Female leads have become huge in the past few years, with movies like the Hunger Games becoming popular. More and more books with female protagonists are starting to arise–which can be both a good and bad thing.
Good, because more female power, right?
But also bad, because if it’s not done well, it makes for a cringe-worthy book.
So here are some do’s and don’t’s about writing female protagonists that can either make or break a Young Adult novel.
- Create a Strong Character
Before even deciding the gender of the character, make sure that their personality and place in the story are strong. Make sure they are important to the plot and not simply added along for the ride, simply for diversity, or have someone to throw into a wonderfully imagined world. As great as that world may be, it’s nothing without a powerful protagonist to take the reader through it.
Now, a strong character can mean different things to people. To me, what a strong character does NOT mean “physically strong and emotionless”. This is, unfortunately, what a lot of strong female protagonists end up being. It’s not that this is necessarily a weak character, but if all of the protagonists are badasses with no emotions, and all other females are seen as weak and powerless in comparison, there’s a problem. Not with the main character, but the other. Females should not always have to be foils to each other, to show what a likable girl is and what an unlikable girl is. Women are people. Readers of Young Adult novels, a lot of which are women, are looking for relatable characters.
Women are just as varied and distinct in character and traits as men are, so each one should be written with equal care and attention. If a writer can’t do this, they really shouldn’t bother trying to write female characters at all.
- Mention Her Femininity
This one’s more of a take-it-or-leave-it type thing. But everyone one who’s had a middle-school sex-ed class knows about a woman’s time of the month. Novels tend to graze over the subject, or pretend it doesn’t happen altogether. While it doesn’t necessarily take away from the novel by not mentioning her period, it doesn’t take anything by mentioning it, either. The women reading will understand, and feel for the protagonist. I’ve read books where women started their periods–Graceling by Kristin Cashore was the first one I read that mentioned it–and I didn’t bat an eyelash. In fact, it’s somewhat refreshing.
Periods are a part of most women’s lives just as assuredly as breathing, so if it adds anything to the story, even just a bit of sympathy or even humor, then add it. There’s nothing wrong with not adding it, either, though.
- Have Supportive Female Friendships
Believe it or not, women can like each other. That’s a thing that happens. Time and time again, in books even written by women, the female protagonist has only male friends, and only catty, petty relationships with other females. I’m not sure if this is because the authors’ perception of females or their personal experience, but it’s happened enough that it warranted a mention.
Females can understand one another, and care for one another. Sure, they have their fights occasionally, but some friendships between women can last a lifetime. If an author has never experienced this themselves, then some research is in order. Spend time with more female friends, or even just ask other women how their relationships are with their female friends.
In a YA novel, teens reading will want to see that friendships are just as important, if not more sometimes, than romantic relationships, and there’s been an unfortunate lack in that in YA. A good example of a female friendship is the one between Inej and Nina in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.
This brings us to the “don’t’s” on the list.
- Add her “to be a female character”
If you need a female character, change one of your characters into a female. Don’t just add in a random female character to feel like you’ve done your job in representing. If a woman doesn’t like the fact that you have an all-male character cast, she’s going to put down your book and move on to another one. Your one useless female character really won’t make a difference in the long run.
- Make her “different than other girls”
If the protagonist ever says that she’s “different than other girls”, and that’s seen as a good thing, almost every reader will groan out loud and drop the book immediately.
As stated before, all females are different, because people are different. Each one has a different personality, background, and quirks. Saying or implying that the protagonist is “not like other girls” lumps all other females together, and implies that there’s something wrong with them. This isn’t exactly a smart tactic when the audience for the novel is a mainly female one.
Sure, create unique characters, but don’t make them unique in the fact that they “don’t like makeup like other girls”.
- Center her plot around a male character
This is the most common pit that novels in YA fall into with female protagonists. The summary will imply that the story surrounds this female character, but upon actually reading it, all of her actions and personality are made to surround a male character. All of their emotions are tied to the male character, and they seem not to care about anything else. That, or they don’t contribute to the plot at all; things just happen to them while the male character saves the day.
This is an example of the female protagonist being created purely to act as a foil to the male character. In other words, useless except to advance the other character’s personality. If you’re having trouble with this, change your female character to a male character, and you’ll realize how boring he is.
A few good tips to try to avoid writing a bad female character, or a bad character in general, if you’re unused to writing one or the other, is to switch up the genders. If one character seems fine as a male but boring as all get-out as a female, something needs to be added or adjusted.
Stories with female protagonists are wonderful because it shows their audience that females are just as multi-faceted and intriguing as male characters, as long as the author takes a long and careful look about how they’re treating their characters.
Also, find my page on Facebook