My dear friend Kim tweeted this link my way, and since I enjoy finding out new nuggets of cultural development concerning female characters I checked it out.  Over in the Justine-land Broiler-anza the trail of the moment became the ingredients of compelling fiction.

Okay-okay already I’ll rattle this loose.  I got molecular prizes tumbling in my mind now that these two bad girls stirred things up without even realizing it.  Time for crazy time rumblings of doom as I pull out a few mental calculations I used to toss about a few years back.

What I draw a circle around is permission to matter.  That is, actions have consequences.  Not my idea; I’m adapting.  It rises up out of roleplaying game theory from a real phenomenon, wherein characters are blocked from contributing meaningfully to a creative exploration.

Very often this phenomenon is hidden from players’ (or readers’, or audience members’) view by a technique known as illusionism.  The illusion of permission to matter is fostered so that a game master (or writer, or director) can pursue an agenda.  When illusionism fails a follow-up technique known as force is used to railroad participants back to the agenda.

This results in dysfunctional play; players reach states of frustration and boredom.  Some resort to manipulation of the game master or the group to obtain their entertainment.  Whatever the case may be, it is a situation referred to as fun never.

You can apply this to other art forms as well.  Television and movies are especially prone to illusionism and force.  The agenda is to keep you watching passively, or to expect that the movie you are about to watch will entertain you because it is a “good movie”.

But getting back to writing.  When characters don’t get to matter they engage in what is known as zilchplay, or going nowhere.  Their actions have no consequences and what they do doesn’t matter.  You could substitute them for someone else and there would be no change.

Another name for permission to matter might be “agency”.  A character has to be able to affect the story.  If, for example, a woman is an engineer yet never gets to save the day with her engineering skills then it doesn’t matter who she is—zilchplay.  You could have a glass of water, call it an engineer, and watch as the designated character or plot element moves the story along because its time to go to the next scene—force.

Hand in hand with permission to matter is the concept of stakes.  When a conflict arises, there must be something to lose and something to gain.  Girl detective has to fast talk her way from the dinner table or else she’ll get to the crime scene too late to test her sudden intuition.

And not just the main character(s).  The minor character(s) have to be capable of succeeding and failing all on their own.

Permission to matter also requires consistency.  If the humaniform alien female demonstrates expert skill with computers only when the plot requires it, you have zilchplay.  A character doesn’t always have to succeed, but they do need to face conflicts with regard to established resources.

What you will find is that when you give your characters permission to matter, they will do things you never expected.  Complications will ensue and matters will unfold in ways that will surprise and inspire.  Even mundane outcomes have resonance—the girl detective predictably gets to go to the prom, but she’s earned it.  That is what being compelling is all about—being remarkable.

Chew on that for a moment.