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5 Steps to a Great Female Protagonist

According to bestselling authors JT Ellison, Alex Kava and Erica Spindler, there are 5 key ways to make your heroine shine. Here they are. by Jessica Strawser, reporting from ThrillerFest 2010 (New York City)

One of Thursday’s livelier sessions was “Creating Authentic, Tough, Smart Female Protagonists (Lipstick Optional),” a discussion among three presenters known for doing just that: JT Ellison, bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series; Alex Kava, creator of the novels featuring FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell; and Erica Spindler, international bestselling author of, most recently, Blood Vines.

The key, they say, to a great female protagonist is to shun stereotypes and double-standards and instead focus on simply making her believable in every way. Once you’ve done that, you can make your own rules.

Here are their top 5 tips for making your heroine shine:

1. Go ahead and let people underestimate your female protagonist at the start of your story. This will give her a chance to prove herself (and prove them wrong).

2. Follow Alex Kava’s rule of thumb: “Make your female stronger than your gun.” Otherwise, she could be seen as weak or vulnerable. Give your heroine a strong intellect, a sharp wit, or some other quality that will make her a character who has what it really takes to be tough.

3. That said, don’t get so carried away trying to make her tough that you forget that she’s a real woman, not a superhero. Erica Spindler says great female protagonists don’t have to be defined by big, heroic things, and recommends giving her a little touch of normalcy, something readers can identify with. (An example from Spindler: Maybe she’s incredibly gutsy by day, but when she’s alone at night, she finally breaks down.)

4. Don’t be afraid to victimize your protagonist. Victimizing the heroine can be a catalyst to allow her strength to come through. If she has a horrific background (she’s been attacked, she’s lost a child or someone close to her, etc.), she has something to overcome—she now has a reason to be strong.

5. Try giving your character a fear. This may sound counterintuitive to making a tough protagonist, as with Indiana Jones and his phobia of snakes, relatable fears can make characters seem real—and give them more plot-building obstacles to overcome in the course of your story.

Do you know everything about your characters that you need to for a successful story? Consider:
What Would Your Character Do? (Print edition)
What Would Your Character Do? (Download it now)

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