- Robin Hood is a 12-year-old boy who must survive alone in Sherwood Forest when his father is falsely accused of theft
- Women going about their business and doing their jobs in books is unusual
- Robert Muchamore writes great secondary characters who reflect reality
In order to illustrate my point, I want to use some examples. That will require you to have a general idea of what the story is about.
Let me start by telling you about Robert Muchamore’s novel Robin Hood
I recently read Robert Muchamore’s Young Adult (YA) adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).
Obviously, it’s a re-telling of Robin Hood. In this story, Robin is a 12-year-old boy living in Locksley. It’s a weird (but brilliant) crash of characters from the legend in a modern-day setting. There are laptops, mobiles, Netflix, ATMs, bows and arrows, body armour, and outlaws.
Aside from the fact it was great fun, it is worth a read to learn a few things about writing.
What do I mean by secondary characters?
Firstly, I suppose I’d better explain what I mean by secondary character. Everyone will have a slightly different idea of what exactly a secondary character is.
In this instance, I mean any character who is not a main character.
That includes nameless characters who are mere extras, providing atmosphere in crowds or public scenes, nameless characters who take an active role in the plot, and several of the characters who are only in the novel once.
Named characters can be secondary if they are in it for a short time and if they don’t individually impact the plot very much.
How Robert Muchamore writes secondary characters
What struck me as I was reading was the huge number of secondary characters who were female.
Now, this might not sound like it’s important or unusual, but it is.
The fact that this stood out to me so much that I had to write a blog post about it shows exactly how unusual it is. If other books had female secondary characters, it wouldn’t have been so noticeable.
I haven’t counted the number of secondary characters and tallied up their genders, but from memory I would estimate there are an equal number of women and men. For me to constantly notice the women, though, suggests that it’s highly unusual. In a world where 51% of the population is female, why is it so jarring to read a book where 50% of the characters are female?
It’s so unusual!
It’s also brilliantly done.
Every one of these secondary characters are believable.
These women are in female roles, so there is no reason not to include them and no reason why it should shock and please me so much. These secondary characters are all doing jobs women can and do perform in our society. Of course there are women in Locksley. And, since it is a modern setting, with modern characters and sensibilities, it would be weird if none of these women took an active role in society.
Secondary characters in the novel
There are a few named secondary characters that young Robin Hood gets to meet (in the story) just once.
There is Mr. Barclay, the teacher that Robin is most afraid of.
There is Isla, the long-suffering manager of the store Captain Cash.
There is Mel, who is connected to Guy Gisborne and fires Robin’s dad when he stands up to Gisborne.
There is Cut Throat, the leader of the Brigands, who are outlaws living in Sherwood Forest.
Already, you can see that there is an equal balance between male and female here.
The women are doing jobs that women in our society do every day. The narrative doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just like most people don’t go to a shop and have a massive melt-down because the manager has the audacity to be a woman. It’s just the way it is. Kudos for your reflection of real life, Mr. Muchamore.
Some examples of nameless secondary characters
Unnamed characters tend even more easily to fall into being male by default, especially if they are doing a ‘traditionally male’ role or are described by their job.
You can get a good sense of what I am talking about from just a few small extracts from Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows.
Two cops in dark blue uniforms waddled to the door.
Ardagh was waiting on the doorstep. “How may I help you, ladies?”
This was the first time I realised: oh my gosh, this is A Thing. He’s actually making secondary characters female.
And, yes, I was totally caught in the blatant trap of assuming the police were male. Because, you know, patriarchy. That’s what I mean when I say it’s easy to assume characters are male, especially in ‘traditionally male’ roles.
Having these minor characters be female is not only realistic but it normalises women being in these roles. The young adults (and adults) who read this book are going to see that women exist in these spaces in exactly the same way that men do. Not more, not less. To me, that’s amazing.
Robin lunged for his bow, but it was five metres away and two masked women charged before he got there, crashing each other in the doorway and making the den walls wobble like a cheap film set.
“Hands on head,” one woman said quietly, pointing an assault rifle with a laser sight that left a red dot jiggling over Robin’s heart.
At this point, we know that some of Guy Gisborne’s people have snuck into the building where Robin is hiding out. And have we assumed these people are male? Maybe.
Having not just one but two women being faceless, nameless thugs in the pay of the evil antagonist and ready to kill a 12-year-old child in cold blood… My kind of book.
Ok, that really sounded better in my head.
Barely able to breathe, Little John doubled up when a second projectile socked him in the gut. He tried to stand, but was immediately sent sprawling by a tactical boot in the back.
“Stay still!” a powerfully built man in a Kevlar helmet and body armour demanded.
“Give me your hands!” the woman who’d kicked him roared from behind.
She dug her knee in Little John’s back and locked disposable plastic cuffs around his wrists. Little John opened stinging eyes as the male guard lifted his face out of decaying leaves and studied him closely.
“This is him, right?” the man asked.
The woman came around for a proper look. “Hundred per cent,” she agreed.
This section is a nice illustration of an equal split of male and female characters. These two are just generic Castle Guards. They don’t get any character development, they don’t have names, but they play an important role in the plot. And, especially because they are Castle Guards, a traditionally masculine role, it would be so easy to just write two men doing it.
Muchamore doesn’t do that, though.
You can see that it has advantages. It differentiates between two nameless thugs if they have different genders. Not only does it more accurately represent the modern world, but it helps clarify your writing, too. Every writer should be doing this!
Misogyny is still a thing in the novel
What’s important to say here is that the writer isn’t a misogynist. His book aren’t misogynistic. In fact, the point of everything I have written so far is to prove that Muchamore is showing gender equality in his writing.
He is writing about a modern world, though, and part of that is misogyny. Therefore, he has misogynistic characters in the novel.
“I’m not allowed to wear colours because I’m a mere girl,” Marion explained. “Only men can be Brigands.”
“It’s club tradition,” Cut-Throat said. “I may be leader here, but there are Brigands chapters all over the world and we all follow the international rulebook.”
“Misogynistic old farts!” Marion complained to Robin.
I want to note two things here:
The first is that the main characters (Robin and Marion) don’t agree with these views, therefore indicating that the views are morally wrong.
The second is that Cut-Throat is, largely, a goodie. At least, he helps Robin, shows generosity, and takes a stand against the corrupt Guy Gisborne. There is nuance in this characterisation. Despite the common assumption that Middle Grade (MG) and YA books are didactic, Muchamore presents characters who are morally complex and guides his young readers into learning that there are many things to admire about the character, but that not all of his values are sound.
Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood is a brilliant example of a novel which reflects gender in our society:
- Fifty per cent of the characters (give or take) are female and fifty per cent male (at this time, I’m not getting into representation of other genders but it’s on my mind).
- The female characters are doing what women do in our society: taking care of their families, teaching, working for the police, managing retail outlets, running whole counties as an elected official, and illegally hiding out in the forest and surviving as outlaws…
- Misogyny is represented and addressed by one of the main characters.