What Makes a Female Protagonist Great?

In American pop culture and genre fiction, it’s been a long and rocky road to representation for women. In the early 20th century, as comic books and science fiction became an industry, many people believed that women weren’t even an audience for those types of stories. That, plus the lingering belief from previous centuries that there was less psychological and temperamental variation among women than among men, (which psychologist Leta Stetter Hollingworth did a great deal of work to disprove), led to a long tradition of women in comics and genre fiction being sporadically represented; and when they were represented, deeply stereotyped.

As various women’s movements throughout the century addressed this discrepancy, creators and publishers made an attempt to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, the writers were often still men, and many of them had a poor understanding of how women wanted to be represented in stories. As always, there were notable exceptions, but that idea that women were somehow less diverse than men pervaded and many female characters fell into predictable tropes.

How then, do you write a good female protagonist? Even women writers have sometimes confessed to struggling with writing female characters in science fiction and fantasy. Our own perspective has been buried and misconstrued in our favorite media so much that it is hard to reclaim it as our own.

I think the most important key to writing women in genre fiction is making them human. That is both the simplest answer and the most complicated.

As humans, women in fiction need to have their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, which they express independently of the men in the story. The 1960s Batman henchwomen, who are “poor, deluded children”, and really didn’t mean to do anything bad have thankfully fallen out of fashion. However, many female characters are still motivated solely by male influences.

The problem with trying to remedy this is that sometimes, it works. Many women in the real world are motivated and influenced by the men in their lives. Whether it be a break-up with a male romantic partner, or the expectations of a father, it is not unreasonable to portray a woman as influenced by a man. It can be a realistic motivation. The trouble arises when men are the only motivation a female protagonist ever has. That’s completely unrealistic.

As independent, holistic human beings, women have just as complex thoughts, feelings, desires, and motivations as men. And they deserve to be written and represented that way in media. That shouldn’t be a revolutionary statement. But, as long as women continue to be on the sidelines of genre fiction, stereotyped and relegated to a specific set of roles, I’ll keep on saying it.