How to Write Believable Female Protagonists (and why we have such a hard time liking them)

Can we be honest? About 1/2 of the reading public has just moved on at the phrase “female protagonist.”  Since “women continue to read circles around men, especially in fiction and literature: 64 percent of ladies read at least one book in 2012 (and 56 percent read at least one literary book), compared to only 45 percent of men (only 37 percent read at least one literary book) why do we shy away from reading about women  when most of us fiction readers are WOMEN? SEE STUDY

We tend to see men as doing and women as feeling, yet in the study sited above even when names were switched and men  were  feeling and women  doing, readers felt they related to whomever was named Jack, not Jill.

As a novelist who writes about men and women who do AND feel I wonder why even I feel more ambivalent about female protagonists in my writing. Despite the study above my gut says there’s 5 things going on here as illustrated through my characters:

WEAKNESS: Katherine Weldon  and her husband both carry with them burdens of childhood trauma, yet John Weldon’s weakness (morphine addiction) takes center stage. Katherine is blamed for somehow standing out and being subjected to a violent sexual encounter. I don’t believe we live in a rape culture, but I do believe that rape is so horrifying to most moral beings that until very recently people would rather read about a trip on a raft down a river (as a small aside: statistically, more men than women are raped each year–mostly in prison).  In our modern age we don’t like butting up against a biological truth that, in general, women are weaker physically and at times more emotional. Sue me, but the ladies in SEX IN THE CITY and GIRLS are someone’s fantasy.  If you want to write about women realistically you have to accept the fact that it’s probably going to get pretty messy.

LOVE DRIVE: Keep in mind that I blog what I ponder, fully aware that I don’t have all the answers here. Mostly just more questions: Why do women want to be men?

Thankful Crenshaw does not have a man’s sex drive. She has a love drive. She is driven by an overactive desire for deep love. I know women like this (I may be a woman like this). A woman like this is not flippant about sexual encounters. I knew one young woman who was flippant until her boyfriend deserted her at the abortion clinic.

Real women can compete with men on many levels, but unlike men, they have a harder time compartmentalizing. A sex drive fits easily into a box. A love drive spills all over the place.

Women carrying heavy machine guns, kick boxing in tight spandex and yukking it up at the bar later (wearing lipstick) just don’t sit well with me. Men doing the same thing minus the spandex and lipstick entertain me greatly.

JEALOUSY: Men seem to use jealousy to drive themselves forward. Women tend …to … destroy each other. Thankful is beautiful. She’s used her beauty as power and sadly misused it as well. Miss Peckham arrives with her modern ideas and her contempt for women like Thankful and feathers fly. It’s not a pretty picture. This is not men cock-fighting. This is women and pecking orders. This is blood and guts in a way we don’t want to see it.  I wonder also if we as  women readers don’t really want to see a  successful woman to make us feel bad about ourselves. We want men with machine guns again or women pretending to be men.

IRRATIONAL FEARS: This does not mean women shouldn’t have their hands anywhere near the nuclear bomb button. What it means is that women unleash deep irrational fears in both men and women. The ability of women to have children is kind of weird. Even cavemen were awed. Awe is scary. Women access emotions and splatter them about when least expected. Men scatter. Other women sometimes scatter, too.

Men do a better job hiding the messy stuff behind action. Or maybe those compartments they have come in real handy. Be prepared as a writer to be shocked by your female characters. Wow, suddenly Katherine uses food as an outlet for freedom? Who would have guessed it.

RELATIONSHIP VS ACTION: A female character who isn’t concerned with relationships over action seems really alien to me. As a wife, mother, sister and friend I find it hard to imagine not sacrificing the limelight to another. In real life most women I know struggle at times with this. When writing about Lucy McCullough I walked a fine line. Somehow she managed to not only be strong and quietly heroic, but also generous and self-sacrificing. It’s probably why I have a love/hate relationship with her.

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do we love men more or are we afraid of women?






4 responses to “How to Write Believable Female Protagonists (and why we have such a hard time liking them)”

  1. That’s a really big question. I think I enjoy reading men because so often in real life I find men a little closed off to me, not being one myself. As characters, I can experience their emotions more fully because they can’t hide from me. Obviously not all real life men are harder to peg than real life women are, and not all fictional men are written well. And I wouldn’t say I don’t enjoy reading and writing female characters, but the experience is different because I’m a woman, too, and so in some ways, I’m closer to understanding who they are than I am to the male characters, who I have to work a little harder for. I suppose I enjoy the extra layer of challenge. Does that make sense?


    • You make sense to me. 😉 Of course we’re generalizing and I am playing the Devil’s advocate because I actually enjoy writing and reading about women. What I don’t much like is this push in culture for “strong” (translate man-like) women.

      Humankind has many weaknesses. When my son calls we talk about what we’re doing. When my daughter calls we talk about our relationships. I enjoy both calls.

      I wish I could remember the blogger who felt bad that she read mostly books about boys to her children (by mistake). I can’t say that I’ve done that. There’s plenty of interesting books and stories about and by women. And I like my female protagonists very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You raise many questions here, Adrienne. I am perhaps the odd one as I read often about women who are strong and make their own decisions. But I also think that flawed people make the most interesting characters, so the women in my books err often and big – as do the women in my favorite books. I don’t agree that a strong woman necessarily translates as a male-type woman, however – I think that’s another false societal imprint that makes some women afraid to act on their own best impulses. Any more than a sensitive man is necessarily weak and effeminate. And in my opinion, any of these personalities is fine as long as the person owns who they are.


    • Well said. I also think there may be a difference in popular culture vs. literary culture. I’m re-reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Tess is such a fantastic mix of human flaws and human decency. She’s strong in a way that transcends her sex, but she’s no Carrie from Sex in the City. 🙂 Such a tragic tale!

      I too like reading about complex women and haven’t found it that hard to fill my reading time with them. I think I’m just not much for modern literature with “feminist” agendas. I like real people stories, stories that express the always current state of humanity not knowing what it’s doing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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