Wives & Girlfriends
The standard in storytelling is the male character gets to be the protagonist AND the antagonist … Very often, a good portion of the group will be male too. As I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog and in my writing books, female secondary characters are frequently sidelined to ‘The Girl Character’ or even worse, the dreaded ‘WAG’ – wives and girlfriends.
However, it should be noted the role function of being the Wife or Girlfriend is not AUTOMATICALLY a problem. There have been some fantastic, nuanced female characters that have also been WAGs over the years. Consider Amy Dunne in Gone Girl; or Bianca in Creed. Both are VERY different and very cool!
What’s more, when so many women at home are wives or girlfriends themselves, there’s nothing inauthentic or ‘bad’ about writing such characters in stories, either. People want to see their realities reflected back at them and there’s zero reason this should exclude domestic story worlds.
The problem then is not the role function itself, but – surprise! – how it’s written.
As female protagonists are becoming more and more usual, we are beginning to see more about their home lives too. This means we’re beginning to see a male equivalent of the ‘WAG’ trope in secondary characters (or as I call it in Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV or Film, the ‘HOB’ – husband or boyfriend!).
It should surprise literally no B2Wer that the Dudeflakes who dislike female protagonists so much also hate HOB characters. They deride them as ‘weak’, believing ‘real men’ are the heroes of their own stories.
What may surprise you however is how many female members of the audience feel the same way. It’s almost like the patriarchal norms of what a ‘real man’ is have spread their evil tentacles into how people view stories generally. Huh.
This is doubly troubling, since it reveals many people out there automatically view ANY love interest archetype – female OR male! – as being automatically ‘weak’. Ack.
Male Case Study – Niko, Killing Eve
But Love Interest is just an archetype. Again, it’s not the role function that is the problem. Once more, for those at the back …
IT’S HOW IT’S WRITTEN.
So, let’s look at well-written male secondary male character.
Niko is Eve’s husband in BBC drama Killing Eve and a great example of the HOB trope. He is brought into the story *as* her husband. His sole existence in the story is, unsurprisingly, because of her.
In short, Niko is a very typical secondary character in terms of role function. In terms of character motivation however, he is the gold standard.
Going after Niko in Killing Eve and calling him ‘weak’ just because he is Eve’s husband shows a woeful understanding of both masculinity and what great characterisation is.
Niko is a brilliant, nuanced male character
We need more like him. He does not appear in *that* many scenes, but whenever he does, he is memorable. As a gender-flipped character, he is what wives and girlfriend characters are SUPPOSED to be (but so often have not been).
Let’s break down why he is so good … As a role function, Niko exists in the story *because* of Eve, but he is not defined BY his relationship to her. Niko has his own life (teaching); his own interests (bridge); his own family, community and language (nephew, Polish). Eve even asks HIM for help translating stuff.
So, it’s clear Eve loves Niko and would do anything for him … except give up going after Villanelle! Plot-wise, Niko challenges Eve throughout on this – both literally and metaphorically.
He creates obstacles for her, but crucially, ALL OF THEM ARE REASONABLE. Eve has turned their lives upside down with her obsession to catch Villanelle. No spouse would ENJOY that! He says, ‘It’s my job to care’. Of course it is! He loves her. He doesn’t want her to die.
Niko is no 2D HOB, nor is he weak. He is a well-drawn, authentic male secondary character. He is a portrait of a stressed-out man in crisis as his spouse gets pulled in by her obsession further and further. Amazing!
Real Men Versus Real Women
So, let’s be clear. There’s nothing remotely ‘weak’ or ‘unmanly’ about a well-written secondary character who happens to be a husband or boyfriend (aka ‘HOB’, aka Love Interest) in a story. They are ‘real men’.
By the same token then, female characters who are wives and girlfriends (WAGs) are ‘real women’ and not automatically bad characters either. Stories set in domestic storyworlds are not ‘lesser than’; nor are they inauthentic.
It’s super revealing and very ironic this needs spelling out in 2020, even to self-professed feminists!
But okay, if you want to posit that female characters are too often WAGs or secondary characters, then absolutely … You have my agreement.
If you want to make the case for the fact female secondary characters are underwritten and get side-lined too easily as standard … yup. That too.
But sticking the boot in as standard to domestic relationships and storyworlds, or well-written characters who happen to be Love Interests? That’s just BS.
Seriously, all you have to worry about is writing your WAG or HOB well. Should be easy, right? (And by the way, absolutely no reason your WAGs or HOBs should be heteronormative!!!).