Monday, January 17, 2011
Strong Female Protagonists
I've found, in talking to different authors who have been through the submissions process, that we all have slightly different approaches. Some folks shotgun it, taking Writer's Market or whatever their favored reference is in hand and simply going down the list to send their manuscript to any address labeled 'Literary Agency' or 'Press'. I tended to be much more selective, and tried very hard to identify agents and presses that had represented or published novels in some way similar to my own.
One of the key phrases I used during that period of searching was an interest in 'strong female protagonists'. Agents or presses that expressed a clear preference for strong female protagonists received a longer look from me, and often a query as well, because EOLYN features a woman who, in my mind, clearly fits this criteria.
Yet it was interesting, in looking at the titles represented by certain agents or published by different presses, to see how broad and varied the definition of 'strong female protagonist' can be. More often than not, a 'strong female protagonist' tended to be rather gritty in nature, always wielding a weapon, and ever-ready to engage in violence. Now, I don't have any overt problem with this definition of 'strong female protagonist', but I was disappointed to see just how often this was the only definition of interest to the agent or press that I was researching.
What is it that makes a female protagonist 'strong'?
For me it is -- more than the ability to do a back flip, sword in hand, while slicing up three opponents at once -- complexity and depth of character. A strong protagonist, male or female, has many qualities that we admire and at least few that we do not. She must have the capacity to overcome great difficulties, whether through physical strength, or emotional fortitude, or both. We should be able to recognize something in her that we would like to be; and to think of her as the kind of friend we would like to have, especially when the going gets rough.
This is the kind of protagonist I've tried to craft for the novel EOLYN; and I hope that in reading the novel you will agree that I've succeeded.
Just for fun, I thought I'd put together a list of some of my favorite female protagonists over the years. Here are a few:
The Miller's Daughter -- A nameless young woman in the Grimm's Fairy Tale The Robber Bride Groom, she manages to escape from an unwanted marriage by proving her future husband a thief, a murderer and a cannibal. One of my favorites growing up, this story and its protagonist always ran neck-and-neck with that other Grimm's classic, Snow White.
Princess Leia -- Technically, she doesn't quite count since her brother was really center stage, but she has to be mentioned here because Leia was the first fantasy adventure woman to capture my imagination. Bold, witty and strong-willed. Thanks to Leia, I finally had a role to play when I ran around with the rest of the boys in our neighborhood games of cops and robbers (which of course were instantly changed in those years to rebels and stormtroopers...)
Trinity -- And of course, there has to be at least one person on the list who can do a back flip while slicing up three opponents at once. Again, techinically Trinity doesn't quite count as a protagonist because Neo took center stage, but she had a tender heart encased in that core of steel, and that always makes for an interesting story.
Arya -- From George RR Martin's classic series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Arya isn't even a teenager yet, but oh my goodness she's amazing. Arya takes war by the bullhorns, so to speak, and does not let its horror or violence defeat her in any moment. One of the best journeys I've ever read in a fictional character.
Mendoza -- From Kage Baker's wonderful blend of science fiction and historical fiction, THE GARDEN OF IDEN. Mendoza does not wield a sword or a laser gun, but she's a sensitive, passionate cyborg with super-human strength, and a top-notch botanist to boot. Who needs jijitsu when you know your plants?
Ki'Leah -- The protagonist of Kim Vandervort's THE SONG AND THE SORCERESS. Ki'Leah fits everything I like to see in my female protagonists. In this first book of Vandervort's series, she is young and somewhat immature, but experience and harsh reality shape her into an admirable leader. And she can even wield a sword by the end of the story! I'm looking forward to spending time with her again in Vandervort's sequel THE NORTHERN QUEEN.
Olivya -- In the soon-to-be-released APOCALYPSE GENE by my good friends Suki Michelle and Carlyle Clark, Olivya is a sharp-witted and daring young woman with paranormal powers, who lives in a futuristic Chicago beleaguered by a plague of cancer. Definitely the kind of gal you want on your side when the bad guys come knocking on your door.
Well, I could go on, but I think that's enough rambling for one day. So help me out here -- Who would you add to the list of your favorite female protagonists? And what is it, for you, that makes a female protagonist "strong"?