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Creating Strong Female Protagonists

4036462091_b548c428b2_o [1] I’ve been happily immersed in the new seasons of Outlander and Game of Thrones, as I’m sure many of you are. I also recently binge-watched every available episode of The Fall, a wildly popular BBC thriller.

The trio of shows have many things in common, but as I’ve been pulling together a talk about female protagonists, I noticed in particular that all three of these shows boast very powerful female protagonists, some of my favorite in recent years. Stella, in The Fall, is a British police detective, called into a Belfast police department to help solve a crime. Claire, in Outlander, is a WWII era nurse who finds herself back in time in Scotland in the 18th century. Daenerys Targaryen, in Game of Thrones, is the last of a line of of royals who ruled dragons. The dragons have been extinct for hundreds of years, and it appears her family line is going to be extinct as well. (There are many examples of strong females in GoT, but I’m going with my personal favorite.)  I’m going to use them as examples here, but don’t worry, there are no big spoilers. I’m only speaking in general terms.

What are the steps to creating a strong female protagonist? What are the pitfalls? How do men and women protagonists differ?

She has goals for herself.
Stella, in The Fall, wants to catch a serial killer
Claire, in Outlander, wants to get home

She is conflicted.
Stella is thwarted by officials, by her own nature, which we’ll go into in a minute, and by the killer himself

Claire wants to return to her husband in the twentieth century, but she also falls wildly in love with a Highlander she is forced to marry.

Daenerys faces many many challenges over time, but her first is survival, which means making peace with the barbarian king, and winning him over.

[pullquote]One of the great flaws I see in female protagonists is that they are often so very good.[/pullquote]

She acts to reach her goals.
In other words, she doesn’t just let events happen. She makes a decision to go forward and then faces the consequences of those actions, right or wrong. Claire makes bad choices for the 18th century at times and is beaten for it, but she doesn’t cower afterward and feel apologetic. No, she’s furious and stands up for her own beliefs, even when others don’t agree with her.

Stella is a complex character, but one of the things that makes her very interesting is her unapologetic sexual tastes. When she sees a detective on the street changing his shirt, she gives him her hotel room number, and he comes to have sex with her, but the whole thing is kind of bewildering to him because the culture is still quite sexist in the way Catholic countries often are. When she’s later questioned about him and asked what he was doing there, she says clearly and without apology, “Sexual intercourse.”

We don’t expect that. Her fellow officers really don’t expect it. She refuses to apologize for having the tastes she has.

When Daenerys is married off to a barbarian king, she’s nothing more than a beautiful child. But as sometimes will happen, she bonds with him, and he in turn teaches her to be a queen, Khaleesi. She learns to make decisions, to live with them, even when they have disastrous consequences. It is actually a female virtue that causes her the most trouble: she is empathetic and does not want people to suffer. So she frees slaves, and she rescues war victims, and this often comes back to haunt her.

But she does not wail and moan and cry about her bad decisions. That’s the part that makes her a great, strong character.

Avoid the good girl/bad girl dichotomy

One of the things I find most disappointing about our culture, about our ideas about women, is the good girl/bad girl dichotomy that still exists very strongly. Slut shaming is still a thing. How is that possible in the 21st century? But it very much is.

What does that word even mean? Slut. I looked it up, thinking it must be medieval in origin, and in fact, it is, but it was not used as a sexual shaming term in those days, but rather to refer to a woman who was dirty or of the lower classes, a kitchen maid or someone of that sort.

The modern use of a “woman who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive” is from 1966. Interesting that it came into use just as women began to have the freedom to have sex like men, in that they could be protected against pregnancy.

By that definition, Stella and Claire both qualify as sluts, actually. They both really enjoy sex. It’s a huge part of their character development and the way we understand their decisions. Claire is able to bond with a second man even though she’s married and we don’t doubt her devotion to her husband, because she does like sex and that has already been established by the time she is expected to be with Highlander Jamie. Stella’s tastes are very specific and she’s very straightforward and it ends up playing into the plot in ways that were just brilliant, but I won’t give that part away. (It is a very dark show, just a warning. I did sometimes have nightmares after watching it. You may be less squeamish than I.)

Daenerys also has sexual tastes and acts upon them, but she’s living in an alternate universe, and again, she’s Khaleesi and Mother of Dragons, so that carries a certain amount of power. She’s a queen. She can do as she likes.

None of these characters are “good girls” or “bad girls.” They are both, in one person, as we tend to be.

One of the great flaws I see in female protagonists is that they are often so very good. They’re good girls in every sense of the word. They haven’t had that many lovers, they do the right thing, they play by the rules, they are good sisters and good daughters and good friends and good wives and good mothers. I don’t know if this is an aspirational thing—that some readers just want to be good, so they like reading examples of women who are—but it can be very, very boring.

There is no such thing as a good girl or a bad girl, or at least there shouldn’t be. Every good girl has her dark longings, a helping of shame that she’s carrying, a habit she’d be mortified to let anyone see. None of us are always good friends or good daughters. I will admit freely that I am sometimes quite cutting to my sisters and to my best friends, and sometimes I’m not even sorry. Sometimes, I duck responsibilities. I am also quite nurturing. These things exist side by side.

To make a good girl more believable and interesting plumb those depths—find a secret, find some shame, find some unacceptable habit or obsession. And don’t make it something super easy to fix. Don’t be afraid to make us uncomfortable.

Same thing in reverse when writing a “bad” girl. Why is she villainous? What motivates her? What are her secrets, her shames, her losses? In what ways is she good and honorable? What are her virtues? I’ve been writing a character in my New Adult Going the Distance series who is mostly a bad girl. Mercedes is a writer and she uses sex to get what she wants. She has faced terrible losses and it gives her work a lot of power, but she also has trouble bonding, and even when she does bond, she screws it up most of the time. She started out as a foil, a red shirt, but she’s has become so interesting to me that I’m probably going to write her story, too.

Which leads me to:

Avoid making her a victim

I really dislike victim women. While it is absolutely true that terrible things happen, that families fall apart and sometimes your husband falls in love with another woman or absconds with all your money, there is nothing compelling about a whining, crying victim. Not that women can’t cry or whine–but they’d better be in motion toward something as they do it.

It’s just not interesting. Yeah, so a character is broke or suddenly single or even overcoming some really big trauma like a rape or a death—it’s a great spot to start the journey–but make sure that the character is making choices, not just floating along, and do it immediately, nearly as soon as the book opens. The choice can make things worse or make it better, as above, but she has to CHOOSE, to ACT.

Next month, I’ll write more about the ways men and women protagonists differ, and about detail work that brings female characters powerfully to life.

Do you struggle to write women characters? Are they easier? Who are some of your favorites? Do you have any particular challenges in this area? Let’s talk.

About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].