Articles and blog posts have been written on how to write a good female character/protagonist or what is a good female protagonist, but in reading these I found something is missing. Something that I look for in a female protagonist that no one has mentioned. Most of my reading has lead me to how-to guides of writing a good female character which follow closely with how to write a good character. But what does a reader, particularly a female reader, consciously or unconsciously look for in a female protagonist? This post will start this conversation.
Writer’s Digest (www.writersdigest.com) has an online article entitled “5 Steps to Great Female Protagonist” that discusses “how to make a heroine shine”. This article provides great tips on how to write a good female protagonist and the one that I particularly appreciate is #3 “don’t get so carried away trying to make her tough that you forget that she’s a real woman, not a superhero” because it encourages the writer to embrace the character’s feminine side. I think that society as a whole has encouraged all of us to look at feminine characteristics as weak or less than. A character or a person embracing their feminine side is difficult to see and difficult to write because it is not modeled well in our society.
Daniel Swensen wrote a post in his blog, www.surlymuse.com, on the topic of writing a strong female character and it is certainly worth a read. He discusses three basic tenets of creating a strong character that are applicable to any character. He readily admits to being a guy and that being a guy he may have inherent short comings in writing a female character, but his post is thoughtful and his view of a female character is refreshing. He sees gender as playing less of a part of making a good or strong character than other aspects of making a good character. There is a lot sense in that statement. On the other hand we are not looking for what makes a good character, but what makes a good female protagonist.
Amy Rose Davis in Fantasy Faction (www.Fantasy-faction.com), wrote a post entitled “The Fantasy Feminist” in 2012 and brought up some excellent points about women warrior characters becoming one-dimensional. She goes on to list four points of a strong character in general. While her points differ from Daniel’s points, they both agree that they are writing a strong character and then deciding to make that character female. I see their validity especially when compared to the one-dimensional female warrior characters that Amy references. Taken together, these pointers on character development are excellent in creating a threedimensional, believable character of any gender and in any genre.
Personally, as a reader I am still looking for more than just relatability and internal motivations. I am looking for a character who is in touch with her feminine side. What does that mean exactly?
My view of a good female protagonist is a woman who is able to be tough when the situation calls for toughness and be emotional or tender when the situation calls for it. A female character who is feminine but also thrives in the male dominated world that we all live in; this takes also being in touch with her masculinity. I think the ideal female protagonist is aware of and embodies both her masculine side and her feminine side in real, actionable, and palpable ways. What does that look like?
One example would be a female character who is a leader, able to make decisions quickly and act assertively (masculine traits) but also able to fully experience and express emotions even deep and all encompassing emotions freely (feminine trait). Our culture considers crying a weakness, but ignoring feelings and not expressing them leads to further consequences to ourselves and loved ones such as depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug addiction, etc. Another example would be a woman who is in touch with her suffering without succumbing to the suffering or being engulfed by it and continuing along the story line to move the plot. Allowing a character to be fully immersed in suffering while not allowing her to wallow in self pity and simultaneously moving the plot along is difficult. Who has modeled this for us in our lives? Most people, including women, who experience a profound suffering are often swallowed up by this and don’t know how to get themselves out; they become mired in the suffering as if it is a thick mud. Allowing our female characters to do the same would be the end of the plot/ book.
One key feature that I look for in a female character is that she is enough in and of herself. For instance, she does not need the validation of anyone else, but is able to find her own footing, her own stance, and from that footing or stance take whatever action is necessary in that moment. This takes strength of character, acknowledgement of the inner feminine as well as assertiveness.
Writing a strong female protagonist that is three-dimensional who is in touch with her feminine and masculine aspects of her personality is difficult, to say the least. There is no one right or wrong answer. There are many ways to write a female character.
How do you write a female protagonist? Do you have certain criteria? As a reader, what do you like to see in a female character?