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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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. Now I want to write a Superhero woman who has to deal with misogyny on Twitter…

  2. Daeus Lamb says:

    I’ve had this idea for a while to write a humorous story about a very absent-minded, rather incompetent mother/superhero. Maybe I’ll actually do that. Thanks for the article.

  3. michael ryan says:

    Hi Katie

    This is a brave post, but I shared it in my writers group because I agree with everything you have said.

  4. Thank you for this post! I agree wholeheartedly. Characters are more than their identities, while those identities do inform who they are. If the politically correct movement towards “representation” creates characters who are simply gender-swapped, race-swapped,etc., doesn’t it backfire? I wish more creators realized this.

    Brava.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I have zero problem with authentically realized female characters fronting action movies (Furiosa in Fury Road is a great example), but when there’s no *reason* for a character to be female and the character is otherwise realized at a very shallow level… please. And if she has hair down her to waist and wears high heels while beating everybody up… please.

      • AtreidesOne says:

        “…when there’s no *reason* for a character to be female…”
        I’m struggling to understand this. Why does there need to be a reason for a character to be female? If there’s a call to action, and only one person can heed that call, what does it matter if it’s a woman or a man? Can’t a woman save the world just as well as a man? It almost sounds like the kind of logic that says that men are the default characters, and that unless you have a specific reason to choose a female instead, then keep your characters all male.

        I strongly suspect is not your reasoning, which is why this is so hard to understand.

        What could one of these reasons be? Because we need a hero who is more sensitive, say? How would that be a reason to use a female?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          If you haven’t read Jo Eberhardt’s post (linked toward the top), I recommend reading that. She does a great job explaining the issue, as does Sophia McDougal in the post Ken Hughes linked to here in the comments. Ultimately, nothing I’m talking about is a hard and fast distinction. Really, it’s just a plea for better realized characters whose stories actually work on a thematic level.

          (That could be said for a lot of male-fronted stories too.)

  5. Sophia MacDougall, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Full Stop.

    Really, the hunger for more female characters is a desire for fiction to show more respect for women, and for writers to understand them better and share that with readers. To add women without that understanding is to say we only wanted more dresses.

    (Meanwhile, I hope this isn’t all you have to say on Jessica Jones. If the Marvel movies inspired posts on storytelling at large, the Netflix Marvel holds up pretty well to that standard– and Jessica blows every last one of them away.)

  6. Carly Springer says:

    Great article! It really bothers me when women are portrayed as “male characters with new names,” but I feel like even I struggle with that as a female writer. Thanks for the insights! (And just wanted to point out that you call her “Jennifer Jones” in the subheading.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We’re all subject to the trends of the day. Even as we’re bringing our own experience to our writing, we’re also, to some extent, mimicking what we’re seeing in books and movies. We have to make a conscious effort to make sure what we’re portraying is really authentic to our own experiences.

  7. Chuck Rothman says:

    I write women protagonists all the time, with some success. I find them easier to write than men. I think it’s because I’ve spent more time hanging out with women as friends than men, and also being more observant of their feelings.

  8. AtreidesOne says:

    I’m trying to understand this post, but it raises so many questions.

    “You can’t just stick female protagonists into any old story and expect it to be an affirming and uplifting experience that rings true on a meaningful level”
    That makes sense for some stories (e.g. historical ones where women weren’t present), but why can’t a woman be a macho, aggressive soldier? Sure, this may not be representative of most women, but fiction often isn’t about unusual people.

    “…almost all of them are still fundamentally male stories, in that they either objectify women or put them in traditionally male roles.”
    What is a fundamentally male story? And are you really saying we should shy away from writing women in traditionally male roles? That sounds too much like keeping them in the kitchen. What on earth is wrong with stories about female scientists, engineers, accountants and soldiers?

    “…questions that could only be asked about a female protagonist. Particularly, it focuses on questions of consent, dangerous relationships, stalkers, abuse, personal boundaries, and empowerment.”
    What now? You couldn’t have a story about a male protagonist being stalked, abused and in a dangerous relationship? Where do you get this idea?

    “…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.”
    Hear, hear!

    “there is actually a second secret…. crafting stories that are about those characters. ”
    This also makes sense. But this doesn’t mean that you have to create “male” or “female” stories, whatever that might mean.

    • AtreidesOne says:

      *Oops. At the end of the second paragraph it should be “fiction often isn’t about normal people”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right that what I’ve written here might be taken as an extreme… and it is. There’s always the exception that works. But what I’m resisting in this post is the prevalent trend of creating two-dimensional women who are intended to be “strong” only by virtue of their physical strength or aggression. Are there authentic, dimensional women who fit those descriptors? Certainly. But as modern characters, particularly in film, they are few and far between.

      What I appreciated about Jessica Jones was that it deliberately chose a story that explored what it meant to be a modern woman. Could this story of abuse have been told about a male protag? Without doubt. But it’s a story that is particularly relatable to women, and, as such, it was an excellent choice for what was not just intended as a “superhero story,” but a “female superhero story.”

      At the end of the day, though, as I’ve written about elsewhere, it’s best to just focus on being honest about the character, rather than trying to pigeonhole him or her.

      • AtreidesOne says:

        “…the prevalent trend of creating two-dimensional women who are intended to be “strong” only by virtue of their physical strength or aggression… ”
        OK, I definitely agree with you there. I’d just be reluctant to call those “male” stories.

        As you say, authentic characters are king!

        By the way, I’m getting a lot out of Structuring Your Novel. I have the acts/period/points/events chart printed out on 4 x A4 pages and am covering it with post-it-notes to move around different scenes until they’re in the right places. 🙂

  9. While the protagonist of my most recent novel is male, the most compelling supporting character is a strong woman. At first, I thought she might be a bit over the top, but several people have told me she is their favorite character! I don’t think she overshadows the protagonist, so I think I’ve done it right. Her strength and mercurial nature are not in conflict with her role, her femininity, or her wisdom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Her strength and mercurial nature are not in conflict with her role, her femininity, or her wisdom.”

      Nice. In fact, those things can become fascinating juxtapositions.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with your main point, but isn’t this a fine line to walk? At least I find it to be so as a male author.

    I don’t think you mean to imply that women’s stories can *only* be about issues like consent, abuse, and empowerment, but there’s part of me that worries some readers might take the first part of your essay that way.

    The second part of your essay is the key, in my experience: creating realistic characters where their problems and identity (which includes so much more than gender) interrelated.

    As thought-provoking as always, KM!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely a fine line. What it’s all about is creating thematically-authentic stories. This is true about so many different facets of stories: literally *everything* must be chosen to reflect the theme from the ground up. If we’re just throwing elements onto the page because they look good, without reflecting whether they’re authentically borne out throughout the story’s structure (which begins even *before* the story in the backstories of prominent characters), then something is always going to feel off or forced.

      Just about any character can be set up to authentically present just about any story. But the key is they have to be set up.

  11. Would love to see a counter article titled “Stop Writing Male Characters… Unless…”

    If a character needs a reason to be female, then a characters needs a reason to be male, as well. Male is not the default.

  12. I agree, though I think this is particular a problem for action-oriented stories. A basic fact of biology is that men are, on average, physically stronger than women, and the average difference is significant. There are loads of strong (in all senses of the word) women, but very few women who can be “action heroes” in real life. Superhero stories have a bit of an out because they can add special powers to overcome typical biology.

    But we so often see stories where this basic biological fact — a fact that affects most aspects of real women’s actual lives — is simply glossed over. This is a shame, because stories that actually deal with this issue are extremely interesting. The female protagonist is often given either special powers or simply stated to be just as strong as the strongest men. (One thing I like about Eowyn: she is physically strong and skillful, but Tolkien doesn’t pretend that she isn’t lighter and a bit less physically powerful than a male soldier. This is part of what makes her so courageous.)

    What interests me are stories about women who are NOT physically powerful but who STILL have interesting experiences and live meaningful lives. (And men, too.) They don’t even have to possess some other kind of power. Our society is too obsessed with power of all sorts, and so often female protagonists are invented to cover over the fact that our power-obsession is unhealthy and inherently sexist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      *applauds*

      That’s what I liked about Jessica Jones. Yes, she had super strength, but that was just an opportunity to take the fears, threats, and pressures that many women deal with and ramp it all up to a “superpowered” level. Jessica’s superpower did not give her a free pass; in fact, just the opposite. Instead of creating just another superhero-saves-the-city story, it used the obvious opportunity to explore meaningful and relatable themes, even though it was from a fantasy perspective.

      • Now I am interested in seeing that series! 🙂

      • I feel compelled to point out that Brian Michael Bendis created the character from the start to explore those themes and the show closely followed the comic storyline and spirit, albeit with less profanity. Not to take away from the TV writers who adapted it, but they already had a very solid base to spring from.

  13. So, I’m watching Salvation and Jennifer Finnigan is tough, but then she suddenly goes weepy and drooly over a guy, and then tough again – the inconsistency drives me crazy.

    A criticism of my female protagonist (detective) by another writer is she wouldn’t joke about killing a bad guy, but male protagonists do all the time. I know from working with women in the health care profession, when there are tense situations morbid humor comes out to deflect the tension they feel.

    So, the conflict has me conflicted.:-)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, totally depends on the character. There *are* women who would joke about that, and there are men who wouldn’t.

  14. Tom Butler says:

    Although I’m certainly not writing a “super hero” story, my WIP has a female protagonist. It could not be written in any other way. This is my first novel. Wish me well!

  15. With two exceptions, I’ve only ever written female protagonists, simply because that’s what the protagonist felt like to me. I just couldn’t imagine telling the stories from a male POV. My greatest challenge is probably not injecting too much of myself/my experiences into the character. I don’t think I’ve gone too far yet, but the thought is always in the back of my mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most of my stories gravitate toward male protagonists. But the female lead on my fantasy WIP, Dreambreaker, is getting lots more POV time, and I’m enjoying writing her scenes more than any of the others.

  16. “The only reason any author should ever include female protagonists in a story is if that story just happens to be about the female experience.”

    I’m going to lay on some extra snark here for the sake of making a point, but understand that I’m not looking to start a fight: Are you saying that, unless the story is a weepy, sweatpants-and-gallon-of-chocolate-ice-cream, Lifetime Channel special about how hard it is to have two X chromosomes, the main character should be male by default?

    I think I understand the main thrust of what you’re trying to say. We can’t write a female character by taking a completed manuscript that features a male character and doing a find/replace for names and pronouns. It certainly does a disservice to – as is the trend in some circles these days – edit history by casting Romeo and Juliet as a lesbian couple for the sake of getting more women on the stage. A female character needs to be a female character from the ground up. She needs to think like a woman, react like a woman, and function as a woman. But at the same time, I would think that there are other reasons to write a female protag, especially if the primary focus of the story is gender-neutral.

    Personally, my last two writing projects had/have female protagonists simply because I never imagined them any other way.

    On a side note: I think a lot of the reason so many female characters turn out to be, as you put it, male characters being played by women is because men just don’t understand women (Shocking! Right?). As a man, I can approach this in two ways: Try to get inside the character’s head and have her act, think, and behave like a woman (which often results in an offensive caricature of femaleness) or pay little attention to gender and treat the character like any other person (which results in male-brained characters that happen to have breasts). The common advice in writing instruction seems to lean toward the latter, in my experience.

    Naturally, this is a challenge whenever you’re trying to write someone who is different than you whether it’s a difference of gender, social status, religion, or career and a balance must be found in order to write an authentic character. The problem with writing the other sex, of course is more pronounced because of the recent emphasis on “more female protagonists” and the inherent and fundamental differences between men and women that are insurmountable for many people.

    I could convert to Islam and move to Saudi Arabia, and understand in a few years how the Muslim worldview really works. I can change careers and learn to think like an engineer or philosopher or musician. But I can never change my Y chromosome to an X chromosome (with all that entails) and truly understand what it’s like to be a woman. I can read and research and spend lots of time with women and that may get me closer, but theres always going to be that point when a man or a woman watches the other sex do something to which we can only react with a stunned silence and shake of the head.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Are you saying that, unless the story is a weepy, sweatpants-and-gallon-of-chocolate-ice-cream, Lifetime Channel special about how hard it is to have two X chromosomes, the main character should be male by default?”

      Obviously, you haven’t seen Jessica Jones. 😉 Or Mad Max: Fury Road.

      Ultimately, this is the whole point of a writer: using our imagination and empathy to put ourselves fully in someone else’s shoes, imagine what it would be like, and write that as genuinely as possible.

  17. I’ve always felt the same way about the female protagonist. It’s ridiculous to plunk someone with boobs down in a man’s story.

    Men and women, as a whole, are fundamentally different. There are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part they are not interchangeable.

    Trying to do so in fiction is insulting to the intelligence of the audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And a wasted opportunity. Because what we could really be doing is examining what it would *really* be like to put authentic and interesting characters in unorthodox situations and see how they would really react.

    • I’m glad to hear this from both of you. Hollywood is falling overthemselves to do what KM is saying they shouldn’t. There are a bevy of stories to tell with female protagonists that will serve women well. Tell those instead!

      But that is what happens when bean counters, not creatives, own and run Hollywood.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        With a few very notable exceptions, I feel like there’s been an overall decline in the quality of major movies in the last ten years. *sniff*

      • I’m a screenwriter and I agree wholeheartedly with you Jason. Why writers in Hollywood have not yet woken up to the fact that they should be in charge of their stories, and not suits, is beyond me!

  18. I’m modeling my female protagonist on the historical example of women acting as spies, saboteurs and assassins in World War 2 and throughout history. Being underestimated is a good cover!

  19. I have to say… I refrained from commenting on this when I first read it because it struck me in two ways. The first, there was some anger, truth be told. The second was still some disappointment, even after I read through the article. I will be honest, I’m still a bit- disappointed, I suppose. I understand what you are saying, but I feel the tone of the article is wrong, particularly in the title.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it should be characters that are written about. Whether they are male or female is only important in how it might have affected them or is affecting them still. That’s character background 101. But to say that a character shouldn’t be female just to have a female is a little… I don’t know, insulting. I write characters, some male and some female. I’ve always found that the characters often write themselves. I just put them in the situations.

    I agree that gender flipping doesn’t work. You have to delve into each character’s background and personality to see how they would deal with a situation. But one man may react differently to the same situation than another. Same goes for two females. Of course a male and female will react to a situation differently. But to imply that a female character couldn’t adapt to a situation is insulting and that’s what I get from the article’s tone. Stories featuring males and females are going to be different by their nature, I agree. But I suppose my issue is in the tone of this article and the title itself sets the tone. And it’s not a tone I had hoped to ever see on your blog.

    • Well scratch that. I see the title was changed. Wish I had seen the title change beforehand…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Frankly, I think the tone isn’t conveying at all what I wanted it to… since I don’t disagree in the least with what you’re saying here. My point was entirely about writing thematically-honest characters and stories. But as I’m gleaning from the conversation here and on Facebook, that isn’t, perhaps, what’s coming across. I’m giving thought to pulling the article and reworking it.

    • Thank you, Katie, for changing the title to better reflect the tone of the article.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Made a few more adjustments to the text as well. Hopefully, my intent is coming across better now. 🙂 Appreciate your feedback!

        • Granted, your tone could have stood a bit of tweaking (as your feedback attests), but I, for one, instantly understood what you were getting at, because I feel exactly the same way.

          I’m so sick of the Bad-Ass Chick story. Last time I checked, most women aren’t super heroines, tough-talking cops, or butt-kicking spies, and, frankly, neither are the men. While in the past the men used to call the shots and fire the shots, nowadays the male specimens I observe in Starbucks look more like they’ve imbibed one too many caramel mocha shots with extra whipped cream. And so do the women, for that matter, (and sadly) the children.

          IMHO, this whole hard-as-steel super hero trend is laughable at best, grating at worst. Larger-than-life heroes and heroines are one of the chief reasons I haven’t graced a movie theater since the final Harry Potter film. The main HP characters may have done extraordinary things, but the viewer connected with them because they came across as everyday nerds and misfits, bumbling their way to victory. We related to them because they felt so charming, so vulnerable, so real. Their weaknesses were their strengths. I believe that may be what you are getting at regarding female protagonists. There needs to be softness and vulnerability interwoven with the courage and strength or it just comes across as another politically-correct contrivance.

          For an example of a strong but vulnerable female protagonist, look no further than Dame Judi Dench in one of my favorite British romantic comedies of all time: “As Time Goes By.” Jean, the female lead, has been a widow for many years when she meets Lionel, her first love of 38-years’ past (played with grumpy charm by Geoffrey Palmer), and, as the series continues, they fall in love again.

          While Judi Dench’s character possesses what we would describe as traditionally-female traits (sociable, emotional, nurturing, and tenderhearted to a fault), Jean has been working in a man’s world, supporting herself since her first husband died by starting and running her own successful secretarial agency, displaying incredible guts, smarts, and savvy in the process. In fact, she is so fierce, her employees call her “Iron Drawers.” But as tough and brave as Jean is she remains a class-act lady, mother, and friend–qualities that in my opinion scream “strong female protagonist!” 😀

        • Thank you so much! And yes, it most certainly is! I’m not one to normally be so negative about something. It just seemed to strike me as something very opposite what you normally talk about and teach about. I appreciate so much your willingness to listen to feedback as well. Again, thank you!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Totally my fault for not communicating more clearly. I appreciated the feedback that helped me correct it. And I apologize for the distress! 🙂

        • AtreidesOne says:

          Thank you for listening to feedback. I think the title fits the article much better now.

          I do appreciate the dilemma though. People generally despite sensational or provocative titles that don’t actually reflect the content of the article. And yet, they do tend to generate more interest and discussion on worthwhile issues than more reasonable and accurate titles.

  20. Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more! It’s sad that this topic is so controversial and heated now that feminism has become popular again (this time used as selling point for a lot of recent media). The average audience member doesn’t seem to realize, like you’ve said, that the issues sometimes present in woman fronted stories are present in many other types of stories too. When people criticize a woman fronted movie that is poorly executed for being just that, it’s not because they didn’t like that a woman was the protagonist, it’s because the creators didn’t execute it well enough for the story/plot/themes to be effective and meaningful.

  21. Marcy Rivera says:

    Oh no. I have a female protag and now I’m more afraid if I will be able to give justice. 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t be afraid. Writing excellent characters in excellent stories is the whole challenge of writing. 🙂 Just concentrate on building a story *around* your character, from the theme up.

  22. Thanks, KM! Good article! I typically start writing a character, who might be different than me, and simply writing the story. But in the process, their character – as a woman, teenager, other ethnicity, etc. – emerges, as it affects their situation or surroundings. That, for me, is when their uniqueness needs to be identified, when their unique POV affects the story they’re in. Thanks again! (:^D

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I rarely write people who are obviously like me. It’s in exploring other viewpoints that I surprise myself in the things I learn about myself. It’s what makes writing fun!

  23. Wow, this post came at a very convenient time for me and has given me food for thought. Recently I came to realize that none of my protagonists in my series of short stories were female. So, I thought I’d change it for the one I’m working on now. In the story, the protagonist intervenes in a street crime where some local thugs extort a vulnerable man with special needs. I won’t go into full details but it leads to a physical confrontation where the leader of the gang gets knocked out. I was going to make the original male protagonist an ex boxer. Changing to a female character, she would be an MMA fighter. The outcome would be the same. I also thought about later in the story when the protagonist faces criminal charges, I could go down the road where the charges are dropped because the antagonist didn’t want the embarrassment of people knowing he was ‘beat up by a girl.’

  24. 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

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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! 😀

  32. 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.

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