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The majority of stories, movies, shows, comics, and other media I've read or seen have a pretty even split between men and women, and that's fine, I don't have a problem with it.

But if I want to write a story that's centered around two girls fighting against two female "villains" (with only one male character that's involved only minorly in the plot), that isn't targeted specifically toward girls or focused around the fact that they're all girls, will it negatively affect my story? Will it come off as somehow sexist?

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    To answer the question as asked requires assumptions and value judgements. Even highly proficient SE folks are pushed to answer with long polemics. It seems that this question requires speechifying in order to answer. The polemic answers do not focus on writing but on social norms and specific issues not related to writing. This is predictable given the "Is it bad?" and "How will it be perceived?" nature of the question. -- I tried to provide a writerly answer below, but it only indirectly addresses the core of the question. That's because the question is off-topic. – Haakon Dahl Feb 7 at 6:17
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    Do you think someone is gonna open your story, read a bit of its contents and say: "Ugh! There are only females in this story! What a piece of BS is this?" I am not sure that a sane human will be interested in gender variety rather than plot. Or, that it's impossible to create a good plot without males/females/others in them. – rus9384 Feb 7 at 7:12
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    "The majority of stories [...] and other media I've read or seen have a pretty even split between men and women, and that's fine" You're seeing wildly different things from me in the media. Most of what I see (in terms of protagonists) has a ratio of 2-4 men to 1-2 women, and I have been told that to have more women than guys in a group of protagonists may give the feel it's geared to a female audience rather than a male one. – Sara Costa Feb 7 at 10:30
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    Is the question "Will someone, somewhere, take offence?" or "Will I be mobbed in the street for this?". Because the answers are yes and no, respectively. I'd probably suggest you write about who they are (e.g. character traits, background, how that person would react) than what they are. – AJFaraday Feb 7 at 11:52
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    @rus9384 Just to flesh out that point a little, I'd use LotR as an example. The gender problem with Tolkien's writing wasn't particularly that the protagonists were all male - that's normal for a war story. The problem was that of the two significant women in the story, Arwen was merely a trophy with no personality, and Eowyn has her moment of glory but then meets Faramir and is "fixed" by the hetero male hero. It's the absence of credible characterisation within a gender which is the real problem. – Graham Feb 7 at 14:00

11 Answers 11

57

The absence of representation in a single story is not harmful. The absence of representation across all media is harmful.

On of the trickiest things to understand about discrimination is that a story that is not in itself discriminatory is capable of fueling a larger trend which is discriminatory.

No book or movie can tell every story. It's simply not possible. Every book will feature many more stories untold than told, and that's fine. The problem is when every book or movie or TV show is leaving the same stories untold.

Stories are the primary way people learn about viewpoints that aren't their own, particularly if their opportunities to interact with new people in real life are limited. When all the media they consume is telling only a subset of the stories that exist, those are the only stories they come to understand, and they start to believe that other stories don't exist. They fail to make allowances for difficulties that aren't in those stories.

And the people whose stories aren't being told start to feel like their own experiences are flawed in some way. The ugly duckling was ostracized despite being a perfectly normal swan, because all the evidence they had ever seen told them they were an abnormal duck.

So, in order to consider the harm that your story is doing, it is important to consider the overall state of the media.

You must answer the question: Is there an overarching lack of stories about men in the media? I'll give you a moment to go and look.

(I'll give you a hint: The answer is no.)

Caveats

While it is okay to leave stories untold, there are some times where absence of a story can be harmful, even if it exists elsewhere in media. That is when your primary story is creating a strawman. When two stories come into conflict, then it is important to make sure that you are considering both sides with the respect they deserve. (There are some stories that do not deserve much respect. It's still important to measure that respect so that you dole out the right amount).

In your case - if men are absent from the story, you don't have anything to be concerned about. If they are the antagonists of the story, without any juxtaposition at all, then you should take another opportunity to examine your writing.

There are over course enough nuances to this issue to fill many books several times over. Categories are made up of individuals, and every individual is part of many categories, but in ways that make them unique. This is only a short introduction to the issues of representation, but hopefully it answers your question.

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    @rus9384 As I said, it's impossible to tell every story all the time. The important thing is to make sure that you're not setting all your stories in Middle Age Scandinavia. Also, history has a way of surprising us - I suspect that there were more nonwhite people in Scandinavia back then then you'd expect (although still vastly outnumbered, of course). – Arcanist Lupus Feb 7 at 15:02
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    @jpmc26 Barring cases where an absence of representation was maliciously intentional, the lack of representation of a particular demographic in one story is incidental. People write about what they know, and if most people writing are people belonging to one subset of people, then most of the stories they write will feature that subset. The issue comes when this factor becomes a trend, and certain demographics become disproportionately under-represented across all popular forms of media. This can easily lead to prejudice and discrimination (though that doesn't necessarily mean it will). – Abion47 Feb 7 at 18:35
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    @jpmc26 You said the statement in the answer was 100% backwards, which corresponds to "The absence of representation in a single story is discriminatory. The absence of representation across all media is not discriminatory." Sounds an awful lot like you were saying what you said you weren't saying. – Abion47 Feb 7 at 19:05
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    @jpmc26 I expect hyperbole in the context of creative writing, not when one is trying to make a logical argument. In a debate, stop trying to flourish and just say what you mean. Otherwise, don't act surprised when people misinterpret your deliberate exaggerations for your actual viewpoints. – Abion47 Feb 7 at 19:18
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    " BTW, I'm peetty much sure you can't place non-whites in the story solely about Middle Age Scandinavians" Sure you can. If you take the Middle Ages from 5th to 15th Centuries, you've got the Scandinavians roaming all over the place right in the middle of that, so it wouldn't be terribly odd if someone they met traveled back with them, and then after that they were trading and settling from Greenland to Russia. That's not saying there'd be a huge non-white population, but the idea a character could run into someone non-white is entirely reasonable. – Keith Morrison Feb 7 at 22:22
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No, your story is not sexist.

Please free yourself from the ideological chains that other people have heaped on you to the point where you ask question after question about whether or not your stories are somehow offensive or suffer from some ideological sin. Hint: they're not, and they don't. All the shaming about 'not addressing the issues' or being 'exclusive' or #weakdna's-stories-too-non-gender-binary are meant to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to force you to conform, to make you obey, and to silence your voice unless it speaks what others demand that you speak. Well, you're not a parrot. You are an artist. Express yourself.

Is a story about a woman's relationship with her mother sexist because there aren't any men in it? Of course not.

Is a story about a group of male friends who undergo an unexpected challenge during a camping trip and forge incredible bonds of friendship sexist because there weren't any non-male characters in it?? Of course not, no matter how much the haters scream.

Is a story about two gay American men exploring what it means to be truly committed during a week of partying in the Parisian LGBT club scene somehow exclusive because there isn't a straight character, or a non-gender-binary character, or a significant female character??? Of course not.

If you write a story about a non-gender-binary character interacting with other non-gender-binary characters, or even a story about two female protagonists challenging two female villains, is this somehow sexist???

Of. Course. Not.

You will never satisfy the ideological haters. Even if you do whatever they say, they'll just change the rules of the game so you are always in the position of having sinned against their ever-changing moral precepts, and now you have to grovel to prove you're not the bad person they accuse you of being. That's the whole point, you grovelling and them with power over you. That's what they want. Don't give it to them.

It's a stupid game, and the only winning move is not to play.

Write what you want to write, and tell them all to get lost.

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    Apart from the last line of this answer, I enjoyed this ;) Good answer. – storbror Feb 7 at 11:30
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    +1, everything in this answer can't be stressed enough. – Guntram Blohm Feb 7 at 11:52
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    While the intent of this answer is true, I hesitate recommending that people take it to heart. It's too easy to make the jump from "ignore the ideological haters" to "everyone who doesn't like what I make is an ideological hater, so %#@$ them all". There's a grain of truth in every form of criticism, whether it's constructive and well-phrased or just brief and hateful. While you can never please everyone, don't just completely shut out all forms of criticism coming from a particular direction. – Abion47 Feb 7 at 18:41
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    This is a great answer in structure, but ironically, the two "all women" and "all men" examples are gendered stereotypes. (There some group stereotyping going on in the LGBT example too.) So this could be improved — and have its excellent advice be more accessible — by not indulging in a perfect but unintentional demonstration of gender stereotyping in its examples. Thankfully, examples are easily swapped out. – SevenSidedDie Feb 8 at 18:07
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    There's nothing wrong with the examples. Millions of women have relationships with their mothers, millions of men go camping and have friends, and gay people party too. – TheLeopard Feb 8 at 20:41
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These days, anything could "come off to somebody as somehow sexist", but I don't see a clear path from one to the other. Specifically, a story with a predominantly female cast would not, by that fact alone, lend itself to well-justified accusations of sexism. Poorly-justified accusations are not worth the worry.
Treat your characters with respect (even the villains, as they "should" believe that they are not doing evil), and treat your readers with the same respect. Hard to go wrong doing that, I do believe.

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    "Poorly-justified accusations are not worth the worry." I think you underestimate the damage that can be caused by unjustified accusations. – jpmc26 Feb 7 at 18:21
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    @jpmc26, less than the damage you cause yourself by trying to please the unappeasable. It's a death march -- it's designed to be. – Haakon Dahl Feb 7 at 19:04
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It is such a wonderful idea, I am doing it right now.

My story is 3 female protagonists who uncomfortably team up – frenemies. I made them all women because I wanted to see more women adventurers in sci-fi. And probably because I watched too much Charlie's Angels as a child, so … 3 women in spaaaace.

One of them I cheat and plot as male, then "Ripley" back to female. One is hyper-feminized, the third is cerebral and asexual. They are balanced across other spectrums too. One is action, one is guile, one is lawful. I wanted them to contrast because the story is really about their power dynamics in a rock-paper-scissors way. Making them all female somehow equalized their status so there is no "leader", it made the negotiations of power more transparent.

Just because everyone is the same gender, doesn't mean everyone is the same type.

Look at Sailor Moon – there is the smart one, and the fighting one, and the comedic one. Women can easily cover the full narrative range: hero, villain, sidekick, matriarch, vain, dumb, smart, good, evil, scientist, truck driver.

If you kind of want to do it, but it seems hard, or weird, or controversial, that is probably a good reason to try to do it.

Experimenting with reader expectations is a good thing. Deliberately breaking tropes, and discovering how a scene reads with a different cast, is going to stretch your skills as a writer. At the very least you will write characters with their personalities and archetypes first, and gendered baggage second.

What is the worst that could happen? The women get bored and hire a male receptionist.

4

Write the story you have within you. If your significant characters are all female, that is fine. If everyone in your universe is female, that might seem a trifle odd unless it is called for by your paradigm.

The question to ask yourself is, does their gender serve the story? Does it violate a trope and create an intriguing spin on an otherwise tired tale? Is there a reason they are female?

The film Columbiana was intriguing in part because the assassin was female. She was an angel of vengeance who went pro but still accomplished her quest.

Regarding an even split between genders in existing works, I find that more true of Jane Austen’s works than more recent ones. Most novels are populated by men. I was reading my current work to a friend and in the third paragraph I used the feminine pronoun, announcing to my audience that the secondary protag is a woman. My friend said ‘Where’d the girl come from?’. I told him she was there all the time.

My secondary protag is tough and brave and one of my cousins loves her, thinks she is bad ass and wonderful.

My point is this; expectations in the reader’s mind are such that any deviation from the norm might set some back on their heels, but that same choice has another going ‘Hell yeah!’. The friend who was startled by her gender came to like her - not as much as my main, but that is okay.

Do not pander to an imagined audience. Write the story about your characters and if they are well developed and intriguing, you have something. If they are check boxes and cardboard cutouts, they need work.

Have a reason for the choices you make and have that reason be your own. Do not let others tell you that you need to include a character who is X, but include such if that character being X adds to your story.

Diversity is great, but we seek to tell the best story we can and if that is about a group of five women who pursue and accomplish their goals, fine. If it is about five people who, because of an outside agenda or a desire to fill a niche must be X, you might want to reconsider it. Readers are not stupid and they will see, if the latter, that it is skewing towards propaganda, but if the former you have no worries.

I would rather read a story about one fascinating character than a group of half drawn, flat ones.

What wetcircuit says about range in roles and characters within one gender is true. There are strong, brave, clever, devious, evil, virtuous and weak women - just avoid dumping all characteristics in one soul.

Give each something they excel at, and something they just don’t do well. Give them hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses and the physical package they exist in will have less meaning. Give them a soul.

4

But if I want to write a story that's centered around two girls fighting against two female "villains" (with only one male character that's involved only minorly in the plot), that isn't targeted specifically toward girls or focused around the fact that they're all girls, will it negatively affect my story? Will it come off as somehow sexist?

In addition to other answers, I would like to add a concept which is equally important: Writing without personal censorship.

Your question suggests you might be worried about how your story will be perceived by other people. It is important to keep tabs about how your story is going to be received, don't get me wrong, but at the writing stage you're in - it is important to ignore the urge to edit or rewrite your story. Let it flow naturally from your mind. You can edit it later. You can censor it later. you can show it to people and have them comment on it - later. Write first. Don't let public opinion shape the story.

3

Sexism, like racism, is about the larger constructs of power and not about individual feelings towards one category of people.

A man can be sexist towards women but a woman can not be sexist towards men (I expect lots of downvotes just for saying this...so be it).

Just like, in a place like the United States, a white person can be racist towards black people but a black person can not be racist towards white people.

Any of these people can be bigoted. Or rude. Or unworthy people due to their beliefs. I won't justify prejudice. But a member of an oppressed class can not oppress a member of the mainstream or ruling class.

With that background in mind, it really is different when you create a work that is solely or mostly about (or for) one group vs another.

Some male-based stories are fine. If you're writing about an all-male environment (boarding school, prison, priesthood), then it's normal not to have many female characters (there are generally a few). But choosing to make a story mostly all male in a location that has no reason for it is making a statement about the value of women, not just in the time and place, but to you.

If you make a mostly female story in an environment that calls for it, no problem. But if you choose to make a story mostly all female when the time and place doesn't need it, well that's okay too. Because you're focusing on traditionally under-represented characters.

Take a look at a work like Hidden Figures. Black female mathematicians and engineers in a workplace with few women or people of color (at least not in positions requiring higher education). The author of this nonfiction book chose this path because these were people whose stories had not been told.

If it were really the case that media depictions of gender were balanced, this might be a different answer. But you're, unfortunately, wrong about the 50-50 split. I suspect you are gravitating towards the sorts of works that interest you and these are more representative. Adding in a few extra female main characters is not going to tip the balance too far to the female side. Far from it.

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    Women can absolutely be sexist towards men. Just ask any father who's taken their daughter to a park by himself, or any boy whose mother refused to buy them a doll. The types of sexism tend to be different, and the overall effect is not as destructive, but it absolutely exists. – Arcanist Lupus Feb 7 at 4:36
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    You are mixing terms in your first three paragraphs. You are describing structural or institutional -isms. To say that racism or sexism has nothing to do with individual feelings is so wrong it's silly. These are specific varieties of bigotry, and are identified by variety through terms "racism", "sexism", and so on. --- This re-defining of words to suit political ends is Orwellian. I recommend you change your answer to be less political in nature, and frankly, less anti-white-male. --- I realize that there is a large body of "scholarship" you can point to. That doesn't change facts. – Haakon Dahl Feb 7 at 4:46
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    This is an uncommon treatment of terms racism and sexism. And women themselves do not use the term "sexism" only when it comes to power. – rus9384 Feb 7 at 6:47
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    I think that your point about "The oppressed being unable to oppress the oppressors" has a bit of truth in it. It is very unlikely to have a great effect on the oppressors, but that doesn't mean that 'they can't do it'. The same thing to a certain extent goes for sexism but doesn't apply the same way. However, the way you've put it, along with your other points, it is difficult to upvote this answer. The comments so far make good points as to why. – storbror Feb 7 at 11:46
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    I've known women managers who absolutely were sexist against their male subordinates. I've also known women who absolutely were sexist against other women. Just because someone was oppressed doesn't mean they have no hope of getting some power and abusing it. (Just to clarify, I'm not talking about gray lines here. Any time a manager is physically grabbing one of their direct reports by the hair as a power move, there's a problem. Especially when the person grabbed like that was actually complying with the direction they were given.) – Ed Grimm Feb 8 at 5:23
1

The main problem with gender bias in books or movies is not so much about parity or percentages, but about force. Whenever it seems forced is when things tend to go wrong and be received badly.

That is why most stories have a fairly even spread of genders, as something similar to our everyday experience is the least likely to appear to us artificial.

Now compare that to, for example, Ghostbusters. The first movie had an all-male lead team, with female secondary characters. At the time (1984) that matched people's everyday experience (women made up 25% of the workforce, so not having a woman in a small team was more the norm than the exception). The 2016 reboot turned all characters into women and received a shitstorm for it, because an all-women team in 2016 is untypical enough to appear forced and artificial.

Your cast is in the same territory by numbers. So the important question is: How natural is this particular constellation within your setting? If set in contemporary western society, two women working together independently of any men and against another team of women is unlikely by pure percentages (6.25% if the gender distribution were random), but with the tiniest of reasons (friends, etc.) is not unbelievably unusual. If we assume that women have 75% female friends, and see your protagonists and antagonists as two teams, the probability of this constellation works out to about 28% - enough to suspend disbelief because there are enough stories with other constellations around.

You might want to throw in enough male secondary characters to ensure that the absence of males is not suspicious (which means: appears to be making a point that you don't intend to make).

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    And yet given that the original was about a group of friends who form the Ghostbusters, and friends are generally "people like us" (remember that the sole black Ghostbuster was very much an afterthought), an all-women group of friends should not have been so scary. The real problem was rebooting something so iconic. Unless you've got something genuinely new to say, and you've got better lead actors than Dan Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd and Sigourney Weaver, then you're always going to be in a world of hurt. The MRA thing was just the easiest angle for the haters. – Graham Feb 7 at 18:34
  • Remakes almost always suffer from comparison with the original. 3:10 to Yuma and Magnificent Seven come to mind. Good actors, but nothing compared with the original cast. I half expect a remake of Gone With the Wind starring that guy from the Apple commercials. – Rasdashan Feb 8 at 18:17
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As a person who loves reading, I can tell you that I enjoyed so many books where main characters were male, even though I am a girl. I see personality in every character, and that's what matter, then you can relate yourself to anyone of them, not limiting your perception by gender frames.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! I'm sure I've seen answers from you before, but you're showing as unregistered; would you consider signing up for a Stack Exchange account, so you can properly keep track of your answers and reputation? – F1Krazy Feb 9 at 9:58
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    Interestingly, research found that it's easier for a woman to put herself in a man's shoes than vice versa, perhaps because most of modern media is about men. Perhaps men need more exposure to all-women stories? :) – Galastel Feb 9 at 10:00
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Making your primary characters all of one gender has the benefit that it neatly avoids romantic tension between the characters if you don't want to explore the issue.

As you probably know, every show that has a male and a female lead has a running element of "will they or won't they" (think Castle or The X-Files) and there will always be an element of the fan base that wants the goings-on to turn in that direction and will expect an explanation if this potential is not explored.

Granted, if your leads are all female or all male, there will be an element that wants some homosexual romance going on; but you can simply write them as heterosexual, and that will be enough for everyone who isn't an ideologue.

0

You have to think about why you have the characters be female. There is a premise in writing known as Chekhov's Gun, where every detail mentioned must be important and feature resolution. This can be in the following:

  1. Is this detail relevant to the overarching story?

  2. Is this detail needed to advance characters and their motivations?

  3. Is this detail necessary to show the thematic and allegorical elements of the story and it's world?

If whatever detail you want to put in won't be used in that way, then it's probably not important to include. If you are worried about being labeled as something because of a detail, and you can't deal with the potential pressure of that, then leave it unspecified. I've heard it said that anime characters don't look Japanese when animated because it's implied based on the audience, so they don't have to specify. Using the same logic, unless it is critical to the story, characters, or themes, leave details and such unspecified.

Not to write for you, but here are some examples where it wouldn't be sexist to include sex as part of the characterization:

  1. Plot: Lord of the Flies. While the story itself is about the conflict between savagery and rules, the story focuses around young, impulsive boys because it's highly unlikely for the same behavior to occur in a group of 40-50-something women.

  2. Characterization: Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind. Gender is used as both a plot device and helps define characters and their limits to power. Male characters tend to be stronger and more destructive, especially the antagonist and protagonist, with the caveat that they are also much more impulsive. There's a sub-class of human that is actually killed at birth if they are male because they are too impulsive for the power they wield. Women, while not possessing as much depth to their strength, tend to have a larger breadth to their power and think of outside-the-box methods to use it. The key to why it doesn't come off as cliché when reading it (since I know it sounds like typical fantasy tropes) is that the characters are more than their gender, and while many of them behave typical based on that, it's the other experiences that either reinforce or destroy that baseline notion.

  3. Themes: I wasn't able to find something specific, but this also has to do with your worldbuilding. Gender is traditionally used to show power disparity, as are elements like physical size, aura, and personality traits. So, go to town and make a whole, tightly-knit well-defined universe, then place your story inside of it.

Examples of what not to do:

  1. Shoe-horn female characters in to satisfy a quota. Don't shoehorn any kind of characters into your story unless it makes sense, that's just common practice. I don't know about what archetypes/tropes your characters are falling into, but since you are writing a story that happens to have 80% female characters, and not a story for the purpose of having 80% female characters, you should be fine.

  2. Make you characters behave in a way that is contrary to their characterization just to be different or challenge the norms in writing. Going back to Lord of the Flies, it wouldn't make sense for hormonal, impulsive, boys that have just been stranded on an island with no supervision to create a functioning, technologically advanced society where they all get along perfectly fine. If you have characters that need to behave a certain way at a certain time, but not other times, build in some form of trauma (the easiest way) that would make them behave that way. As an example, Rising of the Shield Hero features a young heroine who's parents were killed by a three-headed dog. So, despite wanting to help her friend and doing everything up to that point to do so, she runs and hides after being attacked by a two-headed dog. She fights only after realizing that by fighting, she can prevent more kids from losing their parents like she did.

  3. Don't throw away the themes for the sake of the story you want to tell. Instead, build your story around the themes. For example, Sword Art Online is built around the premise that their is little to no difference between a well-done virtual world and the real one. It even goes so far as "if you die in the game, you die in real life." These stakes get thrown out immediately after you find the plot armor. the SAO: ALTERNATIVE OVA is better at this since it's a character study more than an action show, so you can look to that for done right/done wrong with the same premise

While those aren't the only examples, they were the first ones I though of while writing this.

TL;DR: If you aren't going to use a detail, leave it to the audience's discretion to determine what the characters are/aren't. If you are going to use the detail, incorporate it organically and use it to forward the story arc, character arcs, or thematic arc of the story.

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