When I was a kid, I wanted to be Lucy Pevensie from the Narnia books. Maybe not “be” her, but at least be like her. She was the youngest, but that didn’t stop her from being brave and doing important things. Plus, her kindness helped her accomplish goals more often than it got in the way. She could be brave and helpful in her own way, without having to compromise who she was.
When I got a little bit older, I wanted to be like Meg Murry from the Wrinkle in Time series. We even had some things (almost) in common! Her mom was a scientist, mine was an electrical engineer. We were both good at math (though I didn’t struggle in other subjects the way she did) and we both cared about our brothers very much. I loved how she was such a smart girl and that her intelligence was portrayed as not just something to be proud of, but also just a part of her. No one says, “Oh wow, you’re smart for a girl,” it’s accepted as something no stranger than her need to wear glasses. (The other thing we have in common, I’m also blind without mine!)
I also wanted to be like Princess Cimorene from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. She had excellent common sense, and when she was unhappy with her situation she was one to get out and do something about it. She wasn’t unkind to princesses who wanted a more “normal” life, but also stayed true to herself. Plus, she got to work for a kick ass dragon who eventually become King. (A title she received despite being a female dragon, because it’s a job title.) Cimorene was willing and able to be flexible and adapt to new situations and never lost her sense of humor.
I fell in love with the Redwall series after reading a blurb recommending it to fans of Watership Down. While the characters in the books are anthropomorphic animals, I was also drawn to the one I read first, Mariel of Redwall, because it looked like she was having one heck of an adventure. She fights and explores and goes on an epic journey to save her father from a murderous pirate, I loved seeing how committed and capable she was. As I read other books in the series, the gender balance may not always have been perfect, but there was enough balance for me to feel like I’d have a place in that world.
Looking back on my favorite books, it really is the ones with female leads that have stuck with me the longest. Those aren’t the only books I read, or the only ones I loved; they just stand out to me in a different way than those books without.
I remember being disappointed there didn’t seem to be as many books about girls and women doing awesome things as there were about boys and men, but grateful for the ones I could find. It seemed like in a lot of books, adventuring was for the guys and women would either slow them down or create complicated issues through their incompetence. I came to at least half-believe it myself. When I’d daydream about being a character in a book, it was now always as a phoenix or a wraith, anything other than some humanoid woman who would get in the way of the story.
As an adult, I know I’m better off than many other people when it comes to seeing representation of myself in the genres I love. The books I’ve mentioned aren’t even particularly diverse, they just happen to include one type of woman better than many other books. While I didn’t focus on romance in my reading (and still don’t) they’re also all straight.
Thinking about these books that meant so much to me growing up is one reason I’m puzzled when some folks get cranky about diversity in fantasy and science fiction. I want as many kids and adults as possible to have that feeling of seeing someone they can connect to in a story. I want a wide variety of stories and of people telling those stories. It’s the same way I feel about video games, I’m in favor of people trying new things and showing me perspectives I’m not familiar with while giving more people a chance to connect.
Seeing yourself, or who you want to be, in a book is a powerful experience. It can not only begin a lifelong love of reading, but give you insight about yourself and your dreams for the future. When I read about Lucy, Meg, and Cimorene, I was building an idea of the kind of person I wanted to be.
I also want this diversity because it helps make other people less scary. My brother and I have always been close, which helped me to never think of guys as creatures from another planet; but I’m positive that reading books told from the perspective of boys and men also helped. The same goes for books with main characters of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and a million other things. Books allow you into a character’s head in a way no other media does, even laying their thoughts bare for you to see.
I suppose the grumbling sometimes has to do with disliking poorly written or “token” characters. We all have a vague idea of what that looks like, a character only thrown in because of one characteristic or another. I have a problem with people assuming that’s always, or even usually, the case. When the real world is made up of so many different people, it seems like it should follow we also have many different people in our stories. Choosing just one or two kinds of people seems the more contrived option, doesn’t it?
It’s easy to say diversity isn’t a big deal if you often get to see yourself in your favorite books, it’s easy to literally not notice a lack. But two of the great things about my favorite books are characters that feel familiar to me, and characters who can show me a new perspective. The more diverse the cast of characters, the more likely a book is to give me both. So yes, I want to see more women like me as characters and authors, but I also want more variety in people not like me, people of different cultures, lifestyles, and histories. The idea that more variety somehow takes away from what we already have is one I will never understand.