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Caro Clarke: Can she be smart and still in peril?

May 13, 2010

Nine Don’ts when writing about a female protagonist

Today, we are joined by my guest, Caro Clarke.

Caro is a Canadian, born in Ontario. She spent her childhood in various oil towns from Alaska to Newfoundland, but eventually her family settled in Calgary, Alberta.

Caro studied mediaeval history at various universities, and graduated with a D. Phil. from Somerville College, Oxford University. After a short time in academia, she moved to London to work in feminist publishing. There she worked for various small publishers and in a gay and lesbian bookshop. In-between times she has been a carpenter, a bodyguard, a freelance editor, a website manager and a freelance web designer.

The Wolf Ticket

Caro’s writing has been as varied as her career. She writes poetry as “J. P. Hollerith” and has work in the anthologies Beautiful Barbarians and Not for the Academy, both published by Onlywomen Press. Science fiction fans may have come across her short story “The Rational Ship” in Memories and Visions (Crossing Press). She has also had stories published in The Milk of Human Kindness: Lesbian Authors Write About Mothers and Daughters, edited by Lori L. Lake (Regal Crest, 2004), and in Romance for Life, edited by Lori L. Lake and Tara Young (Intaglio Publications, 2006). She is also a published novelist, with The Wolf Ticket, and is working on her second novel, My Home is on the Mountain.

Caro has also written a large number of articles on advice for writers and, for our Wicked Writers blog, she has kindly provided a new article of writing advice.

As we are discussing aspects of research, it is as well to understand that research covers a multitude of aspects, none the least how we go about constructing our characters. Here, Caro has some great thoughts on female protagonsits which I, for one, shall take to mind when I am researching characterisations for my next novel.

Welcome, Caro.

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Can she be smart and still in peril? Nine Don’ts when writing about a female protagonist

Why do female protagonists so often disappoint their readers, or irritate the hell out of them? Because you, the author, have not made her a human being, but a stereotype of what you think a woman is. That’s not what we want. You are either being lazy and going for stock responses when you should be creating an intelligent adult human, or you really don’t get women, which is scary in the male variety of writer and even scarier in the female.

How can you spot when you’ve created a stereotype rather than a human being? I offer you the Nine Don’ts when writing about a female protagonist .

1. Don’t make her less human than a male protagonist.
Women don’t think they’re lesser than men. They think they share the virtues and strengths of a man and have other, different ones (or, often, more of what men tend to have less of, e.g. emotional intelligence).  Your female protagonist should be someone you like and respect. Don’t give her a character trait you would be ashamed to have.

2. Don’t make her stupider than you are.
And, if she is doing a job that requires her to be super-smart (scientist, lawyer), make her smarter than you are. If she is, say, a cop, don’t give her an adorable dippy side, cooing over kittens and constantly forgetting where her car keys are. She’s a COP. If she messes up or makes a mistake, have her mess up for a reason any man would own up to (‘I was exhausted’, ‘I was hung over’, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to phone that two-timing loser;) rather than a bubble-headed ‘girly’ reason (‘I was afraid he wouldn’t like me’, ‘I didn’t want to break my nail polish’, ‘I’m just an idiot when it comes to math’).

3. Don’t build your narrative or plot twists around ‘female’ weakness.
A character-driven plot has to be shaped by the responses of a real individual, with all his or her individual strengths and weaknesses, not with the stock weaknesses of a stereotype. Make her strengths and weaknesses specific to her, that is, not ‘she does X because all women do X’ (X = scream at mice, love new shoes, sit by a phone waiting for a man to call, can’t read maps, have no sense of direction), but ‘Stella misses the call because her cell-phone is out of action due to a ketchup spill—again’.

4. Don’t make her foolhardy, make her brave.
Have her recognise and understand any danger she is walking into, and have her accept risk because she has good and rational reason to take the risk. The greater the risk, the more important her understanding and acceptance of the danger must be (although of course her knowledge of the danger might be partial). Trying to crank up tension by having her walk into a warehouse armed with a comb when she’s fighting the Mob doesn’t have us on the edge of our seats, but tossing the book across the room. No man would be so unprepared. Make sure she take a gun.

5. Don’t make her a ditz in love if she isn’t a ditz in life.
If she is smart and shrewd in her business or professional life, she will not ‘lose her head’ in love. Sensible women (the kind who can carry a plot) do not become irrational in the grip of strong emotions. These might change their priorities, but adult women don’t lose sight of what’s important in life merely because their hearts are engaged. Of course, it might make certain decisions tougher.

6. Don’t give her a special weakness for children or make her motivation a child.
In fact, try not to have any children in the story at all, unless it is essential. Too often, writers devise a female character and then feel they have to get children in there, as if this were a woman’s natural milieu. The great V. I. Warshawsky is a tough-as-nails heroine; in the movie, they teamed her up with a child character and made her a ditz over men. The movie bombed. We all hated her.

7. Don’t make her disloyal to other women.
The only women who shun or dislike other women are those with serious personality problems. The default setting for women together is not jealousy, cattiness or rivalry, but acceptance, respect, and an impulse to find common ground (do you know how two women, strangers to each other, get to know each other? If not, why are you writing about someone you don’t understand?).

Related to this is: don’t have her fail the Bechdel Test.  A woman character passes this test if the plot has (1) two women (2) who have at least one conversation with each other (3) the subject of which is not men.

8. Don’t blindside her more than once.
Your male hero can be caught by surprise once, but more than once and he starts looking like a jerk. Why should your female protagonist be treated less well? Being blind-sided, caught flat-footed, is to be acted upon, not to act. Have your female character on her toes, active, doing the best she can with the knowledge she has of her situation and the resources at hand. You wouldn’t make Steve a laughing-stock to your readers, so don’t make Stella one, either.

9. Don’t have someone rescue her, ever, but especially not at the climax of the story.
Since you’ve made her your hero, make her heroic. She has to initiate the opening action because of a conflict (challenge, danger, desire), she has to drive the resulting conflicts, and she herself has to resolve the final climactic conflict herself, or, if she’s leading a team, she has to really be the leader and to take on the dominant action herself. Think Buffy.

If you find yourself introducing one of these nine Don’ts, hit the brake and ask yourself why. If you keep having to hit the brakes, try writing your protagonist as a male, then think hard about what you would have to change in the story to make him female. You might be surprised how little of his motivation or reasoning you need to change. What makes men and women different is mostly window dressing. Below the make-up or the muscles, both respond to injustice, both fear pain and death, both need love, both can be heroes. That is what we want. A hero. Give us one.

Caro Clarke

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Thank you, Caro. On behalf of us all here at Wicked Writers, I thank you for this great insight and for the time you have taken to contribute to our blog today.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Alli permalink
    May 13, 2010 7:14 am

    Thanks for this post, Caro. A great reminder as to why women strong women are so interesting.

  2. May 13, 2010 8:34 am

    Yay! Bravo! I couldn’t stop nodding my head all the way through this post, Caro. Excellent work.

    You put so eloquently into words exactly what is lacking in so many half-strong female protagonists today. If I wouldn’t do something like that in real life then why am I reading about someone who does?

    I think I’ll print it out and hang it next to my terminal to remind me of exactly what is important when writing my series. I want my heroine strong and smart, but real and approachable as well, with some flaws that may be subtle or may be in your face – but real ones nonetheless.

    Wishing you the very best in your own writing, kudos!

  3. May 13, 2010 8:51 am

    Whoa, Caro, awesome, informative post! I need to print this out too and make sure I don’t break any rules. Thanks for blogging with us.

  4. May 13, 2010 3:15 pm

    I hate to say this, but I don’t agree. Rules are what stereotype female heroines. Follow them and your “strong female protagonist’ will be no different than anyone else’s. These don’ts are replacing one set of stock responses for another.

    To create unique and engaging characters, there are no rules. Our characters should be an amalgam of life experience and personal choice just as we are. It is the writer’s responsibility to make the character empathetic, to make her behavior intelligible to the reader. To do otherwise—e.g. to follow the rules, any rules—is the ‘lazy’ choice, not vice versa.

  5. May 13, 2010 4:33 pm

    I don’t think I’d agree that there are no rules in creating unique and engaging characters, or perhaps it would be better said that the one required rule is actually to create them, and not to create one you think is unique and engaging without examining one’s own assumptions. I’ve read some pretty poor thrillers with yawn-worthy female cliches where a female character should be, and I am sure the author earnestly thought he or she had created someone we would all root for. Little sets of rules are mostly touchstones or measuring points just to help yourself see that you are still on-course to delivering that full-formed protagonist. An experienced luthier can almost shape a violin by eye, but he or she always measures, measures, measures the current work against a personally-developed gold standard of beauty and sound quality. To me, rules {especially written for a blog with a word count 🙂 } are only there merely to introduce some useful measurements in a pithy way; it is up to a writer to decide to use these as food for thought, or not. Let’s face it: if a writer followed these nine rules to the letter without engaging his or her brain and using them to launch further rumination, it really wouldn’t help, because writing is about leaping from good advice to better creativity through one’s own imagination.

  6. Theresa permalink
    May 14, 2010 2:18 am

    I respectfully disagree with #6, “Don’t give her a special weakness for children or make her motivation a child. In fact, try not to have any children in the story at all, unless it is essential.”

    I would reword that to say “don’t let her be child-centric, or child centered.” I have a female character who has a child and has a weakness for children. I want it to be clear that this weakness is not just because she’s a woman. The tendency/”weakness” needs to be because it’s part of her, from her background/who she is, not only a checklist trait.

    Missed the V. I. Warshawsky movie, from the description I’m glad I did. I don’t believe in making a female character an automatic ditz over men either.

    Thanks Caro for the checklist. I have several places I need to consider 🙂

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