On Writing, and Rewriting The Brain

I am working on a fantasy story right now, an adult (not YA) work that is for the most part about women. And blood magic. My core cast is 75% women (three women, one man), and as of now their support network is somewhere between 66-75% female. I’m still working out a lot of the secondary cast which is why numbers are in flux.

Plus as I’m sure you all know, ideas and characters can change a lot between original idea and final product.

I had one of those character ideas this evening, as I was puttering around as I waited for a friend to give me a lift. A minor character so far, but with possible increasing importance depending on choices I’ll make for plot and other characters. Or when I think it over for more than thirty seconds she might be in the wrong place entirely and she’ll be transformed into a different character with a different role.

But here’s the thing: almost immediately after I thought her up I thought, “Do I have too many female characters? Maybe I should make her a boy.” It was one of those thoughts that comes from conscious and subconscious absorption of the messages of media and society.

So I told myself, “If I were a male author, and all the female characters in this story were male, would anyone make a deal of it? Would they say there were too many men? Or would they deem it ‘realistic’, despite this being a story about magic in a completely fictional world?” And since the character of child who does not live up to the expectations of parent can, magic or no, be of any gender why not keep to my concept of “story about women”?

I’ve considered myself a feminist for a good while now, but it’s still very much a case of deprogramming and reprogramming my brain when it comes to thoughts like this. They’re rare, true, but they still happen and it’s important to acknowledge that along with fixing it. It’s like when I have an idea for a story and my brain defaults to an American setting. I have never been to the US, but I lifetime of consuming books, movies, TV shows, comics and video games has left it as the “default setting”, the “place where things happen”. The same goes for the UK, but on a lesser scale.

So what is the solution? I guess it is just doing things to actively counter those automatic choices, change what is the “default” deep inside my brain. Consume more media that is set local, or has a focus on women etc. And mentally block that voice when it asks “don’t you think you have too many [insert category here] characters already?”, instead encouraging the one that asks, “do they have to be male? Can you set it in New Zealand? Does your fantasy world have to be set in a northern hemisphere?” to be louder instead.

Fellow writers, have you ever had a problem with “the default voice”? What does your default voice tell you, and how do you combat it? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this boat but I do want to know how other people cope with this problem.


Catherine is a writer, reader, and general internet person from New Zealand. As well as designing book covers, she is one of the editors for Bibliodaze and one half of the vampire-themed podcast The Bloodsucking Feminists.

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  • Natalie Reid
    September 2, 2016 at 8:30 am

    My default voice is me, a middle class white NZ woman who avoids conflict at all costs. A whole cast of me does not lead to very dramatic storylines. I need to create very different characters to force confrontations. I sometimes create characters by trying to imagine a background for the last person I saw abusing a poor service person.

    I find it interesting when people have default voices that are vastly different from their own range of experiences and have often wondered if that is their original default voice or if it was learned from trying to write things that sell. I used to think there were a whole lot of people out there who had changed their default voice because their voice was discriminated against and removing this discrimination would solve the diversity problem. However your post has made me realise how much a default voice could be influenced by media. Unfortunately this makes that problem worse.

    I have never read or watched anything and thought “there are too many (insert category) characters” I have occasionally thought “Wow it’s impressive how separated they have managed to keep all their female characters”

    I am more anxious writing characters of different ethnicities. People never seem to find it culturally offensive if you get a straight white male character “wrong.” I wonder if that’s just me or if similar anxieties contribute to the predominance of white men in our media.
    I don’t have any brilliant solutions other than keep trying to read and write more diversely and when writing to try and have groups of (insert category) that interact with each other rather than solitary characters with (insert category) as a defining characteristic.

    • Catherine
      September 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

      I think part of the issue I had is I have had people in the industry tell me directly that I should be writing something more “marketable” – aka default – so they can help me get published.

      (I don’t talk to those people, but I still hear their voices every time I see the “default” – author or story – get praise and success, no matter how mediocre. -_-)




Kiwi. Writer. Reader. Graphic designer. Video games enthusiast. Bloodsucking Feminist and co-editor of Bibliodaze . Knows way too much about vampires than is healthy. Doesn't care.

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The Cantia Covenant
The Necromancer's Daughter

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