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)
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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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