There are some books that readers pick up and they can riddle out pretty quickly that it’s unlikely to have important female characters. None are mentioned on the dust jacket. None show up in the first few chapters. None have POV chapters. If the reader skims, they won’t see a whole lot of “she/her” pronouns. These books suffer from a blatant lack of representation.

More insidious, there are some books that have lots of female characters—some of them even give these characters their own recurring POV sections, if not main character status—with one critical issue; the female characters don’t do anything.

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I’m here, I’m badass, and now that you know it, I’m just going to sit on my hands for the next three hundred pages.

What Female Character Decay Looks Like

Most of us have read this story at some point. A Strong Female Character™ is presented early on. She’s usually fiery, short-tempered, and Not Like Other Girls. There’s a good chance that she presents herself as a battle-ready combat champion, a clever manipulator, or another important role that requires a well-built skill-set and a go-getter personality. If it’s a Legion of Sweaty Dudes story, she usually starts off dishing out attitude to some of the male characters and trying to assert her capabilities. And then…

…Nothing happens. Slowly or quickly, she become a bystander in her own story. Either she checks out on her own and begins to take a back seat to other characters, or else she is sidelined by the male characters, often under the guise of “trying to protect her.”

The result of this is that the capable female character who appeared in the first few chapters is undermined by her inability to actively participate.  No matter what good characteristics she has, they all amount to nothing. If anything, it suggests that all of her qualifications are somehow negated by her femininity. When she’s billed as being smarter, tougher, and quicker than the men but consistently ends up as the damsel, it begins to look like her gender is the only thing holding her back.

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 Perhaps, thought Gregor the Fearless, if I mind my embroidery, the princess will buck up and save herself.

And so the seemingly progressive story actually ends up reaffirming traditional gender roles and enforces the idea that women are intrinsically less capable than their male counterparts. In doing so, it also reasserts traditional gender roles by forcing men to the forefront—and often into combat situations—while the women are relegated to support roles. These stories often have the outward appearance of representation while they actually contribute to many of the most prominent issues with how the media portrays women.

The argument could be made for any representation issue that it isn’t the individual writer’s fault that a particular demographic isn’t represented in their book, since representation issues emerge out of a broad pattern. However:

  1. As I have pointed out before, we each have an obligation to write the stories that we want to read. Even if the issue is part of a pattern, we produce the data points.
  2. Like narratorial male gaze, female character decay is bad writing.

How Female Character Decay Impacts Your Writing

Since I already have an entire article where I wax political about point one, I’m going to delve into point two and explain why female character decay wreaks unholy havoc on your story.

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Okay, but if I save me, what are you going to do?

Problems With Character Agency

The female character’s agency degrades over the course of the story, which means that a major player loses the ability to influence the plot. As a result the story often becomes less interesting, because passive characters are less invested in their own plot lines.

Undercut Characterization

Female character decay generally means that the character is given a strong entrance, but then fails to live up to it. If the shift is abrupt, it often results in confusion. If it’s more gradual, it results in disappointment. The entrance is a reader’s first impression of a character, and it provides important clues about to understand that character. When it’s unintentionally inaccurate readers often become frustrated and pull back from the story.

Likewise, all of the depth, flaws, and effective descriptions that applied to the character tend to decay alongside her. The descriptions that worked for a badass adventurer begin to seem unfounded when attached to a satellite love interest. At best, the character begins to feel inconsistent. At worst, the reader stops trusting the narrator.

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I love you too, wife lady.

Uninteresting Relationships

 Flat characters tend to have less complicated, less nuanced relationships. So do absent characters, including characters who are pushed off the page. Female character decay often has the unfortunate effect of reducing the main character’s relationships: protector-protected, patient-nurse, perpetrator-victim, dominant partner-submissive partner.

I’ve said that power dynamics add interest. Here, I’m going to complicate that argument. Power dynamics are interesting when they are used with intention. Power dynamics become interesting when they are examined, played with, and challenged. Complexity and subtlety add interest. Power dynamics are meant to be, well, dynamic. One dimensional relationships stagnate quickly, especially if the power differential is never explored.

Cast Issues and Character Clutter

Female character decay often results in an issue with cast size, especially if it happens to more than one character. Useless characters clutter up the story while contributing very little. When it effects multiple characters, that also means that several characters are converging on similar roles, thus adding redundancy. If you treat your characters like deadweight, they will pull your story down.

On the other hand, allowing the female characters to stand up and hold their own lets them bring color and interest to the story.  Female character decay, intentional or accidental, is often a waste of a perfectly good character. Giving the sword-swinging Valkyrie from chapter one a chance to develop and grow into a flawed, nuanced person opens endless possibilities. Shoving her into a support role only leaves one.

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It was like the universe was trying to send her a message. Above her, the stars shimmered. Down with the patriarchy, they seemed to say.

For an incomplete but useful list of examples works that deal with the issue (some well, others less so) this TV Tropes page is a good place to start. For a well written piece  on a similar problem that affects representation of POCs on TV shows, check out this article from Fangs for the Fantasy. 

Note: This article mostly refers to mainly to cis-female characters because, unfortunately, I have not come across enough mainstream fantasy novels with trans MCs to notice a trend. I would be interested in seeing how this sort of character decay effects trans characters, and if anyone knows of any good sources that address it, I would love for you to send a link.

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