I'm going to talk about Male and Female Protagonists.
How is that dangerous? Well, I'm bound to upset a few people.
Deciding whether your protagonist is male or female dictates a lot about the tone of your book. I know, many will shrug and say that it does not change things all that much, but there are a lot of differences between men and woman that do change how they act.
So, let's discuss them a bit.
Okay, we're going to discuss the easy one first.
Male characters are infinitely easier to write than male characters (that might just be me, but most of my writer friends say they feel the same way).
I think the reason male characters are easier to write is because they are portrayed so often in media. I will not go on a super huge feminist rant, but everyone can agree that almost the entire world follows the patriarchy. It's ingrained in our cultures, which makes it very difficult to change.
Men in all cultures are portrayed differently, but most can agree to the following list of how a man should act:
- Be strong
- Be brave
- Not let emotions rule
- Be loyal
- Be dominant
Now, setting aside real-world social implications of all of this (we're talking about fictional worlds that mimic real world), this is how most men are portrayed in stories. Most male protagonists won't cry in stories, and when they do, it's a very masculine, quiet cry where they try to contain it as much as possible.
Don't try to tell me it's not true.
Men are told in most cultures that their feelings should be ignored and their emotions are weaknesses for them, and a man is always supposed to be strong.
This is why it is so much easier to write male characters. Male characters do not get as involved emotionally in the conflict of the story, which means that their motivations for being there are generally to save someone, to be the hero, to be the loyal partner, whatever it is, their emotions are not their driving force, but their sense of masculinity.
That means that there are certain things that men just do not do, such as hug other guys unless they're really close, or tell others when they are upset about something.
This means that there are limited ways for your male protagonist to act in certain situations. Does that irritate you as a writer? Good. Change it.
Do not be afraid to push boundaries as a writer. You're part of the artistic community. It is your job to change these things.
I have tried to push boundaries with my characters whenever possible, but that does not mean I can make my male protagonists ruled by their emotions, because it does come down to what culture your male protagonist was raised in and where your story is set. Also, you do not want to push the boundaries so hard that your readers are left confused and irritated by your main character. These are all things you do need to keep in mind when building your male protagonists.
Okay, now onto the fun one...
I'm going to stick a big warning label on this. This might irritate, upset, or anger some of you and there will probably be cries of "feminazi" and all sorts of other names, but I want to discuss the horrid difficulty of writing female characters and ways to change your female characters to avoid some of these pitfalls of having a female character. **This does not only apply to main characters, but all characters that identify as female.**
Unfortunately, lately, the most popular female characters are mostly "Mary Sues." What is a Mary Sue? I used to know, but lately, it seems that the definition is changing. My understanding of a Mary Sue is this:
- Ordinary girl, maybe kinda pretty, who has nothing particularly special about her, yet attracts a lot of attention (generally from those of the opposite sex).
- Is inexplicably good at many things, or all the things that she needs to be to succeed in the story
- Has a lot of people admire her for all her attributes
- Acts shy and tries to act like there is nothing special about her.
These are the traits that I understand to be a Mary Sue. Unfortunately, these are traits I see in series like Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent (hell, even 50 Shades of Grey, since that started as a Twilight fan fiction). These are very prevalent images, some act more Mary Sue than others, but they all fall into the same general category.
Now, is there anything wrong with a Mary Sue? I think it is a lazy way to create a character, but there are certainly people who are just like this, so if that is how you want your character to be, then there is nothing wrong with it.
When it comes to female characters, writers get nervous (just like minority and gay characters). There is a lot more anxiety about writing female characters because we want to make a realistic character, and we want to make her strong, but we do not want her to not be feminine, and the problem there lies with the concept of femininity.
I'm trying to write this carefully to keep it from sounding like a feminist rant because it's not a rant. It's just an exchange of information about the way female characters are portrayed and ways to change that for the better.
While there is a difference whether you are a male or a female author writing a female character, I'm just going to talk about the characters themselves.
Female characters, particularly when written in first person, are very centered on the inner thoughts of the character. Women will understand that the female brain is an extensive network of information that never stops and is quite emotional. Women are meant to be more emotionally attached to things otherwise, they would not care for the crying, pooping mess that is a baby, Emotion is part of the hard wiring for maternal instinct (men have emotional connections too, I'm not saying they don't).
For that reason, women spend a lot of time in their heads. (Just as a fun aside, here is a little video talking about the difference between men and women's brains, watch it after you read this post! A Tale of Two Brains)
In the interest of making realistic characters, writers will spend a lot of time in the female character's mind discussing how they feel about the situation they are faced with. While there is nothing wrong with doing this, it has a high risk of making your readers believe that your character is whining and an over-emotional mess. This is not often the case, but that is the way it is read because of the way women are understood in society.
How do you avoid this while still making your character a woman?
Do not spend so much time in your character's head. Make her emotions known through actions. For some reason, those seem to keep your reader at the proper distance to allow them to understand what your character is feeling without sitting in their head with them. This also can shorten the story and keep momentum going.
Something that seems to be a struggle for writers is making a strong female character. Everyone praises strong female characters, but there is a fine line that those characters are never supposed to cross, but everyone knows when they have crossed that fine line between strong and too strong.
There is no way to really guard against this line, other than to make female characters forces of nature--just like women. Rather than have their emotions of fear make them weak, make the emotion of fear make them stronger, make them angry. Yes, women get angry. And you should allow your female characters to be angry rather than let their fear make them incapable of handling the situation.
With fear, there are three (not two) responses--fight, flight, or freeze. A majority of the time, a strong female character will have the fight response.
If you're walking that tightrope of a strong female character with a male love interest, here is my advice to you.
Never make him less than her and never make her less than him.
She can be strong and still have him protect her. Humans protect each other if they care for one another, so it's alright for a man to want to go into a dangerous situation first to protect the woman. Likewise, it's alright for a woman to get her her hands dirty to save the life of the man she loves.
A strong woman is not more than the man she is with, but she should stand equal to him, getting his support when she needs it and giving her support when he needs it. She can stand on her own, and only lets a man into her life because she wants him there, not because she needs him.
But she can also be a complete bad ass on her own!
Here is the thing that irritates me the most about female protagonists.
I'm not sure where it is stated that female protagonists have to have a love interest, but it seems to be rampant. I cannot say that my female characters do not have love interests, because they often do, but when it seems to be the driving force of female protagonists (example: Twilight), then it inadvertently states that women are defined by the men in their lives (just read Book 2 of Twilight).
That being said, there is nothing wrong with a romantic interest for your female protagonist. In fact, it can really help shape your character, but that should not be the only thing about your female character, nor should she be interested in changing or behaving a certain way for a man.
The way I see it, just because there is a female character, does not mean she has to have a male counterpart, nor does she have to be interested in the male character along side her in a majority of the book.
It is possible for a male and female character to be in the same space as a male character and not have it be a romantic attraction. An example from my own books is with Lily, the main character in Inside. There are a ton of men around her all the time--one of which she has a (returned) romantic interest in and one who is a crazy stalker-type. However, she also has her good friend Clark who she spends a majority of the book with that has no romantic interest in her at all, and another character who also has no romantic interest named Mark.
For fun, you can absolutely mix things up a bit when it comes to your female's romantic past and her love interest in the story.
As I will be pushing The Significant as much as possible now that it's in the editing stages, allow me to explain the complexity of the relationship of the main characters and their pasts--both characters are female.
Kailynn, the main character of The Significant, is a young, thin woman who works in a warehouse doing deliveries. She has had an interesting sexual past and used to be in a monogamous relationship with her childhood friend Raphael, but they have since turned it into a friends-with-benefits situation.
Isa, the other main character, is a very powerful and incredibly smart politician (leader of the whole planet, actually), who used to be in a relationship with a coworker that fell horribly to pieces, even though they still work together and clearly care deeply for one another.
But, instead, Isa and Kailynn are going to fall in love.
Mix things up as often as you feel comfortable doing. The best way to change the stereotypes is to slowly introduce non-typical traits into your characters, and do it skillfully enough that your readers will say: "I wish there were more characters like this."
The thing about changing stereotypes is that you cannot smack people in the fact with a bold new idea. You have to slowly introduce them to it and make them think it was their brilliant idea all along.
As a writer, you can do that.
That's what I've got to say about genders of protagonists. I know, it was a bit ranty, but I'm feeling brave after finishing The Significant.
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