What distinguishes a well-written female protagonist from a poorly-written one?

In my view, a well-written character, irrespective of gender, should have nuance. Not every character will be fleshed out in three dimensions by an author—there have to be some red-shirt characters. Some might even make it to two dimensions, like the ones Harmonica guns down in the opening of Once Upon a Time In the West.

Writing any character takes time and patience and love, and a female protagonist can’t be rushed.

What are some common mistakes?

#1. It is actually a male character but looks like a (hot?) woman. Has male attitudes and male sensibilities. It’s a poorly written female character because the character is not female, but written by a person who writes the character with a man in mind, and then changes the trappings.

#2. The character is female, but lacking a key female characteristic. Admiral Cain in the Battlestar Galactica reboot comes to mind and to a lesser extent Janeway in Star Trek Voyager. Loved both of them, but a part of their femininity went missing. Excised. Cain is a lesbian and Janeway is a “nun.” By truncating her humanity, she might work in the role, but it may come off weak. Don’t get me wrong, I love Admiral Cain in Galactica, but her looking the other way regarding the rape culture of the Pegasus was very hard to take, let alone believe. Adama, for one, did not tolerate it on the Galactica. With the #MeToo Movement a decade later, it comes off as if Cain sat by so as to not rock the boat. Is that womanly? Does it truncate Cain’s character?

As for Janeway, she certainly managed her ship well in that aspect, but if we think back to the very original Star Trek, the first officer was intended to be a female played by Majel Barret, a Vulcan. That got nixed by the studio. Just imagine a female operating by total logic—preposterous! We had men who fell in love despite the fact they were officers. Kirk gets touched by tears. Spock goes crazy at “Amok Time,” and Bones loves a salt monster—just to name a few. Janeway’s nunnery likely reflects its own era as does the original Star Trek where manly passions needed to be relieved.

#3. Femininity is overplayed. Characters with near witchy powers, which are the patina for stereotypes. The Mary Sues comes out of this ethos. A passivity that is very winning but ultimately hides a character who is more plot device than person.

But so far I have focused on when characters go wrong.

When do they go right

And no, they don’t have to be star ship captains—it’s just an example that is generally part of the mythos.

In this it turns the sleeve sort of inside out.

A. Is the character female? Kind of obvious, isn’t it, but you’d be surprised how many miss that one. She will have struggles specific to women. Yara Greyjoy of the Iron Islands in The Game of Thrones television series. Theon is laughed at and Yara is “just one of the guys.” How in hell did she pull that off. In my own series about Taka Yamabuki, much of the series deals with how it is even possible for an only surviving child (and female at that) to gain a position with the troops and not get fragged. If anything, Tyrion Lannister faces this more fully as he struggles to be the King’s (and then Queen’s) Hand.

Ah, but your forget Daenerys Targaryen. True, the Unsullied and many others follow the Breaker of Chains, but it helps to be able to ride dragons and walk unharmed through fire.

Of course Brienne of Tarth cannot go unmentioned. She damn near kills Sandor Clegane, “The Hound,” in hand-to-hand combat. She has some passion, and there is caring verging on love with Jaime Lannister; and yet when she (along with Jaime) gets captures at the bridge, she goes down without a fight. She had all the advantage: narrow bridge. Yamabuki would have cut the horses feet with naginata (and leapt through the pile of horses and men and finished off the men, and perhaps felt sorrow for the beautiful and innocent steeds).

B. Agency. Most female characters, with many wonderful exceptions, do not have agency. The classic is Sleeping Beauty. She reclines in a coma for a century while men try to chop their way to her bedside. Though Tanith Lee retells it well in compendium of Tales of the Sisters Grimmer, Red As Blood, Sleeping Beauty has even less agency and in both the originals and Lee’s revisionist tale, she has no agency and must marry the man who gets to her first.

C. A woman is going through this. Without falling into tropes, a female is going through these travails. What was her early experience and how did it color her? We know Brienne of Tarth fought her brothers—at 6′ 3″, actress Gwendoline Christie is believable physically—but what thoughts does she have beyond her sworn duty? Fealty? Does she, or Daenerys or Yara for that matter, have any feelings about having a family, or do they sublimate in the manner that men alleged do? Do they have any personal motivations and what are these motivations and what compels them?

This has been a narrow lens, taking a few examples from popular culture—TV series—in an attempt to look at a very complex and rapidly evolving area of fiction and writing.

Finally, is it true that women can write male characters more easily than males can write female ones?

A Woman’s Take

It may not be just a matter of empathy as much as agency. Practically anything a “classic” woman character does breaks the mold and perceptions. Is true as in the recent episode of Vikings that because a woman waits for nine months to have a baby, she learns patience, and any sign of impetuosity is breaking a trope? As much as I would like to explore the decline of Lagertha’s own agency and how she is dealing, we conclude with Wonder Woman.

What a blockbuster! Women who were not fans of female action heroes were moved to tears as Wonder Woman walked into the hail of bullets from the German guns. She decides this madness must stop, and while then men are saying, “There, there, little lady, you don’t understand how this world works,” she stands up and goes over the top.

Wonder Woman main-qimg-d508f42c6cd976c8f8e5e81d35f46f3e

She is wholesome. She is strong. She has a strong moral compass. She does what must be done. In the nihilistic world of DC and Marvel comics, “she stands alone” as someone who turns that dark world on its head. In a movie made by women.

And Bill is wrong in Kill Bill 2 when he speaks of Superman,

As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book, not particularly well-drawn, but the mythology. The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man.

And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Well, Bill, I forgive you for missing this one, but the writers did not. Wonder Woman also stands unique, and she does not look down on human frailty as a weakness. It is her care and compassion—that man is basically good—that turns a two dimensional comic into inspiration.

Keep in touch

Katherine M. Lawrence is the author of the Sword of the Taka Samurai book series about a young woman samurai who lived in 12th-century Japan. Four of Katherine’s books—Cold Saké, Cold Blood, Cold Rain, and Cold Heart—are out in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats, and Cold Trail is available for pre-order.

To be notified of the latest news of Katherine’s releases, including discounts and special offers, sign up for her newsletter.


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