Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The Perfect Female Protagonist
Female protagonists are less common than their male hero counterparts, but as time goes on, it seems that girls are taking over genres too, kicking butt, rescuing dudes in distress, and saving the world. So how are we authors pulling it off so far? Have we discovered some kind of recipe for the perfect heroine, or has someone yet to really hit the mark with a good female protagonist?
I ask because I'm having a hard time coming up with a female protagonist I really, truly liked. There are protagonists I respected, and protagonists I related with. There were even protagonists I rooted for, but loved? A girl I thought, "I want to be just like her!" I couldn't come up with one, even after going through the many books I have read.
As an example, Hermione is a pretty fierce female. She's smart, tenacious, and brave. If she had actually been the protagonist, I might actually have had a winner. But she was technically a supporting role, and Harry was the protagonist in those books. We didn't get into Hermoine's head much.
Katniss was emotionally devoid, and that pissed me off.
Bella was the quintessential doe-eyed damsel who was pulled to and fro by the manly heroes, but I find her character intriguing, and I'll delve into that later.
Anne from Anne of Green Gables comes really close for me. If she were the perfect heroine, I'd be most likely to choose her.
Okay, so what makes these heroines my favorites or least favorites? Let's go into it.
First of all, I need to establish the obvious difference between heroes and heroines. I know feminism has its place in our society, but I think sometimes we (collective societal we) can forget how very different men and women are inherently. It's not to say that women can't be or do whatever a man is capable of, but as a species we differ between the sexes. It's just the way it is. Males and females are equal in creation, but different in make.
That said, I think I've come up with a decent list of the traits heroines have that make them likeable. As writers we can't use them all, and that stems from this inescapable reality: Female protagonists are human, and no humans are perfect. You won't like every aspect of a character.
Keeping that in mind, let's use my above examples to hit on desirable traits.
Tough, brave, and competent
Here we have Katniss, Tris, Alanna (Song of the Lioness books), and any other kick-butt female protagonist that might come to mind. These girls don't mess around, and they won't be buffeted about like a damsel in distress. They are often emotionally scarred or devoid in some way, have a hard time opening up, and struggle with empathy. Their competence is what makes them awesome, and for me, I often respect them a great deal. However, their big flaw is usually in their inability to emotionally connect. These are not usually my favorite characters. It's personal preference, but I don't like it when a girl is unable to return affection. Irks me.
In this category we have the protagonists like Hermione, Anne, Eiolonwy, Elizabeth Bennet, The March Sisters, Nancy Drew, and many others. I personally think this is the most common "category" we writers like to use for our female characters. They are usually just feminine enough to be sweet and endearing, but they're smart and spunky, and they bravely do what must be done to save the day, or get the guy, or whatever it is they need to do. Their downfall is that they are so familiar now, we might mistake them for having a boring personality. Also, sometimes their spunkiness might get on our nerves a little bit, and we as readers might be strangling our books until we can get the heroine to just shut up and let the guy kiss her, or to stop being so tenacious and roll with the punches. I personally like this protagonist base, and have never had a problem reading these kinds of characters. My "perfect" choices have fallen into this type.
Welcome to the Bella characters! Usually if vampires are involved, these characters are around, which I find funny. Elena from Vampire Diaries, all Disney Princesses before 1998, and quite a few romance novel leads fall into this category, too. It's a dying breed, I think, and a pretty big no-no if the protagonist is in a fantasy or sci-fi based world. But these girls have their place in the literary world, and while many scoff, allow me to point something out here. Most of us are this category. We might not like to think we are, but the reality is that we don't know judo, we don't have magical powers, and we haven't attended an academy that taught us how to do flying kicks. Most of us are Bella. And this is why I find Bella's character so interesting. She's a normal girl with a healthy dose of pride (not too much like the above category), and got swept up in a supernatural plot with inhumanly awesome characters. She acted exactly the way a normal teenage girl would have.
So many scoff at this trope, but putting our honesty hats on, most of us women really might fall into this one if we really were protagonists. I like to think I'm spunky and smart and loyal, but more likely I'd be just as doe-eyed as Bella was...and I'd probably have slit my wrists too. The Bella character is still useful, and I hope we don't drop her because popular opinion is swaying to the Katniss characters. The reason Bella characters are still good is because they're a canvas for the reader--when I read as Bella, I can easily put myself in her shoes, relate to her, and feel what it might actually be like to be in those circumstances. The Bella characters allow us to kind of put ourselves in their place, and that's actually pretty cool.
Now, I know this is only 3 of the many tropes out there, but these are the common ones I have seen in modern literature. And most female protagonists have a variety of these traits mashed together, but I thought for the sake of discussion, it might be best just to pick three and talk about those.
So what traits make the most desirable female protagonist? In the end, it's going to be personal preference, and it will differ from reader to reader. Personally, I find that I like the female protagonists, who are a little spunky, but still girly enough to swoon a little if a handsome hero comes along. I like a smart protagonist who can use her brains, and not be too horribly gullible.
If there is one major flaw in a female character I can't stand, it's emotional blankness. I avoid that whenever possible when writing my own characters.
Okay, so now it's your turn to talk. As a writer or reader, what do you think about the female protagonist formula? Likes and dislikes? Give me your thoughts, and if you've written a female protagonist, I want to hear how you wrote her and why you made her that way!
Also, don't forget that this is giveaway week. So Inito is free, and you can enter a Goodreads giveaway to win a paperback version, too!