Strong Female Protagonists

Posted on 12 September 2009

First, Dragon*Con Photos!

So, the other Dragon*Con event that left me with some thoughts was a panel on how to write strong female protagonists.  I acknowledge that this is, after a fashion, a weak point of mine, so I decided to go take a gander about the goose, or something like that.

Sadly, it quickly derailed into a debate over how to write sex scenes.

Now, I don’t blame them on the sex scene thing.  Well, maybe a little.  Half of the panel was romance novelists, and they did get onto it for half the panel of their own volition.  What I am somewhat more irked about, though, was what I learned from the panel.  See, I think the panel would have been more aptly titled “How to write a strong protagonist” because that is what it was.  I did not hear a single trick or characterization during the discussion that could not be applied to a man as well.

One audience member tried to help the panelists out and said “maternal instinct as a motive.”  The panelists actually called him down on it, though, pointing out that paternal instinct in general is a strong motivator for either gender and that it just is not used that often for male protagonists.  Of course, I instantly realized a story in my head that I’ve been kicking around would work wonderfully with this.  Perhaps a short will be forth coming from it, even though I really want to make it a novel.

So, what makes a protagonist a strong female protagonist instead of just a strong protagonist?  Well, I think it actually has more to do with plot than characterization.  Now, granted, in an inventive enough world, you can address any plot to any gender, but as a matter of convenience in using our already existing pre-conceptions (a typically good thing to do), you can address gender roles and issues quite well with a female protagonist, and by making her “strong”, you get the ability to address the issues in society with a subversion of the issues in said protagonist.

That being said, what are the current issues?  Sexual issues are definitely big, seeing as we are in a big boom right now of continued sexual freedom and equality.  No, I’m not talking hiring women for “men’s jobs,” but instead the sexuality of the character, which is perhaps why the panel “derailed” into sex scenes.

Also, the “women in men’s jobs” that I so off-handedly rejected just a paragraph ago is also an issue you can address.  Funny, how in our culture, a “woman in a man’s job” story is a serious story about overcoming adversity, while a “man in a woman’s job” is a comedy of errors.  Makes me wonder, can you reverse that and still have a “good story.”  Can a man in a woman’s job be a serious-overcoming-adversity story without being “preachy”, and can a woman in a man’s job be a comedy of errors without being misogynist?  Things to think on, eh?

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