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)
Publish date:

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)

Image placeholder title

Become a WD VIP and Save 10%:
Get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders! Click here to join.

Also check out these items from the Writer's Digest's collection:
Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings, Middles & Ends

Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure

Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint

Writer's Digest No More Rejections
Writer's Digest Weekly Planner

Writer's Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer's Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer's Digest 10 Years of Writer's Digest on CD: 2000-2009

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time for a little unexpected team work.

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

New York Times bestselling author Taylor Anderson discusses the process of writing his new science fiction novel, Purgatory's Shore.

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

Whether you're looking for something cozy or a little spooky, these books are perfect for the fall season.

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

When it comes to a 30 day writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, do you need to prep beforehand to achieve success? Well, that might depend on what kind of writer you are.

Sarah Echavarre Smith: On Going for the Out-There Ideas

Sarah Echavarre Smith: On Going for the Out-There Ideas

Copywriter and author Sarah Echavarre Smith discusses the process of writing her new romance novel, On Location.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 583

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a fall poem.

5 Thrilling Adventure Terms Every Writer Should Know (And Why)

5 Thrilling Adventure Terms Every Writer Should Know (And Why)

For over a decade, author Joshua Glenn has been researching adventure-related terms. Now, he's sharing what he's learned for other writers to add to their lexicon.

Moral Compass

Moral Compass

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, write about someone with an unfailing moral compass.

Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

Author, translator, and editor Daniel Levin Becker discusses his hopes for future letter writing like those featured in the new anthology, Dear McSweeney's: Two Decades of Letters to the Editor from Writers, Readers, and the Occasional Bewildered Consumer.