Women, agency, and storytelling

Think about some of the bestselling titles in YA fiction (especially those featuring a female protagonist) that you’ve read or heard of, and you’ll find a narrative pattern: most of these stories are told in first person. The Hunger Games comes to mind as an example. Katniss serves as narrator, telling her story in present tense. We are able to understand her character on a more personal level of thought while witnessing a dystopian world through her eyes.

It’s not a necessity for successful YA, although some say it helps. They might say the target audience for such fiction likes to experiment with telling their own stories; therefore they like to read stories told in a more personable manner — from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

I still say it all comes down to character. When executed well, first-person narratives can create a richer, more compelling story. They also color our perspective as a reader with the character’s inherent biases, subconscious emotions, and potential unreliability.

When they’re done poorly, it’s usually because the character lacks agency. The character becomes “lost” in the story itself, because she/he is passive instead of active. There is little reason to use first person when the character’s decisions have little or no bearing on the plot at all.

I’d argue that third person is much better suited for this task, depending on the story you’re trying to tell. My choice to write The Soft Fall in third was not just an aesthetic one. If I had told the story through Dianna’s perspective alone, I wouldn’t be able to cover the larger issues of the empire as a whole — because although she is the protagonist, her story is like just one facet of a cut gemstone. Each side has its own story to tell.

Third person made the most sense to me, not only because of the multiple viewpoints to address, but because none of the main protagonists really have agency. In fact, the main cast of characters — we’ll call them the pack — are basically at the mercy of their bodies and their environment. They can do things, they can make decisions, but only within limitations.

At the start of the book, Dianna has almost no agency whatsoever, and for good reason. If she did have agency, within the sphere of oppressive ideology she’s grown up to obey, she knows she’d get herself killed using it.

That’s why, in the very first chapter when she witnesses two of her townsfolk being burned at the stake for alleged crimes against god, she does exactly nothing. She wants to, but she can’t. What can a fourteen-year-old girl do to effect any real change?

She can do one thing, and that’s reject god.

The story begins here, at this tiny act of rebellion, this seed of agency that flourishes and blooms as the narrative continues. Whether she knows it or not yet, her primary goal throughout the narrative is agency, a goal that is consistently thwarted by conflict. Character development needs to occur before she can fully attain it.

That’s why, when she meets the pack for the first time, she comes to understand them fairly quickly. They’re all working toward agency. They’re all in this together.

When it comes to limited agency, Ram is a slight exception. He may be helpless in context, but he’s still the Prince of Myre (and, though it won’t be fully explained until book two, still pulling the strings in his own small way). His personal story has consequences for the entire empire, which his why his first-person prologue opens the book. But Eccka ends it with her first-person epilogue because his agency, his power as Prince, is transferred to her.

That’s why the sequel will also be written in first, alternating between Eccka’s and Dianna’s voices.

Because The Soft Fall‘s very title has multiple meanings, and one of them alludes to the fall of the empire. It is “soft” because it happens on a small scale, barely seen and hardly believable by anyone, derived in part from a question of quantum theory: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

In this case, yes. It is the sound of these women’s voices, which will resonate across an empire that has never seen women in positions of power. This power shift means they’re finally able to reclaim their stories. And it gives me a chance as storyteller to explore many feminist questions. Now that they have agency in the world, how will they use it? What new obstacles will stand in their path?

Writing stories about women’s agency inevitably makes me consider my own agency as a woman author in publishing, and in the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole. I’m currently in the middle of reading The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hugo award-winning author Kameron Hurley, who explains that navigating such territory as a woman often feels dependent on maintaining a constant self-awareness. She writes:

What I learned was that I had to work harder than the guys. I had to assume that when people looked at me, they’d automatically give me crappier offers. They’d assume I was stupider than I was. They’d pay attention to me less. They’d judge me by gender, by looks, by weight before anything else. I automatically started every interaction at a disadvantage.

In some ways, realizing this made things easier. I no longer worked on the assumption of equality. I always assumed I was starting ten steps behind. I learned I had to fight harder, shout louder, and demand more just to get five extra steps ahead, so I wasn’t starting quite so behind in the eyes of those who passed judgment on me, from bosses to colleagues to new friends.

These automatic disadvantages, I think, is what makes writing women characters so appealing to me — especially in a fantasy world where those disadvantages are made clear from the start, a world not unlike our own.

I want to watch women reclaim their stories as much as I want to tell my own. Like Hurley points out, I know it won’t be easy, but knowing is half the battle.

I know I will struggle with finding acknowledgement for my writing in a genre dominated by male writers. Even when I do receive acknowledgement, I’m anticipating inevitable yet misguided comparisons to urban fantasy or paranormal YA like Twilight, the likes of which have hardly anything in common with my story except werewolves (a word I actually entirely refrain from using in the narrative, because it is so loaded with preconceived notions). I’m anticipating such commentary  because I’m a woman writer.

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, and it shouldn’t stop other writers who are women, or of color, or LGBTQ, or any marginalized group, either. Because publishing is undergoing its own power shift, toward a future of more diverse narratives. And the point of Eccka and Dianna’s journey toward agency is that once you have it, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

We’re all in this together.

It’s time to tell our stories.