Like most of the modern world, I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend. I will not post anything spoilery for those wondering right off the bat; in fact, this post has very little to do with the film plot itself. I will, however, say that I have never turned around and bought a second ticket as quickly as I did for this movie. I loved it and, if I had the money, would be seeing it a third (and possibly fourth) time already.
One thing that has struck a chord with me the past few nights is the discussion of Rey as a Mary Sue character. I had no idea such a topic was lighting up the film and writing world, but apparently it is doing just that.
Throughout the film, Rey is pretty much the ultimate female lead. It seems many people thought she was perhaps too perfect. This has culminated in several articles both attacking and defending her quality as character, which was perhaps destined by sheer virtue of being associated with the Star Wars franchise. One of my favorite articles on the defense was done by the opinion-tank The Verge, writing that it’s ok for her to be the ultimate Strong Female Character.
Personally, I thought she was wonderful and, in all honesty, was very much similar to Luke Skywalker during the original trilogy in terms of Everyman Wish Fulfillment. And, unlike Luke, Rey actually has a personality to make her an enjoyable character, Mary Sue or not (I am aware I may get blasted for that, but let’s face it: Vader, Han and Leia were the reason people watched in 1977. Luke was just kind of there because he had to be).
Perhaps I would have glossed over the arguments had I not written The Sky Thief. However, having two women as leads in a book kind of opened my eyes to how these discussions form and why they are so important for authors to keep in their peripheral as they work.
I started with the concept of Captain Ghaoithe Loinsigh as a roleplaying character in World of Warcraft. I never intended for her to make a statement about feminism or to just act as an avatar to fall under my male gaze. I just wanted a fun relic hunter, a cross between Lara Croft and Jack Sparrow. And, due to RP servers being filled with all sorts of weird fetish trains, I resolved to make her as uninterested in sex or sexuality as possible so I could focus on fun stories instead of letting her devolve into another thing to be objectified by others, something that still holds up every time I log into her these days.
Of course, Ghaoithe is flawed. Her largest being that she is a largely static character. When I started writing her book, I knew she wouldn’t make a great main character, that I needed someone the audience could identify with who would change throughout her journey. So, Alexandra Stirling was born. In her, I wanted much of the same as before: a fun character that mixed a few of my personal favorites like Hermione with a bit of my own experiences growing up and moving outside of a small town in my 20’s. Romance would play a larger role for her, but I tried to keep her rounded and realistic, prone to asking many of the same things anyone would ask in her same circumstances.
When I read Stephen King’s On Writing earlier this year, I realized I had followed some of his advice without knowing it at the time. Specifically, his approach to themes as something you only really explore after the book is done with a draft or two. When I was working on The Sky Thief, I never really thought about how two female leads should be portrayed. I just wrote them as I saw them as they went about their adventures. With the book done, however, I began to notice that perhaps having women protagonists is a big deal and that I should try to be aware enough not to screw that up.
So, the conversation started, as I hope it will with other authors. I began to notice how women, especially action heroines, are shown in films and stories. I took note when people praised Mad Max: Fury Road not just for Furiosa, but also because they never had to have Furiosa say “Women can do this, too!” to Max at any point in the film. She just did things the same as any other hero. Suddenly, all of these tiny things about female characters that you never realize are happening are lit up like Christmas trees in the realm of stories.
Thankfully, I didn’t alter my story too much, largely because I had never focused on Ghaoithe and Alex as women the first time around. They were just my explorers trying to find Pandora’s Box. I did, however, run the book by some very dear friends to make sure I had not done anything too egregious. They gave me some notes, which I think improved the story greatly in those parts.
I don’t know if Ghaoithe and Alex will ever be great female heroes. Hell, I don’t even know if I passed the Bechdel Test. There are still a couple lines that I’m unsure about with regards to the “Women are strong, too!” angle. But, on the whole, I do hope that I’ve at least done a good job of making two rounded adventurers and a story that’s focused on just that: their story. Not their gender. Not their sexualities. Just their quest to find Pandora’s Box before the bad guys do. Mary Sue or not, I hope they’re a little bit more like Rey than people are used to reading in books.
Buy The Sky Thief on Amazon or read it for free through Kindle Unlimited.