer. Find out what they are right now.
My Big Idea shouldn’t really be a Big Idea. It should be a really Boring Idea. A common-as-muck idea. An “Are-you-sure-you-want-this-to-be-the-subject-of-your-Big- Idea, Adrienne? sincerely-John” idea.
Alas, it is not.
My big idea for my new YA Steampunk mystery adventure The Friday Society was “Write a story about girls in which they are strong and smart, but, more importantly, well-rounded individuals who are more than just token females (even as the leads of their own work), and, you know, likable characters.”
Which ought to be a given. But alas, again, is not.
A lot is made of strong female characters. To the point where panels are created at conventions to discuss the topic. Yet it is most rare to see a panel on strong male characters. And by “rare” I mean, well, I’ve never seen one. The reason? We are still working hard to promote female characters as characters and not as female characters. Look at Soderberg’s Ocean’s 11. No seriously, look at it. It’s a really fun movie. I’ll wait two hours . . . Okay, you back? Notice anything? Each man in the film is a type. The sexy type, the nerdy type, the funny type – you get my drift. And then there is the woman type. A single solitary female. A bit like you tend to have a single solitary person of colour (POC). But that’s a whole other contentious issue.
Men are seen as people first, gender second. They are considered gender-neutral. They are the waiting forms into which you can pour your types. Women, on the other hand, tend to be seen as their gender first, people second. They are not a ready form for a dozen different types. They are all, inclusively, already a type.
If you make a film about eleven men robbing a casino, the story is about eleven people putting together a cool heist first and foremost. But switch the genders around. Do you see now how the film becomes first and foremost about women robbing a casino, not about a cool heist? The surprised audience questions why women would do such a thing. Why has the filmmaker chosen to cast all women? We don’t ask these same questions when a filmmaker casts all men. Men are seen as the default setting. The norm.
And until we can see female characters the same way, until we can see them as people first, gender second, this idea of writing female characters who are entirely their own people will remain rather Big.
So how did I attempt to address in The Friday Society the problem of not only making my girls people first, female second, but correcting some sexist tropes that have become so common in books that they aren’t all that necessarily noticeable?
Well, like this:
1. I made my female characters strong, yes, but, more importantly, fallible.
We’ve spent the last several decades attempting to compensate for years of representing women as being completely vulnerable and helpless (i.e.: the damsel in distress). But the problem is that instead of creating three-dimensional, interesting characters, we wound up going too far in the other direction and created characters of another type, characters who have no weaknesses, who never lose a fight (i.e.: the kick-butt girls). That’s not human. Because (here’s a secret:) humans have flaws.
And so I created smart, strong, kick-butt characters, yes, but people who also on occasion screw up. Who have fears and foibles. This is important for two reasons. One, it shows that women are just people too. And two, it also shows girls that – you know what? – you can screw up and get over it. I think a lot of girls these days have so much pressure put on them to be perfect that it’s nice to see that sometimes you can make a mistake and move past it. More importantly, that you can learn from it.
2. I wanted to show was that my girls got along.
This is something sorely lacking in most media today. Even when you have a strong, positive, three-dimensional female main character, she is often the exception rather than the rule. Other female characters with lousy character traits are put around her to demonstrate just how amazing our lead character is, and often our FMC has contempt for most women in the story. The characters the FMC does relate to tend to be male.
On the off-chance that the FMC does have female friends, they are often represented as frenemies (I really hate that word). Relationships between women are evidently supposed to be catty, manipulative, and just all-around unpleasant. By contrast, there is a beauty to men’s bromance. It is held up as an important and wonderful thing, whether it be a Fellowship surrounding, say, a piece of jewelry, or someone to whom you can say I Love You, Man. But the female bond is derided, considered a necessary evil. Something to mock. It’s actually why I believe so many women love bromance books and films. We so rarely see our own friend relationships represented as high-quality and fulfilling, that we relate better to watching the way male relationships are represented.
That’s not good.
So. In THE FRIDAY SOCIETY my goal was to create female friendships that I relate to. Similar to the bromance. Relationships based on trust, support, loyalty and congruency of interests. On having fun with each other and making each other laugh. Of good communication and not letting misunderstandings fester. Relationships between reasonable and kind human beings.
3. Allowing one of my kick-butt girls to be girly.
It took me a very long time to realize that my having disdain for girly things did not make me a better person. In my early youth, anything that was associated with what a stereotypical girl liked was clearly bad (e.g. makeup). And anything that I liked that was liked by a stereotypical boy was good (e.g. action movies). You can imagine my shock when one day it occurred to me that my considering typically feminine things less important meant that I was perpetuating a pretty darned sexist attitude very common in our society. There is a notion that things that interest men are more worthy than things that interest women.
I decided to embrace the part of me that was more feminine. And doing so meant also embracing it in my book. Nellie loves being girly, loves playing dress-up, loves sparkles. None of this takes away from her ability to be strong, intelligent and get the job done. In fact, I truly believe her more girly qualities enhance these three powerful ones. Quite frankly I think she’s an utter delight. If I do say so myself.
4. Writing a book that has girls as the main characters where romance is so secondary as to be almost non-existent.
There is nothing wrong with romance, and I love a quality romance book/film (see! I’m embracing my girly side – though I think men are just as romantic as women, so . . . I’m embracing my human side). But often the only reason a female character is introduced into a story is so that she can be the object of desire for a man, or, if she is the lead, her story is all about her search for a man. There are, of course, exceptions, and I very much enjoy those exceptions. But right now they really remain exceptions. Not the rule.
I wanted to write a book about girls saving the day. In fact, no. I wanted to write a book about people who save the day. People who just happen to be girls. Now, there is a little romance in my book, because it made sense. Heck even The Lord of the Rings, which is about saving the world, had a couple romantic subplots in it. But mostly my girls are focused on solving a series of crimes. And you better believe this means they therefore pass the Bechdel Test in spades. (For those not in the know, the Bechdel Test goes like this, according to Wiki: The Bechdel test is used to identify gender bias in fiction. A work passes the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man).
I could go on. I could discuss my disdain for the girls-choosing-the-bad-boys trope, and how I attempted to subvert that. I could also discuss how I made my girls attractive, yes, but confident about that fact, as opposed to “What, me? I’m just so plain . . . why are these guys paying attention to me?” (which I won’t dismiss as just absurd, despite my disapproval of it – there is so much baggage that comes with women and how we view ourselves when it comes to appearance, is it any wonder we get confused?) But I won’t.
All I will say is that, in a way, it’s a pity I needed to be so focused on how I wanted to represent my girls in order to make them strong characters that were more than just their gender. But at the same time I think it’s a necessary thing to do. I hope that some day I won’t have to be so dogmatic. That female characters will be seen as gender-neutral in print as much as male characters (for that matter I hope the same for POCs as well – heck really for anyone who isn’t a straight white male), that stories about women will be stories everyone can enjoy that just happen to have women as protagonists. And I truly do think we will get to that day. But until we do, I’m going to put in the extra effort. Because it’s really that important to me.