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Strong Female Protags: Beyond the bitchy exterior

Creating a great female protagonist is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. In fact, I think coming up with a strong female lead is tougher than writing a male protagonist. Various studies still show that women read more than men, and let’s face it: most of us are going to be tougher on female leads because we’re seeing ourselves through their eyes. She can be attractive, but not physically perfect. No woman is, and having a beautiful damsel in distress shoved down our throats is a turn-off. Your female lead doesn’t have to be likable, but she’s got to have qualities that make readers empathize with her. Often the best female protagonists are three-quarters bitch, and it’s that last twenty-five percent that make readers root for her.

So what’s in that twenty-five percent? Inner demons, of course. Abusive parent or husband, a drinking problem, drug problem, depression, loss of a loved one – the list goes on. It’s the inner demons that make us feel for the character, and how she conquers them that get us rooting for her.

That’s where the character arc comes in, and it’s all about timing. You can’t wait too long to show at least two-dimensions of your female lead or you’ll lose readers. If she’s perceived as weak, unwilling to change, or just flat-out nasty with no redeeming qualities, readers will toss you aside and move on to the next book. Showing who your characters are is like peeling away the layers of an onion, but you’ve got to give the reader glimpses of who the lead really is or we will never get to see the third dimension, where she conquers all and completes her character arc.

Literature is loaded with great, complex female characters. Here are two of my favorites:

Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With The Wind
Yes, this one is beautiful and knows it. We give her an exemption because beauty is a true part of who she is, and we see right away it’s only one aspect of her personality. Scarlett grows up a spoiled Southern belle and knows how to manipulate the opposite sex for her own needs. But underneath all of that is also a fierce determination to survive no matter the costs. Scarlett’s first major turning point is when Sherman is burning Atlanta, and Melanie has gone into labor. She could have run, but chooses to stay and do the right thing. She tells herself she’s doing this for her beloved Ashley, but we also see her grudging affection for ‘Melly.’

While Scarlett’s driving force is always herself, a close second is her love for Tara. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is after she’s discovered the destruction of Twelve Oaks and is frantically trying to see if Tara still stands. Finally, the clouds part, and she sees Tara. A truly poignant moment and an honest glimpse into Scarlett’s heart.
Throughout the book, she endures heartache and setbacks, and it’s only at the very end, upon Melanie’s deathbed, that Scarlett realizes she’s loved Rhett all along. It’s too late, and we feel her pain because Mitchell created such a complex, fascinating character. Readers fell in love with Scarlett despite her selfishness, and that’s one of the many aspects that make Gone With The Wind such an amazing literary work.

Clarice Starling, The Silence of The Lambs
I’ve always loved Clarice, partly because I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the FBI and serial killers. As I read the book, I felt such envy for Clarice because she was getting to do something I’d always wanted to do and didn’t have the guts to pursue. That very quality could have made me shun her, but how could I not root for a woman trying to break through the ranks of the male-dominated FBI?

Clarice isn’t defined by her beauty but rather her intelligence and raw determination. During her interviews with Dr. Lector, we admire her poise despite her fear. And it’s through Clarice that we come to understand and even empathize with arguably one of the best antagonists in all of literature.

We learn about Clarice’s inner demons very early on – the death of her father when she was a child. She immediately earns our sympathy, and we’re even more drawn to her. But it’s the truth that Hannibal himself gleans from her, the horrible slaughtering of the lambs, that locks Clarice into our hearts. We see her worst fear, and we know she’s only allowing herself to be emotionally stripped because she’s determined to save Catherine.

By the time Clarice discovers Buffalo Bill’s home readers hearts are pounding because of our attachment to the character. She’s overcome so much, and now she must use all the knowledge given to her by Lector to save herself and Catherine. Her character arc is completed, and she has Dr. Lector to thank for it. The true genius of Silence of the Lambs is the relationship between Starling and Lector. Without each other, neither would have found peace.

Other Great Female Leads:

Susie Salmon, The Lovely Bones
Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre
Eowyn, Lord of the Rings
Jodie Piccoult, My Sister’s Keeper and Perfect Match

What are some of your favorite female protagonists?

2 comments on… “Strong Female Protags: Beyond the bitchy exterior”

  1. Stacy, great post! You are right – those female protagonists are harder to write then men. I gravitate to the Clarice kind of gal. But one of my fave reads, I re-read again and again is actually from my childhood – The Little House series. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  2. Donna, thanks for the comment! And you're right, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a great one, and I've read her books over and over as well. Looking forward to my daughter being old enough to appreciate them!

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