In fighting the late-summer heat, I recently picked up a new-t0-me video game: Dragon Age: Origins. It’s pretty cool; you are on a hero’s journey to become a Grey Warden and travel from town to town fighting monsters and trying to save the kingdom. There’s a lot of customization, and the choices you make throughout will affect the outcome of the game.
And you have to make a lot of choices. (It’s almost the Starbucks of video games: and would you like whip with that? (I’m easily overwhelmed by Starbucks….can you tell?))
The very very first choice, though, is building your character: Will you play as a male or a female?
In some ways, the fact that it’s even an option to play as female is a great thing; in some games, forget it. You’re just a white-ish athletic dude no matter what. So I always enjoy games that give you more versatility in that way.
The prompt as you choose your playable gender says Fereldon, the world, is a pretty equal place, with opportunities for both men and women in the three playable careers–warrior, mage, and rogue. That’s important, because I like to know when I’m cutting myself off from parts of the game with my choices.
So I built my female human mage with red hair and dark eyes and went happily on my way.
Except I was constantly reminded by other characters (non-playable characters, or NPCs, for you non-gamers out there) that woah, hey! You’re a lady!
In some cases, it made sense and fit with the story: when Morrigan the wild witch met me, she was more friendly because she carries a general dislike for men, having grown up in isolation.
But most of the time, it doesn’t. It’s more like “wow, you’re a fighter and a lady? Whodathunkit?!” In a world that is supposedly equal. And where I periodically see other female warrior/mage/rogues running around.
It just got tiresome. So this happened:
Think about this in your writing. If your character is something different, that’s fantastic! We need more minority characters–not just female, but also non-white nationalities. And that should affect the story where appropriate–as in the case with Morrigan in Dragon Age.
But when all the “NPCs” in your book take time to comment on the difference, you aren’t showing that there’s equality. You may be telling the reader that there is, but what you’re showing is exceptionalism. And it’s pretty tiresome, both in our stories and just to read. (See: Repetition)
(There may be stories of exceptionalism where it is still relevant–“wow, she’s the only one who can do that!”–but I personally think the gender-based exceptions are played out. Do something different.)
Don’t tell me how equal I am: just let me get on with the monster-fighting and world-exploring. That’s how I KNOW I’m equal–because I can definitely kick some undead monster butt if you’ll just let me get on with it.