protagonist (strong, female)

There was a very interesting blog post over at YA Indie called "5 Tips for Writing a 'Strong Female Protagonist.'"

Since I am writing a quasi-YA* story with a strong female protag (Stevie One), this was interesting to look at.

Here are the five (six, really) tips, as listed by Dalya Moon:

1) As the author, don't constantly rely on characters not telling each other key information to prolong plot points or tension

Oh, yes. Do not conceal information for the sake of fooling the reader or building bad suspense. Roger Ebert calls this the "idiot plot," where the plot of the movie could have been resolved in fifteen minutes if the characters weren't all idiots.

(I'm not sure what this has to do with a "strong female protagonist," though.)

The worst example of false suspense I can think of is Halfway House, by Ellery Queen, where Ellery Queen (the detective) chases after, traps, and confronts the killer. Then the book jumps forward to some time later, where Ellery sits down with several interested characters and details the steps of his detective work, how he figured out who the killer was, and then, at the very end of this long explanation, the name of the killer is finally revealed to the reader.


Every character knew the answer pages and pages ago, why does the reader have to wait?

On the other hand, my characters (unlike Dalya's) are often good at keeping secrets, but those are (this is the distinction that I make) character secrets, not plot secrets. I have two characters who were abused as children, and you can learn some of that by paying close attention, but they don't talk about it. Because they wouldn't. As I always point out, there is a major character in U-town whose sexuality is not revealed until literally the last page (though other characters speculate from time to time throughout the book). But this doesn't have anything to do with the plot of the book, it's just a character note, and it is entirely consistent with her personality to keep quiet about it until she actually takes a lover.

And Jan Sleet, the great detective, often conceals information from her assistant (Marshall, her "Watson"). As Nero Wolfe often did with Archie Goodwin. But the readers (when Marshall is the narrator) know what Marshall knows.

2) Make your character better than average

Makes me think of Lake Wobegon. U-town, where all the characters are above average. 🙂

But, yes, definitely. However, as we discussed in comments on an earlier YA Indie post, if your character has skills (as opposed to talents), there should be an explanation of why she has them. As I said there, Stevie One is a kick-butt character (and she is not the most kick-butt woman in the book), but there is a reason she has those skills.

3) Allow readers to relate to your character

Yes, I think Stevie is "relatable" (a word I've never liked). She has enthusiasms and and (as Dalya said in her comments) she is definitely somebody who DOES STUFF (even if it's stuff that nobody has ever done before).

4) Let us enjoy some "booyeah!" moments through the character

This is related to the "skills" question above. If you've established why the character is especially skilled, you get to reap the reward of having her triumph from time to time. In fact, most of the major characters in Stevie One are particularly good at least one thing, and the one who isn't DOING STUFF will get to figure out her particular thing by the end.

5) Never let anything come easily to your main character

Of course, things don't come easily to Stevie One, and there are situations where it is partly her own fault that things are as difficult as they are for her. But if they are difficult it's partly because she's aiming high, which I think is also important. The goal should be something worth struggling for.

6) Write the character you want to spend time with

This is the big one, since not only do I want the readers to enjoy spending time with her – the other characters have to want to spend time with her as well. She falls in with bad companions at the beginning of the story, and she is useful to them, but obviously they also start to like her, so this has to be convincing.

But I agree: no matter what the feedback, I never rewrite characters. I am willing to consider changing plot points, re-sequencing stories, even adding or removing characters, but I never change characters (except as they change in the course of the story, of course). They are who they are. I keep feedback in mind for future stories, for new characters, but that's it.

There are two characters in Stevie One who I've used before. I've taken those stories down, because the stories weren't right for the characters. This time I think I've got it, but the characters are the same as they ever were. They just needed me to create a better story for them.

And, yes, I loved this note at the end: "Because [Dalya's] a feminist, her characters may make a few mistakes along the way, but they don't end up dating their obsessive, controlling, serial-killer stalkers, ifyaknowwhatimean." Stevie One will have a romantic life at some point (when she's ready), and she will make mistakes, but she will not do that. She wouldn't anyway, but she also thinks of herself as a role model, and that wouldn't set a very good example.

What I would add to this list is the Bechdel Test, as I talked about here. Have a variety of female characters, have them talk to each other, and have them talk about things other than boys or men.

* Stevie One is not actually a YA story (it's a mystery), but since it does have a teenage protagonist I thought it was interesting to consider it through the lens of "young adult" literature.

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5 Responses to protagonist (strong, female)

  1. sonje says:

    If I’m being honest, I think the key is not to write a “strong female protagonist” but just to write a whole person.

  2. True, but I think it’s a matter of how to get there. The thing I found particularly useful about Dalya’s post was its emphasis on anticipating the reader’s reaction to the character. I tend to write characters that I like, but it’s helpful to think about the reader from time to time.

    Emerald’s post that I linked to pointed out that it’s a clche at this point to have “kick-butt” female characters — so much so that she gets flack for having a protag who isn’t one — so it’s important to let the reader know pretty quickly that your character isn’t just another tough-cookie cliche. If not, the reader may make a snap judgment — as we do with people — and not stick around to find out the depth that’s really there.

  3. I just love this debate. Particularly because I start my characters off as not so kick butt. I like to see the growth and development of it.

    In a recent review of my new novel, I just got another hate on my character. Which is fine. I knew she’d be accepted or hated. She is who she is. 🙂

  4. I thought of this when I was reading this post on Aly Hughes’ blog, where she links to this letter from Hemingway to Fitzgerald. The letter is full of good advice and well worth reading, but this part jumped out at me: “If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.”

    He’s talking about writing using real people as your characters, but I think it applies more generally. You can only make them do what they would do, and you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. They are who they are, and if you rupture that, then they’re just cardboard cutouts, doing what you tell them to do.

    Your comment also makes me think about the fact that I tend to show characters who are already developed, who are already kick-butt (if they are going to be), who are already damaged (if they are going to be damaged). Then I move ahead, while also showing something of what got them there (which is what you did in Piercing…, of course).

    It’s just a matter of style, but I think it’s related to the fact that everything I write covers a very short span of time. Days, or occasionally a couple of weeks, and for the mystery stories often just a few hours.

  5. I agree with you, and I love what he said. They are who they are. 🙂

    Yes, I did that with Piercing Through the Darkness, and Read Me Dead, well, I kind of did the same, but I saw some more growth in my MC than I did in Piercing Through the Darkness with Kandi.

    But yes, it’s all style, and well, with stories that take place in a short span of time, I think they need to already be developed because people don’t usually grow within a matter of hours or days.

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