The Only Reason You Should Write A Female Protagonist

Why We Need More Thematically-Pertinent Female Protagonists

It’s become a mantra now: “We need more female protagonists.” But I say: No.

Uhh…. what?

No.

I say stop already with this crazily simplistic demand for “female protagonists.” Because it’s so totally not working.

The problem, as is so often the case, is that authors, producers, and directors, who are either feeling pressured to be politically correct and/or are trying jump on a commercially-viable bandwagon, are failing to approach their stories holistically. You can’t just stick stereotypical female protagonists into any old story and expect it to be an affirming and uplifting experience that rings true on a meaningful level.

As Jo Eberhardt pointed out in her insightful post “Authentic Female Characters vs Gender-Swaps“:

…you can’t tell me that taking a classic novel [in this case, Lord of the Flies] about well-known male characters and changing their names is creating—or even respecting—female protagonists. All it’s doing is saying: “Female characters are only worth writing if, underneath all the window dressing, they’re simply male characters with new names.”

Lord of the Flies

The only reason any author should ever include female protagonists in a story is if that story just happens to be authentic to the protagonists themselves.

How Marvel’s Jessica Jones Gets This Right

There has been a clamor for female-fronted superhero stories for, like, forever now. And there have been some attempts, ranging from lame (Elektra) to legitimate (Wonder Woman). But almost all of them are still fundamentally male stories, in that they either objectify women or put them in traditionally male roles.

What would it look like if a story with a female protagonist was actually built, from the ground up, to ask the obvious question: What would it mean to be a female with superpowers—and how can that thematically reflect upon the questions men and women face in their relationships with each other in real life?

Although Marvel’s television series have been decidedly more uneven than their movies, they have done some things very right, especially early on. Their approach to super-strengthed PI Jessica Jones is one of them.

>>Click here to read lessons in storytelling from the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Jessica Jones Trish

The show is dark, gritty, often uncomfortable, but well-scripted and well-acted. And, most importantly of all, it brings a thoughtful exploration of questions that are particularly pertinent to a female protagonist. Notably, it focuses on questions of consent, dangerous relationships, stalkers, abuse, personal boundaries, and empowerment.

Jessica is no paragon of femininity. She’s street wise, smart-mouthed, sometimes cruel, often careless, and unafraid to insult people or throw her weight around. But neither is she a male-brained character who just happens to be played by Kristen Ritter. She is a woman struggling with a woman’s fears and a woman’s insecurities.

The structure of her story, with its conflict and its very personal antagonist, are built around her. And as a result, her story is thematically pitch perfect.

Jessica Jones Kilgrave

How to Create Thematically-Pertinent Female Protagonists (or Any Protagonists)

In the past, I’ve talked about how the secret to writing dimensional female protagonists is to simply write dimensional characters. Gender is a formative part of the life experience of anyone, but it’s only a part. Writing good characters, requires the same compassion, empathy, and understanding, whether those characters are male, female, vegetable, or animal.

However, as you should realize by now, there is actually a second secret.

Being true to your characters means crafting stories that are about those characters. It means looking at the world through your character’s eyes and comprehending her questions and her reactions. It means giving her goals that make sense for her mindset and lifestyle. It means setting up an antagonist and conflict that plays to her personal weaknesses. And it means looking for the themes that are honest about who this person was, is, and where’s she’s going.

And that’s how you write a worthwhile protagonist, period.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever written female protagonists? What was the greatest challenge? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I write romance. But I don’t write female protagonists. My romances are hero-driven, which makes them stand out and gives me my unique place in the romance world.

    The reason is very simple. To me anyway. I’m one of those few women out there who legitimately doesn’t understand what most women experience and go through. A big part of it is my personality type. I’m confident, sure of myself, immune to peer pressure, and not emotional unless I’m so far past upset I’m bordering on inconsolable.

    I can’t convincingly write a female protagonist. When I’ve tried, the result is lackluster at best. But when I give in to my natural inclination to let my romance hero drive the story, I end up with magic.

    As a viewer and a reader, I don’t particularly enjoy most female-led stuff. I don’t identify with the female characters at all, and always gravitate to the main guy character. I thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman, but haven’t made time for Jessica Jones yet to see how I feel about her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I relate to this. I have what I have always considered a “non-typical female brain,” which is also probably why I gravitate to writing male-led fiction. However, I don’t in any way think that you, anymore than I, can’t write authentically about women. We are women, after all. Perhaps we can’t authentically write the expected sort of woman, but we can certainly offer insights into our own unique experiences.

      • I think this is why my initial reaction to the article was so surprised. I was always a “tom boy” and not what one would typically classify as particularly feminine, but I’ve always been proud to be a woman. So while I enjoy my male protagonists, I’ve done females as well. I’ve always written a character as a character. The gender only matters in so far as it pertains to their experiences. It’s never been about the “Oh, must have a strong female!” Strength is measured in different ways and can be shown in a multitude of situations as well. It doesn’t just have to be in combat. While I like a good strong physical character (be it woman or man), that’s not the only strength out there.

      • I have zero desire to write a romance where she’s the lead. Like I said, the result was lackluster at best. I’m now rewriting that novel, but making it hero-driven as it should’ve been in the first place.

    • If you take personality tests seriously (they’re like astrology to me) then I have a rare personality for women. That’s the part of the test I find plausible; because I am one of the few women I know (other than my mother) who gets very impatient with the tendency to talk about, rather than solve problems. My female characters will get together for strategy sessions, not venting.

      I used to get annoyed with relationship articles because I felt they were describing women as aliens, whereas the men were normal. The lightbulb went off when a personality test flat out stated I was an outlier among women. That explained a lot! I got along with other women much better after I understood that I’m the weird one 🙂

      That said, all of my protagonists are female by default. I rarely write from a male POV, unless it’s a task-oriented scene. Instead of men with boobs my fear is going in the other direction, where the men are females with beards.

      I have a character who is the “odd one out” like me; she doesn’t “get” social rules. Her excuse is that she was raised by dryads, and human society is just maddening to her. She prefers to hang out with friends who are members of a fantasy race, because they won’t judge her for doing “human” wrong (all humans look alike to them!) She’s a fun character to write because I can apply my own experiences as an outlier.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I love the psychology of personality. My personality is supposedly the rarest among women, and, like you, when I learned that, it was like a light bulb going on. Ahh, explains everything! :p Honestly, I love it. I feel like it gives me a unique perspective on both men and women and an ability to relate better to both. Most of the time. :p

  2. Okay. I have a female protagonist, weepy, but she eats strawberry ice cream and wears LEGGINGS. Is this cool or should they be recast as a man?
    #AskingForAFriend

  3. Robert Billing says:

    I’ll have to tread carefully here because even though i’ve been writing a series with a female protagonist for more than twenty years, someone will probably now tell me that I’ve got it all wrong.

    When I set out to write SF which would contain action, military and espionage elements what I didn’t want to do was to create a hero of the Riker type, someone who could resolve a dispute by a fair fight. That seemed too obvious. So I thought, “If I make the protagonist physically small and female, she’ll have to use a mixture of intelligence and no-holds-barred unfair fighting to deal with the world she moves in.” This seemed to be much more fun to write and to read. I’d already started trying to put together the “Tale of the Kidnapped Daughter” in which a girl is kidnapped from a farm on a newly colonised planet and rescued by Space Fleet. However space is large, and working through the numbers I realised that a missing teenager would probably be a grandmother before anyone worked out where she had gone.

    At this point the line, “There is no prospect of my being rescued unless I do it myself,” popped into my head, and Jane as I now know her was born.

    Now the setup was perfect. She grew up on a dairy farm, so she is not only physically fit, but completely unconcerned about body fluids, having her hand up the back end of a cow, or dealing with injuries. Also she can not only run but maintain farm machinery, extending this to spaceships is not much of a leap. Having to deal with anything unfamiliar that turns up on the farm means that she has one devastating superpower, ability to read the instructions.

    Add to this the fact that she doesn’t readily panic, something else she learned on the farm, but when faced with a terrifying situation she becomes ice-cold and works out how to survive, and her very strong moral compass, and you have an almost ready-made secret agent.

    Her vices are vanity, she is quite pretty and has an excellent dress sense, excessive curiosity (not a bad thing in a spy but it can get her into trouble), a short temper at times, and failing to allow for other people’s limitations.

    Now she has ended up as a first Lieutenant in Space Fleet, well known for getting results where others have given up, but at the same time horrifying the staid, largely male, senior officers by how she works.

    This is typical Jane (Auntie is the :ArctUriaN Tactical Information Equipment, and AI that helps run Space Fleet).

    ‘Captain!’ called the midshipman on the sensor station, ‘Orthodynamic trace!’
    ‘Where?’
    ‘In the sea, just off the tip of Florida. Boca Chica island.’
    ‘Yes! This could be Jane. Put the profile in the drum, and get Spence in the loop.’
    A cat’s cradle of lines and dots, looking like the score for a particularly unpleasant
    song, appeared in the drum. Keefe dropped into the command chair, and Spence’s image
    appeared on his panel.
    ‘Improvised drive, all right,’ said Spence, ‘it’s her. Norris, get the troops moving.
    Hang on, what’s this? Norris—belay that until we know what’s happening.’
    Keefe’s eyes scanned the profile. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it before. One of the
    Powell vector components is flicking up and down, and it’s doing it regularly. Auntie?
    Have you ever seen anything like that before? Is it some sort of data?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Auntie. ‘It’s Morse code.’
    ‘Morse code?’ said Keefe, ‘Oh my God, she’s only gone and wired a bloody Morse
    key to the drive. That’s Jane. Nobody else. Can you read it?’
    ‘Yes. But there are a lot of abbreviations. I’ll add it to the display, with decodes.’
    Text began to appear in the drum.
    CQCQ (Calling any station) STARFEAR (I have built an improvised orthodynamic
    drive under duress) SALAMANDERS ARMED HOLD OFF ATTACK GETTING
    PASSPHRASE STOP WILL STARFOX (test orthodynamic drive) NEXT HOUR QSL
    (please confirm this contact) STARTOUCH (interaction of orthodynamic fields) NEXT
    MINUTE LOVE JANE XXXX

    So that’s may take on the issue.

  4. Dana Fisher says:

    I couldn’t agree more – but have a think on this – gender swapping either female OR male — perfect example of this is the Stephanie Meyer’s ‘flip’ of twilight – where she re-writes the book and characters by gender-swapping them. (Spoiler for those who haven’t read it / don’t want to read it: the other books wouldn’t happen..) It feels wrong, artificial, and certainly forced – not because you already know the main character as female, but the depth of character isn’t there. It doesn’t ~feel~ like a male viewpoint.

  5. I have yet to write a story in which this really applies (I’m writing historical fiction/romance, and I’m pretty much sticking to the era and all that), but I’ve read a lot of books in which is SHOULD apply … not a fan of those. Great article! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It applies in every story. 🙂 Theme is always the heart. If we’re ignoring that, we’re missing out on great opportunities.

  6. Thanks for this post, KM. I’ve been outlining and brainstorming my story for a million years now, and I’ve been struggling with a female character. I’ve been losing focus and slowing turning her into the protagonist. I see her as the protagonist… then I don’t… then I do. Then, a male character is back to being the protagonist the next day, just as I have intended him to be the first 750,000 years of my outlining and brainstorming.

    This post has me convinced me not to make my female character the protagonist, because I was sketching her out to be a male character in the form of a female.

  7. DirectorNoah says:

    Thank you for tweaking this article Katie. I must admit, I was a little confused reading this at first. Only write female protagonists in stories if they’re dealing with women’s issues? That would soon become limited and cliche very quickly, if those subjects were the only thing you could write about. And writers have to think outside the box for new and exciting stories.

    I have a female protagonist in my WIP, and I am well aware of the steroetypes a male writer can fall into regarding women characters. Strength does not always mean violence. It can appear in many forms, such as a quiet stamina and dexterity against all adversity. My heroine has the normal feminine traits of compassion and gentleness, plus a sarcastic streak in her personality, but is also quite vulnerable emotionally, yet can display great strength and courage when the situation requires it.
    Yes, if the protagonist was gender swapped, it would result in a fairly similar outcome in the story. But I’ve always thought a female protagonist naturally fits the story, and it just *feels* right, for both the plot and the theme of Trust, which is pertinent to her. To change her character would be unnecessary and lose the organic flavor of the story.
    If you’re going to have a theme about abuse, make sure the protagonist is the type of person whom it would affect most, instead of a unrealistic character that is totally misplaced with this theme, like a hard, cruel killer assassin for instance, who’d never tolorate that sort of nonsense for a moment.
    Thank you again for a cracking post Katie, and for sharing your marvellous infinite wisdom of the writer’s world! 😀

    • DirectorNoah says:

      Sorry, clicked the same button twice! ☺

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes, it was a very poorly chosen phrase on my part, and I apologize. Ultimately, what I was wanting to say is that *whoever* a character is–male, female, plumber, opera singer, rich, poor, orphaned, etc.–we should be trying to choose stories that are optimized for them. Jessica Jones was just as viable a character in The Defenders (although the show itself was lacking) as in her own show, even though Defenders wasn’t about her issues. But the thing I really appreciated about her show was that since it was, in many ways, a milestone as a female-fronted superhero show, and even though it *could* have chosen to tell just another superhero story, it deliberately chose to tell a story that was very specific to the character.

  8. DirectorNoah says:

    Thank you for clarifying and tweaking this article, Katie. I must admit, I was a little confused reading this at first. Only write female protagonists in stories if they’re dealing with women’s issues? That would soon become limited and cliche very quickly, if those subjects were the only thing you could write about. And writers have to think outside the box for new and exciting stories.

    I have a female protagonist in my WIP, and I am well aware of the steroetypes a male writer can fall into regarding women characters. Strength does not always mean violence. It can appear in many forms, such as a quiet stamina and dexterity against all adversity. My heroine has the normal feminine traits of compassion and gentleness, plus a sarcastic streak in her personality, but is also quite vulnerable emotionally, yet can display great strength and courage when the situation requires it.
    Yes, if the protagonist was gender swapped, it would result in a fairly similar outcome in the story. But I’ve always thought a female protagonist naturally fits the story, and it just *feels* right, for both the plot and the theme of Trust, which is pertinent to her. To change her character would be unnecessary and lose the organic flavor of the story.
    If you’re going to have a theme about abuse, make sure the protagonist is the type of person whom it would affect most, instead of a unrealistic character that is totally misplaced with this theme, like a hard, cruel killer assassin for instance, who’d never tolorate that sort of nonsense for a moment.
    Thank you again for a cracking post Katie, and for sharing your marvellous infinite wisdom of the writer’s world! 😀

  9. You are right Katie. To add to it, we should also look to the nature of personal and plot conflicts,and how the “female” main character approaches those problems in a genuine female way. In this age where society and cultural exposure is causing women to think with a male problem solving style, I think we should look at what’s left and how genuine female concerns can be brought to the fore front in our stories.

  10. Hannah Killian says:

    So, while the first book of my trilogy is obviously about the protagonist, I want to add his wife as co-protagonist. How do I add her to the theme? She’s a Flat Arc character, and her Truth is that relationships can’t survive without trust and communication. At the moment, I’m not entirely sure what the inner theme is, only the outer theme: You can’t erase history any more than you can change it.

    The inner theme would likely be something about truth and relationships. . .could I somehow intertwine that with the outer theme? Because if someone’s trying to erase history, that can be an outer example of why it’s important to tell the truth in relationships, cause if you don’t, the relationship can go down the drain just like if you don’t tell the truth about history, it too can go down the drain?

    Did I just find my theme?

  11. I agree, I myself generally write female characters becuase it’s what I am and so I know how to make good reactions and feelings more to what a real female would. I love both personally, male and female, it just depends on their surroundings. Rey from Star Wars is one of my favourite female protagonists because of her innocent sad feel that she doesn’t want to be there, that she just wants to see her family again, her theme is also done well, quite, happy but beautifully sad. I love Marvel, but I feel people such as Black Widow are there for feminist reasons, I love Wanda Maximoff becuase of her bond between her brother and her still feminine qualities. People seem to put down great feminine traits. When I’m watching these feminist characters I think about how ruthless they are and think, “if there was a male protagonist acting in the same manner I would also be annoyed at him”, not even the “tough male” characters act like some of them.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing this! I’m trying hard to make my female protagonists meet up my standards.

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