Strong female role models are everywhere today. Beyonce, whether you love her or hate her, is a powerful and strong feminine icon in the music industry; J. K. Rowling is an amazing example of a female author whose books are as popular as LotR or Narnia; the Olympics, which are just drawing to an end for 2016, are also full of amazing, strong women who represent their countries. With the increasing amount of real world heroines for kids to look up to, attention has been drawn by a lot of writers and bookworms to the literary world, where the female role model is often hard to find. I don’t doubt the sudden increase in articles on Writer Unboxed and The Guardian is in part due to the celebration of our amazing real life women, and it has brought up an interesting point – why are we lacking female protagonists?
Jo Eberhardt in her article points out that over 70% of the leads in films at the moment are male, and even when women take the center stage it is often men who still speak more than the women do. Is it just the men we should lump the blame with, can they simply not relate to women or do they just want to shut us up? Or are women the issue, are we not able to relate to the female role models authors are providing us with? One that springs to mind is Bridget Jones. I’m in no rush to get married and children are definitely off of the table for me, so I wouldn’t say I could relate, exactly, to Jones, but I do enjoy her stories and I can agree that the only men I need in my life are named Ben and Jerries. Maybe writers are just scared to write a female character – look at how long it’s taken for someone to step up and make a Wonder Woman movie. There is a lot of pressure in modern society to create the ‘perfect woman’.
My issue is often that women, when they are cast as the main character in a story, are in a story I’m not interested in. Romances aren’t really my thing, which is where women prominently feature as the lead figure. Even in fantasy literature, books where women are the main character tend to get twisted into a romance – ahem, Twilight. Even Hunger Games to an extent, whilst talking about really interesting and complex political issues, often gets over ridden by the love triangle rearing its ugly head every time the plot starts to get interesting.
One of my favourite books with a female lead is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. When I say this in conversation people often sit up and go ‘Oh, I forgot it was a girl who was the main character in that’. I think it’s because the story is so damn interesting and so lovable we just stop focusing on the gender. It isn’t repeatedly shoved down the readers throat with references to love or with the conversation mostly being centered on sighing over hunky men. Don’t get me wrong, I can dig a steamy romance book every now and then, but I know when I need my fix and where to get them from (check out Nahlini Singh). But when I want an action or adventure story, where are my female characters? Where are my books on female dragon riders, or about Queen’s riding into battle to save a kingdom?
Why should I have a female lead?
Why not? Would be how I countered such a ridiculous question. Do you not think young girls want to be warriors and have a magical talking pet that takes them to another world, too? If you think your book ‘wouldn’t work’ if it was a woman instead of a man I think you need to take a deep hard look at yourself. I once had a friend that said ‘well if my lead was a woman she’d just fall in love and that would be that.’
My simple response to that was – if you don’t want to write a romance don’t write a romance. Having a female lead does not equal a romance.
Perhaps it would be easier to explain my own reasoning for having a female lead:
Because I’m a girl and I wanted to do everything my main protagonist, Scarlet, could do. Have wings, magical powers that could move mountains, AND be a fantastic warrior? Who wouldn’t want that, male or female? I was also always fed up with it being a guy who got to do the ‘fun stuff’. In games at school the girls always had to be the damsel in distress, or the princess, or some other ridiculous boring thing which meant having to give the boys a kiss at the end. I wanted to be the one pretending to fight dragons and walk over lava. Girls need to be told more from a young age that they can do those things, we shouldn’t have it forced on us from the get go we’re a simple love interest to be shouted over by men.
We need more leading ladies for the girls like me who dreamed of being a Dragon Rider, or a warrior, or the next Indiana Jones. We also need these stories so others stop associating leading ladies with romances. So we don’t even need to have this conversation. So we can end every book and have to consciously think to recall the gender of that character, because the book was so damn fantastic who cared.
How do I write a leading lady?
Number One: Focuse on the plot of your story first. Don’t think that you’re writing a female character, especially when you’re in the planning stages. Just think of totally amazing things which you want to happen and instead of writing ‘he’ add an extra letter to the beginning and write ‘she’. It should still work. It WILL still work. Get rid of any idea that it wouldn’t work right here, right now.
Number Two: Now we’ve got past the planning stage and the initial fear of writing about someone with a vagina, think about them as a person. This isn’t the 1800s – a woman’s only dream isn’t to fall in love and get married. Think about the strong women in the news we see, or the women in your life. What are your favourite traits in them? Is it their humour (dark, sarcastic), is it their ability to say ‘yes’ to everything no matter how crazy it is, is it how creative they are? Make a PERSON. Do not lose sight of this. Just because there is something different between the legs does not make them any less of a complex 3D character with hopes and dreams and characteristics – both good and bad.
Number Three: Think about their appearance on your page. I don’t just mean how they look, but how you write their actions. Women in books tend to ‘pout’ a lot, or ‘sigh dreamily’, or ‘give a shy smile’. Screw that. Women snort when they laugh, they scrape their nails through dirt when they’re sitting in grass, and – cover your eyes those of a gentle spirit – they even fart. A warrior wouldn’t smile meekly, a warrior would lean against walls, or rest their hand on the hip of where their sword usually hangs, or wear a scowl, laugh loudly, joke, be scruffy and perhaps look as though they’ve been in a bit of a fight. It’s amazing how you can change a female character by simply changing an adjective or two from being a love-sick puppy to the saver of the world.
Number Four: Don’t forget they are a woman. There is a real risk to very blindly blunder into writing a female character as a man entirely, and you’ll get a lot of hate for that as much as you would writing another Bella Swan. Think of the problems a woman would face in your world. Maybe they wouldn’t face any problem? Matriarchies are probably in this category – when women rule it’s like a gender version of Noughts and Crosses. But if you are writing it based in this world for instance, think and RESEARCH the problems women face. It’s all very good a woman warrior sure, but unless your female species doesn’t carry the child (hey wouldn’t that be a fantastic idea) then they are going to have periods, they are going to face the pressure of carrying on a line (especially royals, even if they are the ruler), they are going to struggle at times. On this Earth, they are probably going to be harassed, and then there’s that fear of being attacked that looms over most girls heads as they walk home alone. None of this should scare you, it’s a person, there are risks to every person, and hopefully you do your research before writing a character. This is no different, if you’re writing a woman. Do a little research. Research. Research. Research.
Number Five: Don’t be scared to write one. A lot of people hold back when writing about women, they stick to what has been given the nod of approval and stay in the safe end. But we don’t need safe, we need more. We need the female space cowboys and the female lion tamer. Gender should not put you off, and that is the best tip I can give to writing a strong female lead, otherwise there will always be something holding you – and your character – back from being the best they should and could be.
I hope that this has helped and given a lot of you courage to write some new and amazing female characters who take the center stage in books. As always, comments and questions are welcome.
Till next time, Ink-Slingers, keep writing!