I was a teenager when I met Colleen Lightblade. I was sitting in front of my computer with the dilemma faced by so many fanfiction authors: creating a new character when the ship pairing has become non-viable, I needed to create someone new to replace one party in the romance. In this case, she was being inserted into the relationship pairing that was the main focal point of the Star Wars universe I had been steadily expanding upon since 1997, and as such, needed to fill several roles.
Unfortunately, all of those roles were trope-heavy, and catered to my romantically inclined teenage mind. As a nerdy boy who had eschewed dating for the glories of fantastic worlds, I had no idea how women acted, nor how to properly write them. All that existed of the fairer sex in my mind were a series of idealisms and personal desires to which my writing catered. So when ideas were finally put to paper, the result was a girl that was part hostage, part surrogate girlfriend, and a complement to the massive Mary Sue that was my in-universe avatar.
Looking back on it from today, I can completely understand where I was coming from at the time, but I cringe when I re-read those old stories. Prior to Colleen, I had been writing a ship featuring an established character, one with a solid personality and pre-existing traits that were simple to convey into my stories. There were hints of the idealism present, but none so much that it actively transformed the character from canon to fan-wank- I had to treat her as the author had created her, which was simple considering her straightforward nature and “party role” in the Expanded Universe. With Colleen, those templates were gone, and she sprang up from my head fully forced into the illusions of female behavior that I held, and acted according to how I assumed female would act. And as a result, she descended deep into the realms of submissive behavior and silent voice. This is a terrible way to construct or approach a character, but at the time she was new and shiny and acted like I wanted a girlfriend to act.
Those stories dried up not long after Colleen joined them, owing to college work and exposure to real people in a real world. But one thing that stuck with me long after was writing female characters. Colleen was only a supporting cast member at best, but in later fiction (both original and fan) I would revisit the female POV over and over, making little strides each time: first the character would lose the submissive behavior, then become more active, or assume a trickster mantle, or delve down into realms of magic and sorcery and become a powerful wizard. Rather than just live and act like a special snowflake, to be protected or admired for “demure traits,” later female protagonists would take command, replace tears with smirks, or face real world conflicts. Each one of them was still a collection of tropes drawn from reading or mass media, but they were forays into a different world that I was gradually becoming aware of. And through my writing, I was able to reconcile those voices in my head with the real people in my life.
The act of writing the opposite gender poses its own unique set of challenges: acculturation while growing up sets its own strain on how we are taught to act, and frequently we are oblivious to instances when our experience contradicts those expectations, or enforces them without our realizing it. As I did with Colleen, a writer often creates the character the want to know in real life, or builds that character around an unrealistic expectation, which ultimately forces the creator to confront their own misconceptions, and hopefully evolve their craft to expunge them. When the writer acknowledges the stereotypes and makes the conscious decision to explore/reject them, it can open up whole new worlds for both author and reader, and lead to both awareness and growth, which in turn impacts later creative endeavors. One major impact to writing female characters was that it allowed me to explore the female voice in my own head, and it challenged me to not reduce her to a bundle of assumptions, but rather provide an outlet for telling her own stories. I wrote what I did not intimately know, in hopes that maybe I could begin to know it.
In 2013, I had found the old notebook in which all those stories Colleen had been written into were hastily stuffed, and after reading them over, decided I had done a grave disservice to the character. Yes she was a fan-fiction creation, but she was also part of my writer’s experience, and as such I felt she deserved something more than the role of hostage-girlfriend. Coming off a successful 2012, where I had written the single longest piece of fiction I’d ever done, centered around two sisters seeking to find their place in a chaotic world of politics and warfare, it felt right to take what I had discovered about myself and the craft of writing, and retcon my first creative endeavor. So I picked up a pen and began to write. But before I did, I decided to make one little change: rather than approach Colleen as the main character’s girlfriend...I made her the main character.