Last month, I talked about the cornerstones of building a strong female protagonist. This month, we’re going to dig a little deeper.
In Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the main character is a young woman who is at the end of her rope. She’s lost her mother and she can’t find her footing in the world, and on a whim, she decides to go on a hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, 1000 miles.
In many ways, it’s a classic quest story. She’s called to do this crazy thing. She’s woefully unprepared. She suffers and finds mentors and friends. She struggles through, meets bad guys. And finally reaches her goal.
But the actual story is internal. This is a very important part of building a female journey. A male journey often takes place in the external world—in battles and tests against actual physical enemies. Women’s journeys are more often about the internal road to herself. [pullquote]A male journey often takes place in the external world—in battles and tests against actual physical enemies. Women’s journeys are more often about the internal road to herself.[/pullquote]
Let’s backtrack a little to talk about why. Men and women approach the world differently. It begins very early.
Girls are often more dominant than boys as toddlers and all the way up to middle school (that hell of us all). They are more socially adept and able to manipulate the world more adroitly, and that gives them the advantage until they’re about 12 or 13—basically puberty. At that age, even a very mighty girl often starts to feel less sure of herself and her place in the world.
By high school, boys are much more certain of their place in life than girls. They’re bigger, stronger, and they’ve internalized the message that it’s a man’s world. Even with affirmative action and Title Nine and all the things we are struggling to put in place, most boys are pretty certain of their superiority.
What happens at age 12? Girls grow breasts. They become fertile. This makes them both dangerous and vulnerable, and suddenly the messages they get from almost everyone in their world is about THAT. About being sexual or not sexual. About being careful around men (and god knows that’s a reality—they do have to be taught to be aware and careful). This goes back to slut shaming and the good girl/bad girl dichotomy and the measure of beauty I talked about last month.
At puberty, girls begin to be told that the main thing that matters about themselves is their physical desirability. They’re asked to put their beauty first, and they begin, with very serious consequences, to rate each other on the scale of beauty. So do the boys. I have a feeling this has only become more cutthroat over time, and will continue—mainly because women are becoming more powerful. That’s the pushback.
I’ve had people argue this, but my feeling is that every female on the planet knows what her physical attractiveness is, and how much it’s worth. Some women choose to make it a non-issue by either by-passing it or downplaying it, but there’s no getting around the harsh truth that it matters tremendously. A more beautiful woman will get more money for the same work, likely a more prestigious partner, and a million daily benefits that accrue over a lifetime.
It’s actually best to be passably attractive, frankly. Somewhere in the realm of cute or pretty or nice looking. Fewer conflicts from either men or women.
Both a very beautiful woman and a very ugly woman will have to overcome hurdles. It’s hard for a beautiful woman to be taken seriously, no matter how smart she is. But she is often considered to be nicer and more generous than other women. A very plain or ugly woman has the benefit of being left alone to nurture inner talents, but she will have to work much harder to be recognized and befriended, to find sexual partners, to create a family.
Men face this same thing, of course, but the relative beauty of men is not as much of a power card. And frankly, most men rate themselves higher on the scale of attractiveness than they objectively are, so they’re not as troubled by the dynamics.
You should know this about your protagonist. Do men find your character attractive? Is she beautiful? If so how does that make her life worse as well as better?
In The Fall, Gillian Anderson plays Stella and she does it with exquisite understanding of this character who seems to be very cool and British, but then has these strong sexual tastes. She dresses elegantly and she is a pretty woman, of course, but it’s the way she speaks, in a slightly husky, breathy voice that is always just this side of whispery. You want to lean in and listen to her. She commands the room with that quiet, sexy voice.
How does that help her? How does it hinder her? There should be a double-sided coin whatever you choose.
SHAME AND SCARS
In Wild, Cheryl’s antagonist is herself. She hates herself as she begins, hates the bad decisions she’s made, many of which have to do with sleeping around, sleeping with the wrong men. She is one hot mess as the story opens.
But she has to try to find some peace, see if she can go on, so she starts walking—and in the act of making decisions, some good, some bad, some pretty wretched, she learns what her strengths are. She learns to forgive herself. The last bit of the story is her asking, over and over, “What if all these things taught me something?
A quest story with a male protagonist ends with celebration and a much larger sense of victory. Hers is quiet. She is alone, but she’s done it, and she is much stronger than she knew.
And what she THEN does is a classically female action: she tells her story to other women, hoping to give them strength, too. Schmidt talks about this at length in 45 Master Characters: We bring the secrets and truths back to the community.
Cheryl Strayed is filled with shame as the story begins, and she also is scarred, a member of what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls The Scar Clan. Scars and the shame are often connected.
Nearly every woman in the world has a secret shame she carries around. It’s heavy and terrible and can weigh her down more and more and more over time. Usually the shame centers around violating some cultural norm, like the good girl bad girl dichotomy in which a good woman only has sex with a man she loves, and never enjoys sex unless it is with that One True Lover, while the bad girl is led to ruin by her sexual appetites.
There is a lot of ground between those two extremes
But when she does stand true to herself, she can become mighty again, like that 3 year old self, like the 8 year old.
Which leads to the struggle any woman of strength faces to claim her real life. The fact remains that it is more difficult for a woman to discover and claim an authentic vision for herself than it is for a man, and in the struggle, you’ll find the true power of a character.
A man might face opposition in many ways, but a woman will have to face down society and the pressure to conform to an always shifting standard of behavior to create her own reality. Because we are very social beings, it can be enormously difficult to simply stand in our own truth, even when we learn what it is.
This struggle is very common. It pains me that so many of my students struggle to do an exercise I give them in my voice class. It comes from the very end of Eat Pray Love, when Elizabeth Gilbert has to go off on her own and make sense of her journey. She, too, is struggling with shame and how to love herself just as she is, and she finally comes to a point where she realizes that SHE is the one who takes care of herself. She makes a promise to herself right there:
“I love you. I will never leave you. I will always take care of you.”
I ask my students to write those words to themselves. You would be amazed how many of them simply cannot do it.
Remember when you are creating strong women that they’re not being mighty because they were born that way. They’re mighty and powerful in spite of everything. They have overcome. They are part of the scar clan.
Find the scars, find the shame, find out how your character overcame those things, and I promise you will have a powerful protagonist every time.
What are some other ways men and women protagonists are different? What kinds of journeys do the two sexes undertake?