How–Or If–A Character’s Gender Affects Their Influence On Plot

I love the Walking Dead. It’s a great show. Addicting, action-packed with flawed yet likable characters. But I’ve noticed something recently. The men make all the decisions. The men are the ones driving the plot. The women? Not so much. They’re usually subplots. For example, Andrea’s botched suicide and her wanting a gun; Beth wanting to kill herself; Maggie and Glenn getting together and getting kidnapped by Merle.

Of course, the love triangle between Rick, Lori, and Shane drove a lot of the conflict in season one and two. But it was primarily Shane who was making a fuss about it. Lori was over him as soon as she found out Rick was alive. Lori has had the most influence on the plot out of the female characters. Michonne is in a close second, I think, because she helped Rick’s group back into Woodbury.

Contrast this with a show like Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck. All I have to do is say her name and fans of Battlestar Galactica can think of all the ways she changed the plot. Not subplots where she’s falling in love with someone or having emotional problems. No, there were times when her actions—not the actions of men reacting to her—change the plot.

The female cylons have way more influence on the plot than the male ones. There’s a woman president, for Pete’s sake.

I would talk about other TV shows, but to be honest, I can count the TV shows I’ve watched at least 75% of the episodes of on two hands. Lost passes as do most NBC Comedies. Breaking Bad has one influential female character, Skylar. And that’s the end of Emily’s TV list! (I’m in the process of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries, which definitely both pass…for now)

As I do when I analyze any story, I try to apply this to my own stories. Is gender affecting my plot so that for some weird reason, all the men are the ones in charge and changing things? Have my women become the docile, reactive creatures of so many TV shows and movies out there?

I’m happy to say: no, they’re not.

In Promising Light, Grace is a young noble prophesied to break a curse on a shape changing family. Her actions drive a lot of the plot. In Promising Hope, she is kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place and much of what she does is reactionary because of the situation she’s in. But I know that in Promising Power, she’s going to be driving that book. Sierra is—and will be—much the same way. A lot of the oppressors and political leaders in their world are men, so I had to work with that. Every setting will be different when it comes to gender relations.

In Connection, Anna is the main character along with her ex-best friend, Aaron. Anna struggles with her feelings for Aaron—does she forgive him? Does she let him back in her life? And how the heck is she supposed to respond to these new powers they have? Her and Aaron, I feel, have pretty equal development, page-time, and influence on the plot.

If you write anything at all, think about your characters and their roles in the story. I’m not saying women should influence a story just for the sake of you having women influencing the story. But I think if writers were truly writing honest, well-rounded characters, they’d find that of course the women are going to affect the plot because they’re people and people act and they make decisions and sometimes those decisions change the lives of everyone around them. When writers don’t respect that aspect of their female characters, it makes me lose a little bit of respect for them.

At the same time, I recognize that gender and its effects on plot lines will depend on the setting and the socialization of the characters. In a post-apocalyptic situation like the Walking Dead, the women may feel more comfortable letting the men lead their group through walkers and crazy adversaries. And the men were the ones who have been in dangerous situations before—mainly Rick and Shane being police officers. Plus, let’s face it, if a woman had stepped up into Rick’s position, would she have gotten the respect that Rick did? Probably not. (But come on, you guys, Laura Roslin was the friggin president!)

I recognize that sometimes characterization will influence who is driving the plot. I still love the Walking Dead and I’ll watch it until the end…probably. But I won’t stop watching just for that reason.

Just think about it, whether you write stories or you watch them. You might be surprised by what you see.

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