There is an ever going buzz about improving the quality of female characters in popular media. With the success of the Hunger Games movies people are appreciating a strong leading lady more than ever. But what about the less important characters of a story? One of the recurring issues I’ve noticed in Fantasy (but it is not unique to it) is the lack of diversity in minor characters.
If a minor character is a woman it is often because she ‘has’ to be a woman. There’s little explanation to this phenomenon, but combating it is an excellent first step towards fixing the problem. A twenty sided die is a powerful writing tool.
If anyone reading the blog has played Dungeons and Dragons, a Dungeon Master (or DM for short) will often roll dice to determine factors in the campaign. If your world’s population is Fifty percent men and women, evenly split, you should take that in consideration when your characters meet a minor character. With your world building, you can determine (to the closest five percent) the population of a city you can factor in the race and sex of random people this way.
Of course if you have a character that fills a specific purpose, for example, the city only allows natives of the country in their guard. That’s fine. It’s an established rule. However when it is a person handing the MC an apple at a stand? No excuse. You may want to consider the trends of your story if you don’t want to use a die roll. “The party hasn’t met any women, I’ll just make this shop owner a woman.” Little judgments like this soften the “women are damsels or mothers” stigma against fantasy.
The same thing works in reverse. When you have a minor character doing a task people may perceive as a gender specific role, consider flipping the table. Have a guy taking care of his children (because the mother is the successful blacksmith) or the infamous ‘lady flapping a sheet out the window’ you see in every establishing shot ever. Why couldn’t it be a guy with a bandana holding back his hair? There isn’t really a reason for it.
Adult themed stuff loves to include prostitutes. Males ones exist, but you’d never know from their general lack of presence in fiction. To be fair some of that comes from the fact men tend to be more sex obsessed than women, but if you consider anyone in a niche market makes up for their lack of general business with scoring quality clients with exemplary service.
Things like this are stepping stones to making a story jump off the page. The reason people don’t show interest in specific genres is because it doesn’t answer to their interests. They can’t relate to it. Widen the door a bit, take down the ‘fantasy fans only’ sign and invite in those unfamiliar with the setting. Question why the rules exist rather than ‘they need followed’ and make a adjustments as needed. Sometimes the rules make a lot of sense, (Magic needs to make sense and be consistent.) while other times it’s simply holding the genre back (All damsels in peril need to be beautiful women.)