By David T. Valentin
On Friday I had the opportunity to attend a panel titled, “Building Worlds for Women: Wattpad Books Authors on Writing Female Driven Sci-Fi/Fantasy,” a panel that discussed what a strong female character looks like to four female writers.
The panel was a virtual screening, which lost some of the excitement of being able to discuss all things writing in person, but the enthusiasm of the panelists and the audience was all the same. On panel was Cheryl Eddy, the moderator and io9 news editor, along with HJ Nelson, Kimberly Vale, Nandi Taylor and Rebecca Phelp.
During the panel, the authors were asked what a strong female character looks like to them when they’re writing.
Rebecca Phelps answered by explaining that to her, a strong female character is one filled with curiosity and skepticism to the world around her. Phelps goes on to explain that for her, that curiosity is fueled by a desire to question and re-examine the world around her main characters in order to reinvent themselves in the ways in which they see fit.
For Nandi Taylor, for her to understand who her characters are, she also has to understand who they aren’t. In other words, for Taylor to write a character that her readers and herself might empathize with, she enjoys writing characters with flaws; characters who must overcome or find new ways to solve a problem because of their flaws. In creating characters who have flaws, she believes readers empathize and see those flaws within themselves and say, “Hey this character is a lot like me!” And by creating a full character arc, Nandi feels it gives her writers hope in themselves.
All other authors agreed. At the heart of each authors’ words, it seems the common thread was creating a character a reader can see themselves in to fully immerse themselves and feel attached to the story.
While Cheryl Eddy asked the panelists a slew of questions about writing, their own writing techniques and which kind of attitudes they bring when they come to the page, she returned to the topic at hand and asked each author whether they can see it become redundant to have panels like this, panels where women need to discuss what makes for a good female character.
“Would it be possible for women to go to a convention and just talk about writing without having to push for positive representation and more female writers?”
While most of the panelists admitted that yes, they do think panels such as theirs will not be needed in the future, Nandi confessed both a hopeful and realistic answer.
While she feels as though women have made great strides in the publishing industry, she feels there’s still a long way until we reach a point where panels like theirs are redundant. She went on to explain that we still have a long ways to go in representing a greater diversity of perspectives through publishing writers all across the world.
In a way, I too silently agreed with the panelists’ hopefulness, but I also disagreed. While I feel women and minority groups have made great strides in the past five years when it comes to representation in the publishing industries, I couldn’t help but feel as though the work that needs to be done to dissect harmful systems of power never truly ends. And even as we move forward in discussions of masculinity and femininity, we are always redefining and reassessing what it means to be a man, a woman and everything in between.
Even the panelists--out of the six there was only one black writer and no trans women--were a testament to needing a lot more work to be done. I was a bit disappointed that no one took in consideration a Queer perspective on gender and storytelling, or even vocalized the need to bring the discussion to the forefront. Still, the panelists’ insight into the discussion was still one that needed to be had.
Moving on, I think the last discussion really hit home for many on the panel and the audience, when Cheryl asked each writer how they coped with the pandemic and how that affected their writing.
Rebecca Phelp captivated the chaos of last year when she described cramming in her writing time whenever she can. Whether it be 20 minutes alone before she needed to help her children with something or whether it was an hour in the car alone, she tried her best to push herself to get the work done. And although she eventually did get the work done, she admitted the mental strain of everything happening in the world was still a lot.
Although Phelp tried her best to dance around the mental exhaustion that was 2020, Nandi Taylor answered the question with swift bluntness. “I’m going to be real with you, and for anyone who may have been feeling the same way, but last year was terrible.”
After Nandi opened the floor with honesty, both Kimberly Vale and HJ Nelson opened up with their own experiences with the pandemic.
But there was one piece of advice that HJ Nelson gave out that really resonated with me. After confessing she had to throw away a lot of what she felt were writing goals, like word count or entire chapters or pieces of dialogue, she said that she had to “reinvent” what it meant to be creative. While there were some days she couldn’t write or that she could only write a few pages or so a day, she found herself learning to be kind with herself, accepting that she couldn’t write. Instead, she’d go outside or go for a walk or listen to music and that would be her moment of creativity for the day.
Nelson’s words reminded me that although much of writing is sitting in one room alone for hours staring at a page, it is also the smaller things—the little walks we go on, the ideas we think of as we listen to music or just the clarity of peace and meditation as we come to terms with the harsh world around us.
For Nandi, she admits that she struggled to write, very much because it was hard for her to believe that in such a moment in history that she could change the world with her stories. How could someone read a happy ending when nothing seemed to be going right.
But the thought was a moment of clarity in her purpose of why she writes. She says, “If I can just change someone’s day for a few seconds, I know I did good.”
It reminds us writers that in times of turmoil, sometimes fiction serves as a bubble of hope which then inspires us to take that hope and create a better tomorrow.