Originally posted on Once Upon a Twilight for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:
When I was in high school a friend of mine confessed that she deliberately scored poorly on tests. She didn’t want to do better than the boys, she said, because boys didn’t like girls who out-performed them and would therefore never ask them out on a date (this was back in the days when the custom was that boys had to ask girls out on a date, never a mutual ask or a girl asking a boy).
Her comment stuck with me. I was smart and competitive; I got excellent grades and I played sports and did pretty well; and, yes, I didn’t “get a date” then. Don’t worry. It’s not necessary to get a date in high school to have the life you want afterward. It worked out for me.
As I grew older and read more I saw how often, both in narrative and in society, girls and women could be good at things as long as they weren’t better than boys and men. As long as, in the unlikely event that they were better, they stayed modest about it. Or hid their light under a bushel. Or gracefully allowed themselves to be surpassed as the boy or man came into his true power. A woman who was too good had to be alone, or she had to choose between career and family, or she had to be described as “as good as a man” as if excellence is a male virtue and a male calling.
Thankfully times have changed. These assumptions are no longer considered “how it is.” However, elements of those old attitudes still drift along the edges of many fictional works (as well as in real life, where too much “attention” to girls and woman being successful can cause backlash among some people concerned that boys are now being neglected). This is why stories about girls becoming the best they can be still feel revolutionary to me, because of that long twilight in which girls were told they ought not to be so unfeminine as to be excellent, that assertiveness isn’t womanly, that they ought not want to compete at all.
When I wrote Court of Fives I deliberately chose to push right at that tender spot. I wanted to write about a girl who is an athlete, who wants to win, who wants never to lose. A girl who isn’t afraid to harness that energy, who is willing to train and work hard, who will never let up. Those qualities allow her to become good at running a game called the Fives, but they also serve her well when she has to navigate obstacles off the court.
Writing the main character, Jes, in this way wasn’t the only part of the equation. When she meets Lord Kalliarkos, it opens up the whole relationship of how and when girls get to be successful. So often the boy or man plays a mentor relationship to the girl or woman whose story is about becoming her true self or finding a sense of worth or realizing her potential through the intervention of a man. I love those stories about becoming and worth and potential too, and I’ve written versions of them.
But in this case I wanted to write about a boy who respects her skill, who admires her competitiveness, who talks to her for the first time because he thinks she can help him improve. How interesting would it be, I thought, to write a confident male character who notices a girl for the first time not because she is pretty or beautiful, not because of her sexy body or how she dresses and acts toward men, not because she is a innately magical girl or a chosen one who is therefore desirable, but because she is skilled and successful through her own efforts. Because she’s better than he is at something he wants to succeed at.
As it happens, the story in Court of Fives doesn’t play out as a flipped version of that trope (girl mentors boy), but it still (I think) pushes against it. Jes is *already good* and the skills she has worked so hard to gain are crucial as she’s plunged into a terrible, disastrous situation and needs all her determination and fierceness to survive. Kalliarkos brings a different set of knowledge and skills that turn out to be equally crucial.
Every time we write a story we, as authors, are engaged in a conversation with our own expectations about how people interact, how they behave with each other, and how society believes they should, or shouldn’t, act. Many of the most exciting elements of writing target received wisdom, and say, “let’s see what happens if we turn this assumption on its head, if we look at it another way.”
Jes is my tribute to the ambitious girls and women who don’t let up and who never stop striving to be the best.
(Thank you again to Once Upon a Twilight for hosting the original guest post!)