When I first started writing Jossey, the protagonist of Aestus, Book 1: The City, I did not want her to be the typical heroine of Tropeland. I grew up around enough fanfiction to be leery of the so-called Mary Sue (beautiful, talented, everyone falls in love with her, good at everything she does, etc. to the point of absurdity). I almost included zero love interests out of, let’s be honest, spite, haha.
To clarify: the trope I’ve seen over and over (usually in dystopian fiction) is the Ordinary Girl/Woman™ who discovers a terrible secret and uses her Specialness™ to bring down the Regime. I’m being snarky because this happens so often, and seemingly baselessly (aka without taking into account how power actually works!). A lot of fantasy novels, too, have enormous glittering royal courts and endless armies (economics 101 anyone?) and a whole lot of nameless peasants, one of whom usually ends up being the Super Special Character (SSC) and, with help, overcomes x and y obstacles to save their people.
(“With help” is the key, but it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as it should. They are often also some long-lost royalty or otherwise special/unique.) (Don’t yell at me, fantasy fans/authors. This is my limited experience as a reader with fantasy and what I understand of the Hero’s Journey.)
Anyway. I was determined to avoid these tropes. Jossey was to be a Strong Female Character™, but a realistic one – no love triangle*, no special abilities, no “I’m quirky and not like other girls!” (ew.)
However, when I thought about how power actually works in human societies, I had to take a step back and admit, grudgingly, that I did indeed need to give Jossey the ability to easily move within society, as well as a reasonable degree of access to the levers of power.
So I gave her status.
Why? I needed her to be in a position where she could realistically easily-enough do something about whatever terrible secret she uncovered within her dystopian society, ideally without being killed/disappeared right away.
It was actually a good move, once I got over the “but it’s a trope!”-ness of it. I’ve just seen the “I’m special!” thing so often that I want to scream, “WHY are you special?”
And that is the problem: the idea of being Special-with-a-capital-S, not status itself.
I didn’t make Jossey a “Council daughter” (member of a Council family; her uncle is the Minister of Intelligence) because I wanted her to be extraordinary. I made her Minister Sokol’s niece because I needed her to have the ability to effect significant change (more than she likely would otherwise, that is).
This, to me, is not a trope. This is a realistic reading of how power works – the higher in status you are, the more access you typically have (to information, to places in your fictional world, to people…), and the more easily you can typically get things done. Having status isn’t inherently bad re: a main character (MC). It often makes things easier.
I admit at this point – as in, during the writing of this blog post! – that I’ve been conflating the notion of being Super Special with the idea of being royalty, powerful, etc. Born into royalty? Fine. (Still, writers should keep an eye on the internal workings of the court, the military, etc.) Not born into royalty or similar? Earn your way into a position of power, and take note of the way power functions. If you’re so special that you can just breeze past various gates, literal and figurative, you’re probably a Mary Sue-equivalent as well as an MC.
(Side note: Historically, yes, I can think right now of two women – an actress and a slave, aka the lowest rungs of the social-status ladder – who became the wives of very powerful rulers. But this was not common.)
I particularly dislike when dystopian societies are rigidly segmented and yet the MC somehow has access to information across all sectors, enough to make informed decisions (!), when in reality dystopian societies tend to specifically operate via partition of information. In Jossey’s case, she earns access to different sectors – she is an Engineer, but she is recruited for Patrol, and eventually to Intelligence, because her uncle needs her to work on a specific Engineering project that involves Patrol (one that requires her to have Top-Secret clearance). Even her Patrol commander friend Gavin, seen as a leader in the City, is only privy to one of those three sectors, and for good reason. Jossey thinks quite a bit about this type of thing, and analyzes it as she goes – what it may mean for her, for the City, etc.
Naturally, we want our MCs to be special. I assume people also choose royal/powerful characters because those characters’ actions can and do have consequences in real time on a large scale. This helps move the story along. That said, my issue with all of this is when people ignore the power dynamics at play.
When I decide who my character is, I also am deciding – whether I do it consciously or not – what kind of power they likely have at their disposal, as well as what they do not have access to. Jossey is not on the Council herself, for example, so would not have access to their meetings or their information, but as a family member she is afforded a degree of respect and access within the City just by her last name. (She also has the dubious distinction of having survived an Onlar attack.) Within a heavily-hierarchical environment, this consideration is particularly important – it literally means having access to some people and not to others. It’s very frustrating for me to see 21st-century “I can do just about anything I want/talk to anyone I want with impunity” norms foisted onto stories. That isn’t how the real world works. Especially in a dystopian society that is rigidly divided.
“But I’m special!” No, probably not that special. “But the prince fell in love with me so now I am a member of the ruling class!” Ok, sure, that happened sometimes in history. Probably not a solid strategy for your MC though. In everyday normal life, your everyday main character (MC) is at a major disadvantage in the taking-down-the-dystopian-regime game without having some kind of status to begin with, and – importantly! – the access to information/ways of thinking about the world (most likely) that come with that.
(This is also why I made Gavin – Jossey’s oldest friend and her brother Tark’s best friend – a Patrol commander rather than an ordinary Citizen: he is deep in the power structure, he understands how it works to an extent, and he has the potential to do real damage to it.)
Everything I did within Aestus was an attempt to analyze real power dynamics and build a realistic picture of humans in an unusual environment. Jossey is resourceful but has to be rescued at times. She learns to fight, but just well enough to stay alive, not like her friend Gavin (a well-known and widely-feared fighter, which is not unrealistic, I should add). She is injured, often. She has to heal, and has to deal with the after-effects. Almost no one escapes unscathed in this series, fair warning.
Jossey is resourceful and responsible and kind and learns quickly and puts others before herself. Do people fall in love with her? You have to read to see. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense – she has a huge scar across her face from an Onlar attack at the age of 10. She’s the niece of someone important (very important), but she doesn’t benefit from her uncle’s connections until she earns a spot as an auxiliary Engineer for Patrol. She is special, in other words, but she’s realistic, to the extent I was able to write her. So is Gavin. So are others. Highly-skilled and so on doesn’t bother me! It’s when power structures (and any other constraints) are disregarded/bypassed by a character that I get frustrated.
To write realistic characters, start with your fictional world. Look at the restrictions it places on them. How can a character realistically navigate this? How far can they likely go and remain realistic? What are reasonable limits?
In my opinion, this makes for much better high-stakes drama and a better reading experience. Tropes have their place. But they should be used carefully.
*(Disclaimer: I’m not saying that Aestus is trope-free, especially re: the love-triangle idea, cough cough. But I tried my best to make the story as realistic as I could.)
Read an excerpt here: https://szattwell.com/aestus1excerpt/