It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.
As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.
The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.
But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?
Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.
But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.
Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.
Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.
James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.
So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey (link: http://ffnresearch.blogspot.co.uk), three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.
But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.
So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood (link: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/why-boys-skip-bits-when-reading-books-but-girls-don-t/). It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.
What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.
So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.
But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.
I’m slightly late to the party when it comes to ranting about Mary Sues. A quick Google will tell you that I’m not the only one who sees an issue with them. There’s countless articles listing the worst Mary Sues in fiction, cartoons showing them being defeated in cartoonishly bloody ways, and tests to show writers how to avoid them. It’s an entertaining rabbit hole to go down.
Mary Sues are characters whose reputations precede them. The label is enough to cast serious doubt on any character it’s applied to. One of the most common criticisms about Ginny Weasley, for example, is that she’s a Mary Sue, and this is something that’s often said by people who wish Harry and Hermione had got together. The label was also hastily applied to Rey, the mysterious ingénue at the centre of the new Star Wars trilogy, but whether she is one or not still remains to be seen. (Come on guys, at least wait until her character arc is finished before you judge.) Mary Sues have become so reviled that labelling a character as such can be quite an insult – and no wonder, when it puts the work in the same category as My Immortal.
Let’s be real. While the term can just be used as an insult, Mary Sues are badly written characters, and the term is a useful piece of shorthand for summing up the flaws in both a character and a work that this kind of writing can lead to. In my last post I talked briefly about the kind of problems that Mary Sues can cause, but I’ll go into more detail here.
First, let’s look at character. A Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they do not have flaws – or if they do, they never actually have consequences for the character in the way that real flaws do. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue has a hot temper – she can say whatever she likes to Professor Snape and she won’t get in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is clumsy – she can stumble off the edge of a ravine and Edward Cullen will be there to catch her. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is shy – this won’t affect her ability to date Draco Malfoy, the Phantom of the Opera, or that one hot dwarf from The Hobbit.
There are two ways that this lack of flaws can go. The first is the demonstration of informed attributes. I talked about this a bit in my Strong Female Characters series, so I’ll ty to be brief. Essentially, this is when readers are told that a character is angry, blunt or cowardly without seeing them exhibit any anger, bluntness or cowardice. In this instance, characters will talk about how angry our Mary Sue is, but she won’t actually express any anger. The second is the opposite. Our Mary Sue will demonstrate anger, bluntness or cowardice, but none of the other characters will act as if that’s what she’s done. Her flaws, if she demonstrates them, do not have consequences.
Effectively, this means that a Mary Sue doesn’t have flaws – if a tree falls in a forest, etc. She cannot be described as clumsy if we don’t see her fall over. She cannot be said to have anger issues if they don’t cause problems for her. She cannot be treated as a being with flaws, because flawed characters fail, and get spots, and grow old and eewwww, who wants to read about that?
This leads me nicely into the second issue I want to talk about: how Mary Sues affect the world around them. Mary Sues are not only flawless, perfect characters. Everyone else has to acknowledge that they are perfect and flawless, including the author. Mary Sues are by definition perfect, and that means they are also the best, most important, attractivest and greatest character evah, you guys!
What this means is that Mary Sues are essentially black holes. It’s not that they exist in all their perfection – that’s not the problem. The problem is that their perfection bends the rest of the universe around them, until they are at the centre of the story. Everything is warped to fit around them, including setting, mythology and other characters. This is where the other side of a Mary Sue’s flawlessness comes into play. If she does actually demonstrate something that could be construed as a flaw, other characters will not change their perception of her because of that. The classic example of this is Anastasia Steele. She’s actually an incredibly bitchy character, and both her internal monologue and the things she actually says are peppered with extremely nasty comments about women. However, nobody ever calls her out on this. She doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow. No-one, literally no-one, thinks that anything she says is unkind. Throughout the series all the other characters treat her as if she’s the kindest, most precious little darling that you ever did see – even if what she actually says or does directly contradicts that.
This is where people really get irritated at Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction. At their very worst, Mary Sues can completely change the fabric of a story just by existing in it. Take, for example, the popular Harry Potter fanfiction cliché – Harry Potter’s secret (and better) sibling. If you’ve read any fanfiction it’s likely that you’ve come across this before, but the basic premise is this. Harry Potter has a sibling (usually a sister) who also got a lightning scar from Voldemort. They were then separated and only re-united when she arrives at Hogwarts, where she proceeds to live out the entire series but just, you know, better. This premise completely undermines the basic plot of the series. Pretty much everything Harry went through was affected by the fact that he was the only one to survive the killing curse. Having more than one person survive smashes all that to pieces. And it’s not just Harry that plotline affects – the entire wizarding world was also affected by Harry’s survival, and developed accordingly. Having another survivor doesn’t just ruin Harry’s backstory, it also disassembles a huge amount of worldbuilding. The idea of there being a ‘Chosen One’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got a spare handy.
But this isn’t the only reason why Mary Sues should be avoided. Let’s look at another hallmark of the Mary Sue: the tragic past.
Not all Sues have a tragic backstory, but the vast majority do. This comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be anything – from being catapulted into space as a baby and being stranded on Earth, or at the darker end of the scale, child abuse, rape and murder.
These are serious subjects that should be handled with tact and care. But that’s not what happens with Mary Sues. A Mary Sue’s tragic past does not function in the same way as it would for another character. It does not leave claw marks in her personality; there are no scars in her psyche. A Mary Sue’s tragic past exists for her to share it, tearfully, with her love interest, and then never talk about it again.
It goes without saying that this is incredibly disrespectful. While being blasted into space as a child isn’t exactly common, unfortunately abuse is. According to the NSPCC, one in fourteen children were subjected to physical abuse in 2016 – a rate that was three times higher for disabled children. And it’s likely that the real number is much higher, because a substantial amount of abuse cases go unreported. It goes without saying that something like this cannot be brushed aside as easily as the Mary Sues make it look: it’s something that will affect everything about a person for the rest of their life.
Personally, I’d like to believe that the reason why Mary Sues gloss over their terrible pasts in favour of making out is because most of them are written by authors who might not understand the full implications of what they’re saying. This could be for any number of reasons, including age and inexperience, but it rarely comes from a bad place. It is hard to write tactfully and thoughtfully about subjects as difficult as these at the best of times, but a lack of understanding is only ever going to make it worse.
But good intentions aside, I worry about how this kind of portrayal would affect people dealing with such issues in real life. Take My Immortal – the infamous Harry Potter fanfic drenched in black eyeliner. The main character, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way (no, I’m not making that up) is one of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. She is a self-proclaimed goth who dresses like a music video and gives all her friends stupid nicknames: Ron Weasley becomes Diablo, Hermione Granger becomes B’loody Mary Smith. She also self-harms. As you might expect, this isn’t treated as gently as it should be, and it becomes another thing for readers to laugh at. I’m in no position to comment about how this might have made self-harmers feel, but I don’t think it would’ve helped.
The term Mary Sue covers a multitude of sins. I’ve touched on some of them, but not all. A poorly-written Mary Sue isn’t just a bad character: she can completely derail an entire fictional universe, and trivialise the effects of a whole host of problems with a stroke of the pen. I hope I’ve given a decent summary of the kind of problems that a Mary Sue can cause.
But have you noticed how all through this post, I’ve been talking about girls? For the next post, I’ll be talking about gender. Bring lipstick.
Time for a brief intermission before I go back to talking about Mary Sues. Know why?
So Game of Thrones series seven has come to an end and I’m still reeling. Before the series started I made ten predictions (plus one wild card) about how the series would go. Let’s see how my fortune-telling skills measure up.
Stark family reunion
I’m counting this one as it’s been confirmed that Jon isn’t a Stark. As I suspected this season held the reunion of the surviving Stark children and, despite the fact that Bran is a tree now, it was pretty great. This one was fairly obvious though, so I won’t gloat too much.
Daenerys will lose a dragon
This didn’t happen in the way I expected as my money was on Euron Greyjoy and his magical horn (stop sniggering). But I wasn’t disappointed, mainly because of THAT ENDING. My God.
Jaime will break with Cersei
I feel like I can’t really take too much credit for getting this one right as it has already happened in the books. However, I’m still smug. I have to say I’m surprised it still happened after Cersei told Jaime she’s pregnant, but this one’s been a long time coming.
Jorah will die of greyscale
Unexpectedly not! What a nice reprieve for everyone’s favourite chocolatey-voiced third wheel. I don’t think he’s got much to look forward to, though. Aside from watching Jon and Dany mooning over each other he’s got an army of zombies to contend with.
The Wall will be compromised
Sam will find an important secret about the White Walkers in the Great Library, but die before he can deliver the information to Jon
I was really expecting Sam to die this season, but I’m so glad that he didn’t. Game of Thrones is at the point where it needs to start trimming down the cast so all that delicious final-series drama can be properly savoured. I’m really glad that Sam wasn’t on this season’s hit list as I’ve got a real soft spot for his and Gilly’s little family.
That said, he did discover quite a few important secrets in the Great Library – the dragonglass mines on Dragonstone, and, thanks to Gilly, the proof that Jon is the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne. All these secrets will come to fruition next season. I can’t imagine Jon’s Aunty Girlfriend is going to be all that pleased.
Littlefinger will die
…and it was GREAT. Sansa came into her own, the Starks all banded together and everything was awesome. I did think it was all a little on the convenient side, though. The Starks had no real proof of their accusations against Littlefinger and he didn’t really try and defend himself. I’ve no doubt that if this scene had happened in the books it would’ve played out very differently. But I’m willing to forgive all of that because LOOK AT HOW BADASS SANSA IS:
SHE’S COME SO FAR YOU GUYS SHE’S GROWN SO MUCH AND LEARNED FROM HER MISTAKES AND I’M SO PROUD
Bran will possess a wight
Unfortunately this one didn’t happen, which is a shame because it would’ve been really cool. Perhaps in season eight. I did appreciate the insights we got into how wights work though. The showrunners went for the classic ‘Dracula’ monster structure: kill off the creator and all its minions (createes? Not sure if there’s a word) will die too. They’ve written in an easy kill-switch, but hopefully this will lead to a killer duel with the Night’s King. We’ve never really seen him fight, just stand around being scary, so I’m hoping this will mean we’ll get an opportunity to see what he can do.
Daenerys will begin exhibiting signs of her father’s madness
Daenerys set two people on fire when she didn’t need to: Randall Tarly and his son, Dickon.
This was a hallmark of her father, the Mad King, who took a weird and creepy pleasure in killing his enemies by setting them on fire in various horrible ways. While this could have simply been a demonstration of her power, the show then included a scene where Varys and Tyrion discussed the implications of their own role in witnessing these kinds of executions.
This is quite clearly intended as foreshadowing. The writers want viewers to make the connection between Dany’s actions and her father’s, and consider the implications this may have for her rule. I’m not surprised that this comparison is being drawn. As I mentioned in my original post, Daenerys hasn’t really suffered a storyline-changing setback. All the other characters have. While you could put the loss of Viserion in this category, I’m not sure it would really count, as it hasn’t really dented her resolve to ascend the Iron Throne. She hasn’t had to radically re-assess her goals and beliefs in the way that many other characters have done so far. I think this means she’s in for a strong dose of the Targaryen madness, and I doubt she’s going to take the Iron Throne at all.
There was no hype. Maybe next season, though.
WILD CARD:Jorah’s greyscale has already been passed to Daenerys. She and her court get infected by the disease
Haha yeah, this didn’t happen. I’m glad, though – this would’ve been a lame way for the series to end.
SMUGNESS LEVELS: 6/10
And there you have it! Sixty percent of the time, it worked every time. Probably not quite fortune-teller standard just yet, but there’s always season eight.
I’ve mentioned them on the blog before, mainly when I was doing my Strong Female Characters series. The term ‘Mary Sue’ has become a great piece of critical shorthand, so it often came in handy. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out whether certain characters were Mary Sues, but often didn’t really have the time to go into a huge amount of detail.
GET READY FOR HUGE AMOUNTS OF DETAIL, GUYS!
Briefly put, a Mary Sue is a certain type of poorly-written character. Often (but not exclusively) seen in fanfiction, what really makes these characters stand out is that they’re just so perfect. They never have any flaws – or if they do, their flaws only make them more appealing, and never actually cause any real problems for them. They’re often physically attractive. They’re usually teenage girls, often with more than one love interest (or villain) passionately declaring their love before the story’s over. They’ll have a dark and tragic past, but the consequences of this are never fully explored – it’s just a secret our Sue can reveal when she wants sympathy. She never fails. She’s always an expert in everything she does, whether it’s speaking alien languages or mastering ancient martial arts. All the good guys love her, all the bad guys want her to give in and join the dark side, and she always saves the day.
Essentially, they’re really, really annoying.
When you get right down to it, Mary Sues aren’t really proper characters. Most fictional characters (and yes, I am about to make a sweeping generalisation here) are intended to reflect real people. A well-written character should seem human, with all the messiness that being human entails. Mary Sues don’t have that messiness.
This isn’t all that uncommon in characters, though. Mary Sue is a pretty modern term, but the flawless and ideal character the term describes goes back centuries. If you look at most classic fairy tales – such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White – most of these characters could be described as Mary Sues. The original stories just don’t focus on the mechanics of their characters, so they’re often described in very broad strokes. They are kind, and good, and meek, and that’s all they are. A lot of this comes down to the purpose that fairy tales fulfilled. While on some level, they are told for sheer enjoyment of the story, a lot of them were also told as a way of showing people how to behave. Charles Perrault, in his seminal collection of fairy tales, made this explicit by adding a few lines to the end of each story that explained the moral in no uncertain terms.
The invention of the novel as a story-telling format didn’t kill off Mary Sues, either. (You can’t kill off a Sue, they’re too perfect.) The moralising Sue is a staple of nineteenth-century literature, particularly literature aimed at children and young girls. Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, Heidi – all of these books are children’s classics, but all of them are based around characters that are so perfect that they don’t seem like real children. This is because they were never meant to. Heidi, Sara and Cedric are ideals, not accurate portrayals of children. Every flaw has been ironed out. They’re good, obedient, cheerful, resilient, and say their prayers every night, just as the ideal nineteenth-century child was supposed to. Overworked governesses probably found them very useful.
The other form a Mary Sue can take is a self-insert. This is exactly what it sounds like: an author living out an adventure by writing themselves an avatar in the story. This is the form more modern Mary Sues take, and this too has its roots in nineteenth-century literature. It carried on all the way up to the 1970s, when Paula Smith first coined the term in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’, a short parody about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, youngest officer in the star fleet, that was published in a fanzine.
Since then, the term has blossomed, like a beautiful and perfect sparkle-flower. Readers have become much sharper when it comes to spotting Sues, so now the term ‘Mary Sue’ is more like a big sparkly umbrella that encompasses lots of smaller categories. Here are some of them:
Classic Sue: practically perfect in every way. Beautiful, cheerful and sickeningly sweet.
Marty Stu: the same, but a guy. Surprisingly rare, for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
Jerk Sue: angry, sometimes violent, always wearing a ton of black eyeliner. For some reason everyone loves her.
Twagic Sue: basically exists to have terrible things happen to her and then die meaningfully. The definition of a lost little lamb.
Villain Sue: the most successful cape-wearing villain ever. Also she’s really hot.
Relationship Sue: exists only to date the author’s character of choice.
Chances are you’ve come across some of these characters before, and hopefully at least got a good laugh out of them. Who can forget Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the most goffik student Hogwarts has ever known? What about Jenna Silverblade, Link’s one true love, secret elemental, and tireless nymphomaniac? Or how about Atlantiana “Tia” Rebekah Loren, Edward Cullen’s infinitely more gothic soulmate? They’re overpowered, they’re ridiculous, and they’ve got all the boys wrapped around their finger – but you could probably sneak off in the time it takes for them to say their full name. And that’s not even counting the Mary Sues who are in books that were actuallypublished.
I’ve got a lot to say, so here’s what I’m going to do. This post will be the first of a short mini-series where I talk about Sues until I’m blue in the face. Why are Mary Sues so reviled (apart from the fact that they’re really annoying)? Where does gender come into all of this? Is there a way that Mary Sues can be a good thing? These are some of the questions I will try and answer, before I get sidetracked and start laughing about their stupid names.
So choose a ten-syllable name, grab your pet unicorn and prepare your tragic backstory. It’s about to get perfect up in here.
Tomorrow, the first episode of Game of Thrones season seven airs, and I’m displaying the amount of enthusiasm that is appropriate to a respectable adult.
I’ve been watching the show for a few years now and one of the things I like most about it is the way it can keep me guessing. I never know what’s going to happen, especially since the show started veering away from the books. I’ve always had a bit of a knack for guessing where plots end up going, so the element of surprise is a huge draw for me.
I’ve got no clue what’s going to happen in season seven but here are my ten best guesses, plus a wild card thrown in. Spoilers are coming.
Stark family reunion
Ever since Jon and Sansa were reunited in season six, there’s been talk of a full Stark reunion. Now, it looks like the surviving Starks are at least heading to the same place. Arya is heading north and Bran is turning back towards the Wall. It looks like both of them are heading to Winterfell, and shots from the trailers appear to support this.
I think this is probably one of the most likely things to happen in season seven, and not just because I want an excuse to cry big ugly tears and eat my feelings. The Stark family split up right at the beginning of the series: Jon headed for the Wall; Ned, Sansa and Arya went to King’s Landing; Bran and Rickon stayed in the north; Robb and Catelyn went off to war (which really didn’t end well). As the series went on they were split up even further: Ned was executed, Robb and Catelyn were murdered, Sansa was held hostage in King’s Landing, Arya ran off to Braavos via the Riverlands, Bran went beyond the Wall and Rickon wandered into a trap with Osha. With the series as a whole coming to an end, I think it’s likely their storyline will come full circle and we’ll see them reunite.
The showrunners have used this particular quote from Ned in this season’s promo material: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” Ned originally says this to Arya when he’s trying to explain the importance of family – it’s essentially a wolfier version of ‘untied we stand, divided we fall’. I think that’s a pretty strong hint that the Starks will get back together and be a much more serious threat. How long that reunion lasts is another matter.
Daenerys will lose a dragon
There hasn’t been much hinting for this one in the season seven promo material, so this is mostly speculation. Hear me out. Remember Euron Greyjoy?
He became king of the Iron Islands last season when he won that special clifftop election. In the books this is pretty significant, as Euron has a magical horn called Dragonbinder that he claims can control dragons. This hasn’t been tested yet, as the horn hasn’t got close enough to any dragons to have an effect. We know it has some magical properties (it kills the man who sounds it from the inside out) but the dragon thing hasn’t been confirmed. This is what wins him the election, and Euron and his Ironborn start making plans to reach Daenerys and take the Iron Throne. Euron’s storyline in the show is obviously different to the books, but his end goals are still the same: he wants to marry Daenerys and conquer the Seven Kingdoms.
I’m pretty sure that Daenerys won’t marry him. She’s already allied with Yara and Theon and promised to overthrow Euron in their favour. I also don’t think she’d respond well to Euron’s particular brand of charm, mainly because he has none. So Euron’s only option would be to take a dragon by force using magic. This probably wouldn’t be all that difficult, as Daenerys’s control over her dragons is shaky at best. She can command them to burn things, but she can’t always get them to stop – just look at season four.
The show hasn’t actually confirmed that Euron has Dragonbinder, so this may not happen exactly as I laid out. Regardless, I think it’s still a likely twist. At the moment Daenerys has an army of Unsullied, an army of Dothraki, Varys, the Sand Snakes, Tyrion Lannister, and three fully-grown fire-breathing dragons. None of the other Westerosi lords can compete with the kind of firepower she has (heh heh literally). It’d be far too easy for her to sweep in and take the entire continent, and there’s still two more series to go. Something’s got to level the playing field. If it’s not Euron, it could be Bran warging into a dragon, or even just a dragon being killed by normal people – this has happened before in Westerosi history, when dragons were trapped in confined spaces. But my money’s on the Euron storyline, mainly because it would make things so much more interesting if someone else had a dragon on their side.
Jaime will break with Cersei
A rift has grown between Jaime and Cersei over the past few seasons. Since Jaime lost his hand (and met our precious warrior angel, Brienne) he’s redefined his notions of honour and bravery. He helped Tyrion escape when he knew Cersei wanted him dead. He obeys her orders, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s not happy about it.
Cersei has changed too. She’s become more paranoid and scheming than ever, but she’s also not very good at it. She blamed Jaime for being taken prisoner and has repeatedly mocked him for things that are beyond his control. She’s become incredibly twisted since her humiliation at the hands of the Faith of the Seven. What’s more, all three of her and Jaime’s children are dead, so aside from their secret relationship (which has been floundering, given the time they’ve spent apart) the bonds between Jaime and Cersei are starting to crack.
I think that in the next season this will only get worse. It’s pretty clear that Jaime wasn’t happy with Cersei’s decision to declare herself queen – just look at his face:
It’s not hard to see why. Aside from the fact that Cersei’s terrible decisions have actively made everything worse (i.e. arming a group of religious fanatics), Cersei is responsible for the death of their uncle, Kevan Lannister, and indirectly responsible for the death of their son, Tommen. I’m not sure that Jaime will be able to forget that.
There are a few shots of Jaime and Cersei together in the trailer, so I don’t think this will happen right away. But in the second trailer there’s more shots of Jaime on his own, which could be a nice little bit of foreshadowing from the showrunners. Let’s not forget that Tyrion is also heading back to Westeros this season, and fans have speculated that there’s some shots of Casterly Rock. I wonder if this means we’re in for a Lannister reunion as well as a Stark one. Given that Jaime loves Tyrion enough to set him free against Cersei’s orders, I’m really excited to see if Jaime will have to choose between his two siblings. There is also the little matter of the valonquar prophecy mentioned in the books – but personally, I think that’s one for season eight.
Jorah will die of greyscale
Yeah, he’s a goner. It’s an incurable disease and he knows it’s spreading. He’s a dead man walking.
The Wall will be compromised
In the previous season Bran’s time-bending vision quests were all fine and dandy until the Night’s King showed up and ruined everything. In a vision where he sees an army of White Walkers and their ice zombies, the wights, this incredibly creepy thing happens:
The mark the Night’s King leaves on Bran’s arm lets him get past Bloodraven’s magic. The one safe place north of the Wall that was supposed to be safe from the Night’s King was blown wide open, and of course our favourite ice zombie came storming in and tried to kill everybody. The show makes it explicitly clear that it’s the mark that has made this possible. Who’s to say that this magic won’t work on the Wall itself? We know that Bran is heading south, and there’s no reason to suggest that the mark would only work once. The Wall isn’t made of just ice; there’s magic holding it together too. If it’s the same kind of magic that protected Bloodraven’s hideout, Westeros could be in trouble.
This is all but confirmed in the books through the character of Coldhands (which the show morphed into Benjen Stark). Coldhands is essentially a good wight: he’s a member of the undead that has somehow been enchanted to regain his sense of self. The books make it explicitly clear that Coldhands cannot enter Bloodraven’s cave or cross the Wall due to the magic imbued in both. If Bran’s mark was enough to break the wards on Bloodraven’s cave and let the undead through, why wouldn’t it do the same to the Wall?
Sam will find an important secret about the White Walkers in the Great Library, but die before he can deliver the information to Jon
This is exactly the kind of thing that Game of Thrones would do. In fact, they’ve done it before, in pretty much every series. But I won’t just leave it at that.
Sam was sent to Oldtown to become a Maester for the Night’s Watch after Maester Aemon’s death. He goes to the library at the Maester’s Citadel, and it’s been made very clear that Sam will read anything that stays still long enough. In previous seasons he read about the White Walkers before the rest of the cast encountered them, and has also read about the history of the Night’s Watch. I think it’s extremely likely that in his time in Oldtown, he will go to the library and look up those subjects again, if only to see how he can help Jon.
However, that’s not all Sam has been up to. He stopped to visit his family on the way, and while he was there he got into a fight with his awful father. He stole the family sword, a Valyrian steel greatsword called Heartsbane. This was a terrible decision all round, because not only is Sam not very good at using a sword, Heartsbane is a highly recognisable and valuable heirloom which his father, Randall Tarly, is deeply proud of. Randall has been adamant that Sam will never inherit Heartsbane, and he hates the idea of him having the sword.
So here’s what I think will happen. Sam will use his time in the library to look up White Walkers, the Wall, wights, and the Night’s Watch – anything that could be useful in the fight against terrifying ice zombies. I think it’s likely he’ll discover something important: the Citadel’s library is the largest in Westeros and is rumoured to have all sorts of secret knowledge. But just as he’s found his secret, Randall Tarly will pop up and kill him, take back Heartsbane, and prevent Sam from ever delivering his very important message. Because that’s just the kind of show this is.
Littlefinger will die
I’m not entirely sure if Littlefinger is going to pop his clogs in season seven or season eight, but regardless of which I think his days are numbered.
Despite the fact that he’s only second to Varys in terms of craftiness, when you actually look at Littlefinger’s assets he doesn’t have as much as you might think. He was in a very different position at the beginning of the series: Master of Coin, Lord of Harrenhal, and the owner of at least a third of Westeros’s most thriving industry – brothels. When he married Lysa Arryn he also became Lord of the Vale. For a while it looked as though he might have control over three of the Seven Kingdoms: the Vale, the Riverlands and the North (mainly because he kept on trying to marry Sansa).
But things have changed. Littlefinger isn’t Master of Coin or Lord of Harrenhal any more; he lost both of those titles when he defected from the Lannisters. He doesn’t have anywhere near as much money to play with, either, as his wealthiest brothels (ie. the ones in King’s Landing) were destroyed by the Faith Militant. He’s now Lord Protector of the Vale, but that isn’t a position that can really last. He’s acting as Protector for Robin Arryn, who is Lord of the Vale in name only, but Robin is fifteen and won’t need a Protector for that much longer. Littlefinger doesn’t have much loyalty from the other lords of the Vale either; the interactions we’ve seen have been marked with tension and hostility on both sides. House Tyrell has also been destroyed – and this is significant, because in a scene at the end of season five, Olenna Tyrell tells Littlefinger that if her grandchildren are harmed, she will reveal his involvement in Joffrey’s murder.
What’s more, Sansa has shown absolutely no interest in marrying Littlefinger, which scuppers his future plans. This is understandable considering he betrayed her father, murdered her aunt and arranged Sansa’s marriage to a rapist and psychopath – oh, who was also the son of the man who murdered and betrayed her mother and oldest brother. It’s going to take a lot of roses and chocolates to make her forget that.
Littlefinger is now in Winterfell. He has the Knights of the Vale with him, but they aren’t loyal to him personally. Olenna Tyrell may be about to make his involvement in Joffrey’s murder public knowledge, which would turn the Lannisters against him for good (along with a few other families besides). He’s cut off from what resources he has and winter is fast approaching; when the snows get deep he might not be able to leave the castle at all. Littlefinger is a southerner with a reputation for deviousness and trickery, which wouldn’t exactly sit well with some of the more straight-talking northerners. He’s surrounded on all sides by people who neither like nor trust him. I’d be surprised if he left Winterfell alive.
The trailers have dropped a few hints about this. There’s a couple of brief shots of Littlefinger being attacked which have got people talking, and as I mentioned earlier there’s been a lot of focus on Stark family values. Littlefinger is trying to sow discord between Sansa and Jon, but given the strong hints we’ve been getting about Starks banding together I don’t think this’ll work. Besides, with the show eventually gearing up for the inevitable dragons vs ice zombies battle, sooner or later the political stuff is going to have to be set aside – and that’ll probably mean the end of Littlefinger’s story arc.
Bran will possess a wight
Bran is becoming an incredibly powerful character. His weird mind-hopping powers (aka. warging and greenseeing) give him the ability to access knowledge no-one could have dreamt of and to jump in and out of other beings’ minds. Since last season it’s not limited to animals any more; he can now possess human beings. Why not a wight?
Of course, there are a few flaws in this theory. We don’t actually know how Bran’s powers work but so far, all that’s been confirmed is that they can work on living things. As the wights are reanimated ice zombies this presents a problem: we don’t know if it’ll work on the dead. There’s a good chance that they wouldn’t. Wights are reanimated corpses, but whatever magic holds them together doesn’t seem to stop them from decaying at the normal rate. I don’t know much about mind control, but I’m willing to bet that it’s much more difficult to pick someone’s brain when it’s literally rotting out of their skull.
But Game of Thrones is fantasy, and as such Bran’s powers are more likely to be limited by magical restrictions than biological ones. With that in mind I think this theory stands a better chance. If you look at the way the wights and White Walkers interact, it’s pretty clear that the White Walkers are the ones calling the shots. Wights seem to be creatures ruled by their killing instinct; left to their own devices they attack on sight. It’s only when a White Walker is around that they move like a more intelligent being, whether that’s by waiting for their prey or trying to herd it. Instructions are clearly being given. Odds are they aren’t verbal, as we never see a White Walker speak, and we rarely see them communicate with gestures. The White Walkers’ interactions (in general, not just with the wights) are marked by an unnatural kind of stillness, with very few visible signs of communication. As they clearly are communicating in some way, this leads me to assume it’s telepathic.
So if the White Walkers can control wights with some kind of telepathic connection, why can’t Bran? He clearly has very powerful abilities; we’ve seen him possess a fully-grown man in the present while his own consciousness was trapped in the past. The Night’s King has also left a brand on his arm. So far this has only been negative, as it allowed the Night’s King to break Bloodraven’s magic seals and track Bran down. But what if there are benefits to this that Bran hasn’t yet discovered? What if, in marking Bran, the Night’s King left a little piece of himself behind – and perhaps, some of his powers?
Daenerys will begin exhibiting signs of her father’s madness
Quick recap for those of you that don’t have time for a binge watch. Daenerys’s father, Aerys II, was the king before Robert Baratheon took the throne. He started off all right but then went mad, which is mainly due to the fact that the Targaryen kings were really into the concept of sister-wives.
Madness has been a pretty consistent feature of the Targaryen dynasty, and after centuries of incest it’s not hard to see why. If you look through Game of Thrones lore there’s a few other Targaryen kings who went mad too, and they were often pretty cruel along with it. So there’s a reasonable chance that Daenerys could’ve inherited this from her father. Much like Daenerys, Aerys started out as a promising ruler; it was only later that these tendencies began to surface. Daenerys’s parents were siblings, so her chances of inheriting some of this behaviour will be much more likely than if they weren’t already related.
What’s more, the show has set another precedent: we’ve actually seen Aerys. Before season six we never actually saw his character in action, he was only ever talked about. But thanks to Bran’s crazy mind powers, we got a brief glimpse of Aerys in the full grip of his madness. Now that an actor has actually been cast, I can’t help but wonder if we’re in for more flashbacks, which could serve as a parallel to Daenerys’s own storyline.
Daenerys has changed a lot over the course of the show. She’s gone from a sweet, naïve girl to a competent and determined ruler, but she’s had to be brutal to get there. She’s crucified people, fed people to her dragons, and burned people alive – which was something that her father was famous for doing. She’s slowly become a much more violent person. It’s a necessary part of her journey to becoming a ruler – she has to prove that she’s just as brutal as the rest of the Westerosi knights and lords, or they won’t accept her claim – but it’s not clear if she’ll know when to stop.
I think this is exactly the sort of thing that Game of Thrones would do to mess with the viewers. So far Daenerys’s storyline has been pretty standard: the exiled ruler returns to take their rightful place on the throne. Dany’s journey hasn’t really been thrown off course. A few people have died along the way, but ultimately she’s still doing exactly what she set out to do – unlike any other character on the show. That sweet and simple storyline is far from the kind of nasty surprise that Game of Thrones likes to spring on us.
IN THE RED CORNER: The Mountain. Ser Gregor Clegane, over eight feet tall and strong enough to rip a man’s jaw off (no, really). He’s back from the dead, he’s got new Darth Vader armour and he’s out for blood.
IN THE BLUE CORNER: The Hound. Sandor Clegane, back in the game after he was left for dead. His wounds are healed, he’s got a sweet new Brotherhood to hang out with, and he’s all out of chickens. You know what that means.
And now, just to make things interesting…
WILD CARD:Jorah’s greyscale has already been passed to Daenerys. She and her court get infected by the disease
Do you remember this shot from season five? Daenerys has just been attacked in the fighting pits of Meereen, and in swoops Jorah the Explorer, ready to save her:
That moment was very sweet, but it might have a nasty sting in the tail. In season four Jorah is banished from Daenerys’s service. He wonders around being miserable for a bit until he kidnaps Tyrion and decides to bring him to Daenerys as a gift. Most men go for flowers, but whatever. On their way back to Meereen, Jorah and Tyrion fight some men infected with greyscale (aka. the Stone Men) and Jorah contracts the disease.
No-one really knows how greyscale is spread. Most people in Westeros think it could be through touch, but this hasn’t actually been proved. It could be spread by anything – rats, water, air, contaminated food, you name it. But it’s infectious and incurable, and Jorah’s got it.
And right after he was infected, he touches Dany’s hand.
Jorah didn’t touch Dany with his greyscale hand, so there’s a chance that she might not have been infected. But we can’t actually rule that out. Jorah appears to have caught the disease after one of the Stone Men touched him in the fight, so it’s likely that skin-to-skin contact will spread the disease. It’s also not clear how long the disease will take to manifest itself: Jorah has seen his symptoms appear pretty quickly, but that might well be for dramatic effect. Game of Thrones likes to keep its timeline a bit fuzzy, so the incubation period hasn’t really been confirmed.
So there is a chance that Daenerys could have been infected with the disease and it hasn’t manifested itself yet. At the moment, Daenerys and her massive army are on their way to Westeros – in a fleet of ships, where they will be stuck together for weeks at a time in very close quarters. That is exactly the kind of conditions that infectious diseases thrive in. If anyone’s got greyscale it’ll spread through the lot of them like wildfire.
This would be a pretty unsatisfying end to Dany’s story, but in some ways I can see it working. It mirrors how Khal Drogo died – a great warrior brought down by an infection that’s impossible to cure. On the show, Daenerys is often hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world, so for her to catch a disfiguring disease would be quite symbolic, in a nasty kind of way. And it’s exactly the kind of curveball that the show likes to throw at its viewers. It might be a little bit ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’, but I wouldn’t put that past the showrunners.
And there you have it! That’s my ten best guesses for what will happen on the next season of Game of Thrones, plus one mediocre guess just for the hell of it. Let’s see how this turns out.
I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.
But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.
And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.
Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:
Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.
Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.
But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.
I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.
But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.
When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?
As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.
The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:
Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.
And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.
It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.
All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.
But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.
Since I started this blog I’ve had a few questions about the test from readers. I tried to answer them as best I can but never had time to properly go through the test when I was running the series. Well, that’s what I’m going to do now.
Here’s a run-down of how I answered each question on the test, with a little bit of background as to how I came up with them. It’s by no means definitive – I’m 90% sure that two people could put the same character through the test and get different results – but hopefully some of you will at least find it helpful when examining characters – or even writing your own.
Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
One of the key problems that female characters have had to deal with is passivity. Historically, women haven’t always been portrayed as active characters – just look at all those stories about princesses waiting to be rescued from towers. It’s the first question for a reason, as it’s both a long-standing and an important problem. Essentially it boils down to this: is she in control of her own life?
It kind of overlaps with question 8, but this is how I differentiate the two. This question is a ‘big picture’ kind of question whereas question 8 is much smaller-scale. Look at the character’s overall journey through the story: is she being propelled along by other people, or is she making her own decisions? Does she get to where she wants to be? If so, is it because she’s worked for it or because chance has worked out for her? If not, why not?
You can have a lot of fun talking about ~*Fate*~ and ~*Destiny*~ with this question as obviously, it would be a bit unrealistic if literally nothing else influenced the course of a character’s life. Background and setting are important here. A character who always does what she’s told can be pretty boring. But if the character has grown up controlled by a totalitarian government and would be executed for stepping out of line, that’s a pretty good excuse, and it makes her much more interesting. This is also something that you should always bear in mind for historicalcharacters, as they were likely written with a completely different idea of what constituted as acceptable behaviour for women.
Try and keep small stuff out of the question here and look at the overall story arc for the character. Look at her motivation and the society she comes from. Bear all of these in mind when reaching your decision, as they all have an impact – and if you’re stuck, give her a half point.
Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
This question is really designed to work out whether a character is properly fleshed out. Ideally, a well-written character should have all three.
What does the character want? It doesn’t have to be something she’s actively working towards, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s always relevant to the plot. She’s just got to have them – even if she’s only saving up for a girls’ weekend in Lanzarotte.
What does the character believe? How does this affect her decisions? Is she in line with, or opposed to, any significant beliefs mentioned in the plot? You should be able to state an opinion belonging to any well-written character. It’s a reflection of what and how they think, so this is really vital.
What does the character do for fun? How does she choose to spend her free time? This often falls by the wayside for many characters, particularly when they’re in a very fast-paced story which doesn’t have many slow moments. But it’s a very easy way to make a character seem more realistic, which is often overlooked.
These are often interlinked with both each other and the wider elements of the plot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as a character has all three, she’s well on her way. It’s important that these are properly followed through, though – it’s no good saying that a character loves reading if you never see her crack a book open. The best characters’ goals, beliefs and hobbies are reinforced in their actions. Just look at how many times Hermione mentions Hogwarts: A History.
It’s also important that a character’s goals, beliefs and hobbies are truly her own. Personally, I really dislike it when a female character meets the male lead and promptly changes her entire worldview to fit his. That’s not to say that a character should be static: just that if her goals, hobbies and beliefs are going to change, this development should be treated with care. We should be able to see the change and understand what this means for her.
This is a question where it helps to imagine the character as a real person. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible and answer these questions:
What do you want?
What do you believe?
What do you enjoy?
If you have an answer for all three, you’re doing well – but this is only half of it. Then, you need to pull back and look at things more critically. Are your answers backed up? Can you point to specific incidents where the character is shown working toward goals, living by what she believes, or just doing something she enjoys? Did these things suddenly appear right after she met a male character, or can you show that she’s been consistent regardless of who she’s met? If you can answer all of these questions she’ll probably pass this round.
Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
All characters should be consistent, and female characters are no exception. Essentially, what you are looking for here are moments when the character isn’t acting like herself (with no explanation given). Has a tough-as-nails badass suddenly become helpless? Is a brilliant scientist completely stumped by a simple problem? It’s that kind of thing.
Skills can often be a problem area for female characters. I’ve found that this happens quite a lot in action movies: a woman is set up to be a total badass, regularly kicking baddies in the face, but then in the final third of the film she gets captured by the villain and the heroes have to jump in and save her. It happens so often that TV Tropes has a whole page about it – grab her by the upper arm and our heroine is powerless.
On the other side of the coin, you want to make sure that any skill or personality developments are realistic. If our character decides she wants to learn kung fu and gets to black belt in a week, she’s very firmly in Mary Sue territory. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so I’ll just leave a link and summarise. Mary Sues are ridiculously perfect characters, usually overpowered, gorgeous and drowning in potential boyfriends. The label isn’t usually applied to male characters (the counterpart, or Gary Stu, is much less common) and, if I’m honest, I do wonder if that isn’t because of the whole gender thing. But that’s a post for another time.
To sum up – a character should be recognisable as herself both at the beginning and the end of the story. Characters can and should change; it would be daft if they didn’t. But this should be handled realistically, and should also be dictated by the character’s own actions and experiences, rather than because there needs to be a good way to finish off the final act.
Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
This one is pretty straightforward. I came up with this question to weed out characters who’ve only been included to fulfil the very limiting roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘eye candy’. It was originally only going to be appearance and love life, but I added ‘strong female character’ after reading this excellent article.
The crux of the question is this – female characters shouldn’t be limited. If all you can say about them is that they’re pretty, or strong, or someone’s girlfriend, then someone’s not trying hard enough. Male characters get to be complex, intelligent, difficult, demanding, intriguing, damaged, determined – and there’s absolutely no reason why female characters shouldn’t get the same treatment.
Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
I included this question to differentiate between well-rounded characters and characters that have been introduced just to be the love interest. I’ve found that this can actually be a bit of a controversial one, as some people think that what I mean by this is that all love stories are automatically bad. OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but you get the gist.
I don’t think that love stories are rubbish by default. That would be a dismissive and blinkered point of view which is steeped in gender bias of its own – sadly, a lot of the reasons why people tend to assume that romance books are rubbish is because they’re ‘for girls’. However, that’s not to say that the genre is without its flaws. Romance stories can often make use of some very tired old gender stereotypes, some of which can be harmful. For instance, there’s a marked trend in romance fiction for ‘alpha male’ heroes – and some authors illustrate this ‘alpha’ behaviour by having their heroes stalk, kidnap, or rape the heroine.
It goes without saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be romanticised – but it is. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the ideas surrounding traditional gender roles in relationships, and traditional ideas about both masculinity and femininity. This question is essentially a litmus test to see if any of those ideas could be present.
As a very broad rule of thumb, I’ve often found that when female characters are only ever influenced by their love lives, they usually end up falling prey to some of the more problematic gender stereotypes. But when these characters have something else in their lives that influences their decisions – be it a goal, an interest, or the influence of another character – they tend to avoid them. Allowing a female character to have a life and interests outside of her boyfriend is not only more realistic, but it makes her more well-rounded and it makes it easier to avoid unfortunate implications. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it works in nine cases out of ten.
To sum up: in real life, women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, so this shouldn’t be the case in fiction.
Does she develop over the course of the story?
This is a question that can be applied to pretty much any character, regardless of gender. Character development is a hugely important part of any story. It adds so much – everything from emotional attachment to increasing the tension of the plot. It can reinforce both the strength of the character’s personality and the impact of the things they go through, so I think it’s a pretty crucial element.
How I scored characters on this question depended on a few different elements. I’ve listed them below:
Do they develop at all?
Is the change in their personality gradual or sudden?
Is it proportional to the events of the plot, and the importance the character placed on them?
The first question is the easiest to answer. If a character doesn’t develop at all, then they’ve obviously failed this round. Experiences have impact, and that’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people.
The second question requires a broader focus – here, you want to be looking at the story in a larger sense. Look at the character’s overall story arc, taking the plot into account, and try and work out where and how the change took place. If it’s a snap change with no build up you might not do so well; if it’s a more gradual change, odds are it’ll be all right.
The third question is arguably the most important. Context is everything and this is no exception. If, for example, a character discovers a dead body, you might think that this could trigger a dramatic change in her personality – but this wouldn’t necessarily apply if she was a police officer on a murder investigation. Conversely, if a character didn’t get elected to the yearbook committee in high school, you might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal – but this might not be the case if it was something that, say, she really needed for a university application. It should all be relative – not just to the character but to the events of the plot. If our police officer was getting upset about not getting to do the yearbook, that might seem a bit out of place.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – minor events can have significance for characters who go through very serious circumstances, and characters can ignore major events because it may be easier in their current circumstances. But as a general rule this usually works. Character development should be present, planned, and proportional – try saying that with a mouthful of crisps.
Does she have a weakness?
When I was first thinking up the test this question seemed a bit disingenuous for a blog about Strong Female Characters. But I soon realised this was crucial – and not just to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue.
I talked about this a little bit in question four – how male characters are allowed all kinds of interesting flaws, but female characters are just described as ‘strong’ and left at that. This is neither realistic nor fair. People have flaws, and so fictional representations of them should, too – and female characters should be treated with just as much complexity as male ones.
But this question is an interesting one, because this can often be a place where traditional and modern gender stereotypes connect. It’s all to do with the types of flaws a character has, and whether they actually affect her.
It goes without saying that all characters should have flaws. It makes them more interesting, more relatable, and more realistic. But when it comes to female characters, the question of flaws can get pretty complicated. If you go back – and I mean right back, into the realm of fairy tales – women tended to be boxed up as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters. I’m over-simplifying a little for the sake of argument, but as a general rule the mark of a ‘good’ character was their absence of flaws, and the mark of a ‘bad’ character was the sheer overwhelming number of flaws. These were not so much characters as examples for women to follow – illustrations of how they should and should not behave.
As fiction began to develop the idea that good women don’t have flaws took on a different form. Women were allowed to have flaws, but they weren’t really flaws that held them back or made them unattractive. They were often described as too pure, too innocent, too kind for their own good – essentially, flaws that made them more appealing to their audience and rarely had any negative consequences. It wasn’t a coincidence that most of these flaws were ‘fixed’ when these characters married. Now, we’ve swung the other way. People are often keen to avoid writing female characters with tangible flaws because a) writing any character with a serious flaw is difficult and b) a lot of people are convinced this will make their characters less likeable. But they also don’t want to write a fragile little flower who’s completely helpless without a man. The result is characters who are so efficient, well-adjusted and confident that they don’t really have any problems at all – and this is where the Mary Sue comes in.
So, how do you judge a female character’s flaws? I did this in two ways. First, you look at how it interacts with gender stereotypes. Is her fatal flaw that she’s so innocent, pure and naïve that she cannot recognise a bad situation when she sees it? Then you’re off to a bad start. But this isn’t completely unredeemable.
What really clinches it is how it actually affects her life. A character’s flaw should have a tangible impact on both her life and her relationships. It’s no good telling your audience that a character is a compulsive liar if we don’t see how no-one trusts her to tell the truth. It’s no good telling your audience that a character has trouble forming meaningful relationships if she immediately starts a happy and healthy relationship with the first man she sees. As long as you show the evidence of this, you can pretty much write any flaw you want. So it’s perfectly fine for a character to be so unbelievably naïve that they cannot recognise danger – but only if this has real consequences. If they blithely wander off, skipping happily towards a field of bear traps just in time to be saved by a lantern-jawed hero, then yes, she’s not going to pass this round. But if her naivety gets her into a situation where she has to directly confront the consequences of her actions, then we’ve got something much more substantial to work with.
For me, this is really exemplified by the contrast between Snow White and Sansa Stark. Both start their stories in a reasonably similar position – both innocent, naïve young girls who find themselves caught up in royal intrigues that put them in serious danger. But whereas Snow White is saved by the timely intervention of a handsome prince, Sansa has to get herself out of trouble. She realises how her naivety has led her to delude herself about people’s true motivations, learns how to survive in a brutal court, and actively tries to work against her flaws.
To sum up, these are the questions you should be asking. Is the flaw a cliché? Does it have real consequences on the character’s life? Look at how this flaw is presented, and how we see it in action. If the two match up, you’re on the right track.
Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
As I said earlier, this question can overlap with question 1 – but the key difference between the two is that this question deals with events on a much smaller scale. You’re not looking at the overall plot here – this question is for smaller events, like individual scenes or chapters.
Essentially, what you’re really looking for here is multiple instances where the character makes a decision and that decision has a direct impact on the events of the plot. They don’t have to be huge, monumental decisions but they do have to be made.
What often lets characters down on this question is the idea of passive influence – which is why I included the ‘captured or killed’ caveat at the end of this question. Unfortunately, this tends to happen to a lot of female characters. They’re either kidnapped and the plot revolves around other people trying to rescue them, or they’re killed and the plot revolves around other people trying to avenge their death/deal with grief. If a character’s only impact is that she isn’t there and other people are sad about it, that doesn’t exactly speak wonders for her.
But these aren’t the only two ways in which passive influence can be seen. I’ve looked at quite a few characters who don’t do much of anything and the plot revolves around them. This is often related to things they have no control over – such as their social position, or the effect of some ~*Great Prophecy*~ that marks them out as special. In this case it’s not so much what they do but what they are that drives the plot forward – and that doesn’t count. I disqualified this because you can apply exactly the same traits to an inanimate object.
What a character needs to pass this round is pretty simple, which is why most of them tend to do well on this question. All you need is a couple of instances where you can show that her decisions – not her position – has a direct impact on the plot, and you’ll pass this round.
How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
This was the question that tended to read most like a gender studies essay, liberal use of gifs aside. This is par for the course, considering what you really need to answer this question properly is a strong knowledge of tropes and clichés. I included this question because stereotypes are still pretty commonplace in fiction, and still have an affect on real women’s lives. It’s not just lazy to build a character using only stereotypes – it can have a very negative impact on how real people are perceived.
Look at how the story draws on traditional stereotypes. Your first step should be to see if there’s any present (and there usually are). These can take many different forms including character traits, story arcs and motivation. Is your character a pretty, shallow high school girl? Is your character a princess waiting to be rescued? Is your character’s only purpose in life to find and marry a nice man? Any one of these three is a stereotype, but they all relate to different aspects of a character’s role within a story. To properly look for stereotypes you’ll have to look at all aspects of the character and see how they compare to traditional beliefs about women.
Having identified your stereotypes, your next step should be to look at how the story treats them. If they are just repeated verbatim, then odds are the character won’t pass this round. But if the stereotypes are used subversively you’re in with a better chance. Subverting tropes can be a really interesting way of commenting on traditional roles and expectations, and there’s no better place to do this than in fiction. Does the shallow high school girl use judgemental behaviour as an outlet for her insecurities? Does the princess waiting to be rescued end up manipulating her captors? Does the woman trying to find a husband have to marry to save something else she cares about? All of these undermine traditional gender-based narratives. By allowing characters to break out of these boxes, writers can not only produce more original content but also create more interesting characters.
It’s also very important to consider the character from an intersectional point of view. It would be naïve to assume that all female characters are subject to the same stereotypes, so it’s important to bear any other stereotypes which may affect them in mind. When I was writing these posts I often had to supplement this with extra research – I’m a young, straight white woman, so I didn’t have direct experience of some of the clichés I was writing about. Race, sexuality, disability and age all have direct affects on how real women are perceived, and so these affects need to be noted when you’re looking at fictional characters. In some cases they can completely change the meaning and implications of stereotypes. For example, you might think that a woman who spends a whole film waiting for her husband to come and rescue her would fall prey to some pretty old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But this is essentially the role of Broomhilda in Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington makes the point that this is quite subversive, as the role of damsel in distress has historically been denied to black women. Washington, who studied slave narratives at university, makes some very eloquent points on how race can affect a character’s role, and I would really encourage you to read her article.
To sum up: check for stereotypes, see how they’re treated, and always bear intersectionality in mind. And prepare yourself for a lot of head-scratching.
How does she relate to other female characters?
As most of you guessed, this question is based on the Bechdel Test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test was invented in 1985, and originally only applied to movies. There’s three rules: the film must contain two female characters, who must talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man (or boy). There’s also a handy cartoon:
The test has been widely used and discussed ever since then but the basic principles remain the same. I adapted it slightly for my version, because as many people have pointed out over the years, you can still pass the Bechdel Test and be sexist. Your first step should obviously be to see how many other female characters your character interacts with. Obviously, if there aren’t any other female characters then that’s an automatic fail.
A general rule of thumb is the more female characters you have, the better. In recent years there’s been a trend to include two female characters in a group instead of just one. This is a step forward, but if there’s only one other female character that can lead to problems of its own. What often happens is the two female characters are used as a contrast: the tomboy and the girly girl, the party animal and the stick in the mud, the innocent virgin and the temptress. This is something that should really be avoided. It reduces women into one of two groups, and depending on how one or the other is treated, can reinforce some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women. Take a look at one of the many Dracula adaptations. There are two named female characters, Mina and Lucy. Lucy is almost always portrayed as a flirt, and Mina is almost always shown to be shy and demure. Mina gets to escape death and lead a happy life – Lucy pretty much always dies horribly and then has to get staked through the heart. It’s not hard to draw some pretty unfortunate conclusions from a story like that. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to include more than one other female character.
Next, you should look at how the characters interact. If they spend the whole story fighting over a man, or getting jealous of each other’s dresses, then you’re probably going to fail here too. But if they interact in different ways depending on each other’s actions and motivations, you’re probably onto a winner. The best relationships between female characters take this into account. The ideal would be something like Buffy, where there’s a range of different female characters. This allows for different kinds of relationships to be displayed – everything from friendship to enmity to romance – and the characters’ actions and decisions have a direct impact on the tone of these relationships. They grow with the characters, and that’s what makes it work so well.
So there you have it! That is how to use the test. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. If you tweak the questions slightly, you can also use the test for male characters too. I’ve found that leaving out questions 5 and 10 and changing the pronouns for the rest will usually cover most characters fairly well.
And that’s it for my Strong Female Characters series. But it’s not the end of this blog. I’ll be starting up two new series: one where I’ll talk about general trends in fiction and storytelling and another, sillier one called Book Recipes. There’ll be a new post every two weeks, so watch this space!
I’ll kick things off with the first Book Recipe – How to Write a Military SF novel. Bring your lasers.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.