Why We Don’t Actually Need More “Strong Female Protagonists”

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

So, I know what you’re thinking. I have about three halfway done blogs I could be writing this morning and I’m writing something completely unrelated. I think while I try really hard to meet deadlines,I am still a writer at heart. For most writers I think deadlines are difficult. For me personally, I think of them like a bear in the woods. I’m not afraid of a bear being in the woods but I will sometimes worry if the bear is scratching at my door…sometimes. It depends on what I’m writing and where my mind is. But most of the time I write what I want and you can read it if you want. I’m happy with that system and I know my backlog will get done eventually and people will read it eventually and possibly hate it more because they had to wait longer for my awful opinions to come to light.

I honestly love writing my mental health blogs but sometimes I just want to write what I feel like writing and not what I’ve scheduled myself to write. If you’re wondering how this works when you want to write and make money, it doesn’t. If you’re becoming a writer for money you write fast and about what the people want. If you’re actually a writer though, you write what you want and that makes you feel like a whole person who won’t plan on going out on a murder spree later. That’s advice you can bet on. Never doubt it.

But anyways, lets do an actual blog and not ramble about stupid things. I had a thought while I was debating whether or not to get out from under my weighted blanket this morning. It was about an issue I’ve seen stay fairly relevant among writers and readers lately and that is protagonist genders. Specifically I see a ton of arguments that bash the classic male protagonist and argue there aren’t enough strong female protagonists. I’ve also seen many arguments about how female characters are portrayed in general but that’s a bit more of a blanket issue.

Now for me they all lead back to the same root issue and that is creators either practicing or observing bias toward genders. When we think about gender we can sometimes associate certain roles or traits a particular gender. This can sometimes be out of habit or because of what’s been used for longer periods of time and become popular. But the thing many people arguing about this issue don’t take into account is that biases aren’t requirements.

I’ve discussed this same sort of thing in some of my Patreon case studies. Choosing gender for a character shouldn’t be based on anything other then pure creation. In other words, if you do character creation the right way you’ll know what gender the character is meant to be. A character’s gender should never be based on something arbitrary like popularity,sex appeal or a social justice agenda. When I create characters I never focus on meeting some kind of fill or quota. I’m never out to prove something with them. I’m just creating them in a way that I feel they’re meant to be.

But to start off we need to clear from the air the myth that we need “strong female leads” to solve an apparent sexist epidemic in literature and life. We don’t and everyone needs to chill their shit for a minute. This might surprise you but women have been living just fine for centuries and filling the top spots in lists of historical figures long before the novels in your local CVS existed. Creating an obligatory character never solves anything. Representation is a funny thing and often a black hole. It often gets blown into proportions much bigger than the reality. The reality is that representation is something that may reach a handful of people who have self-esteem and self-image issues but the majority of people probably don’t care. I personally represent multiple marginalized groups but seeing a black,asexual or disabled character in something will never be the bacon next to my eggs. Needing fictional representation as validation is not in high demand and to me actually cheapens a character.

The reason I feel that way comes mainly from the fact that a focus on representation is a distraction in character design. You focus so much on the character being a good representation of some specific grouping of people that you forget to actually develop them as a character. Their personality becomes whatever group you want them to be the poster child of. They become a trope essentially and this means you’re actually being a little insulting. Representation based characters are often one-dimensional and that’s a direct result of the reason you made them. But another huge problem with characters meant to fill the seemingly huge hole of representation is that they also alienate anyone not being represented and essentially narrow down your audience.

But how can you tell if your character is actually a pandering pile of SJW garbage? I’m glad you asked because I’m going to tell you how.

First we’re going to check ego. If you use the words best,most,real,genuine,dynamic or versatile to describe your character then consider it a red flag. If you have to tell me your character is genuine or different then they aren’t. When I talk about my characters, I talk about them as if they’re a human being, not an as-seen-on-TV kitchen gadget. The more you feel a need to bump up those descriptors, the more your character is likely dirt poor in actual substance. When characters have substance to them you don’t have to reach and you don’t need buzzwords.

Next let’s do a reality check. Is your character the “first” or “only” of something? The answer is no. No,they are not the first or only of anything. There are thousands of fictional characters out there in the world. Let’s all have a nice realistic pow-wow about how there are thousands of characters that have come before anything we can come up with. Character design is rife with borrowing,stealing and blending. It’s just part of the game. What makes a character shine isn’t on the outside ,because realistically there are tons of characters with the potential to fill the same role,look and even backstory as your character.

What makes a character stand out is who they are. If you want to make a truly dynamic character, think of them as a hole. Not that kind of hole, you dirty pig. I mean a hole you dig in the ground. There’s nothing unique about digging a hole. There are thousands of holes in the dirt around the world and some will look exactly like yours. What can be unique about your hole is how you fill it. Some holes have plain dirt put in them,some have time capsules,some have plants and some have the corpse of your neighbor in them but the point is that we all fill holes uniquely or at least have the capacity to do so.

Characters that stand out are characters that have a well-developed inside. Giving them carefully developed personality traits,preferences and emotions is key regardless of their genitalia. They don’t have to be the first or the only. They just have to be your best effort and have actual substance. If you want to reach people, make a character that’s not just an attractive garbage can for first world problems. You’ll appreciate it later, I swear.

Third,and most importantly, let’s all wrap our minds around this next sentence. Personalities are not gender-specific! Did you get that? Good. Personality traits are not something restricted by gender in character design. In fact, nothing in character design outside of genitalia is. When you say “strong female protagonist” it pigeon holes and creates a huge issue of vagaries. A character’s job,lifestyle,personality and even look is not restricted by gender. Give a dude long hair. Give a girl some buff arms. Let them sleep with whoever they want. Stop letting labels decide how you define your character. Men can be sensitive. Women can be sex-crazed. Being an asshole or a hero can happen whether you have a dick or a change purse. Let’s all just design the characters we want without needing to fit them into a box.

The moment you realize that a person’s gender,sexuality,color and even age are arbitrary and not the sole determining factor of who they are is the moment you can truly create a good character. Stereotyping is bullshit and you have to wipe it off your shoes if you want to be a character designer. If you want to do yourself a favor, here’s a test you can try on any character you make to detect bullshit and eliminate social justice inserts.

  1. Describe your character in one paragraph.
  2. Remove every descriptor related to age,sexuality,race,political preference,religious preference and gender.
  3. Remove every descriptor that refers to your character being sexy,gorgeous,strong,handsome,ideal,perfect or a genius. If you find any other extreme descriptors along these lines removes those as well,especially if they’re about the character’s looks.
  4. Remove every instance of the words best,most,real,genuine,dynamic,progressive,unique or versatile.You’ll also want to remove other boosters like fantastic,amazing,loved by all, revolutionary or superhuman and any instance of calling them relateable because they aren’t relateable if you have to tell me they are.
  5. Remove every instance of referring to them as being the only or first.
  6. Remove every mention of them beating odds or overcoming something.
  7. Remove every common “ism” such as racism,sexism,ableism etc.
  8. Highlight at least three negative traits about your character. They can be flaws,personality traits or general weaknesses.

What do you have left?

  • If you have less than half go back to the drawing board because your character needs actual substance.
  • If you have 50%-75% of your paragraph left then your character can be salvaged but might need work.
  • If you have 100% left then you’re officially the Jesus of writing or a big stinky liar who needs to stop hitting the bottle at breakfast.
  • If you can’t do number 8 then your character is a Mary Sue or Gary Stu on top of being a social justice insert and I would highly suggest revamping them. Real people have flaws and so should your character.

Finally, take what you have left of your paragraph and answer this question. Do you feel like you know the character after reading it? Without fluff, a well-designed character will still come through but a social justice insert is nothing but fluff. A social justice insert is making a character a certain color,gender,sexuality,religion,political party or even a certain age to prove a point but that shouldn’t be what defines a character. It’s arbitrary and often leads us into stereotyping and overall flat character design. It often entails the character being perfect,ideal,unique or the first one. These types of characters are low key offensive and impossible to relate to.

This test can take your character from being “The first/only [insert minority group here]” that’s loved by all and great at everything while being super attractive to being an actual character. Don’t be afraid to trim the fat when you’re designing a character.

But purging the SJW out of your character design isn’t enough to answer the argument of sexism in literature, is it? To really do that we need to understand true sexism. One of the things that I touch on in my most recent Patreon case study is an exploration of the classic male hero archetype and why it exists. Understanding that protagonists are proportional to their audience is very important. It means that we can’t chastise every literary hero back in history and call it sexism. We also have to take into consideration the actual society and audience the hero is made for to put it into context. For large chunks of history, the primary audience of books were the wealthy and the wealthy were men. It’s very easy to forget that the place of women in society was very different up to rather recent times. Was it sexist? Yes and no. While it could be considered rude or sexist, it’s also part of human development itself to alienate “different”.

Human beings are creatures who identify their sense of “good” and “bad” by patterns. When those patterns are broken that thing is “different” and therefore needs to be determined as good or bad. This is basic human nature at work. It’s something that hasn’t changed over the many years of human existence. The change is that between the good ol’ boy days of King Arthur and now our society has changed. We’ve learned more things and seemingly changed our world. More specifically the roles of minorities and women have drastically changed. In a past blog I’ve written about the dangers of applying too much of the real world to fictional worlds and that very much plays into the current climate where we feel we need more “strong female leads”.

One of the points most relevant is that sexism is a by-product of human society. It’s a direct result of our basic nature to label things as “different”. In it’s most basic form most “isms” are just over-inflated pattern recognition. As a personal example, I’ve talked before about not seeing color or basically not judging another person by a label. A person’s differences essentially never compute for me to something that merits treating them differently. In the same sense, many of our “isms” are processing differences. While one person processes a difference in pattern as bad, some may compute it as good or even as neutral and the result is how we treat those that are different from us. When a person is a racist,sexist or even an ableist they are translating the pattern difference in the person as bad.

Pattern recognition in itself isn’t evil. What matters is what we do with it. But what’s also important is to take an understanding of how things like sexism come about and put it into perspective. Not every male-dominated thing is sexist. For instance, a male-dominated career field may or may not be sexist. If it’s male-dominated because women are being purposely kept out it’s sexist, but if it’s male-dominated because it doesn’t appeal to a lot of women to apply into that field it’s not technically sexist. Some things are just predominantly male or female populated for innocent reasons and are therefore not something worth going to war over. In basic terms, you need to apply common sense to determine if it’s sexism or just something born of statistics or coincidence.

But there’s an extra wrinkle that often gets overlooked when we look at a male vs. female protagonist debate and that is context. Often when we accuse literature of being guilty of an “ism” we don’t put it into context. In my article on applying too much reality to fantasy and also in my case study on heroes, I bring up that we need to have the proper context when looking at fictional characters. We often make the mistake of judging them by the standards of our world when we need to look at them against the backdrop of the world they exist in. Many fictional books incorporate world-building and introduce their own sets of rules that shape the characters within. If we understand that heroes are in fact shaped by the people and world they exist in, it’s easy to wrap your mind around the idea that their world may have different standards and a society very different from ours. When we weigh a fictional world by real-world standards, it will often look like a gross “ism” when in fact it isn’t for the world setting of the book.

The things that determine factors like racism,sexism or really any type of persecution are going to change depending on where you are. As a real world example, compare how sexism is defined in the United States against a place like India. While a woman in the United States has a very sturdy soapbox to stand on when it comes to rights, a woman in India usually has to tolerate it because of societal differences. In the same sense, understanding how the society in a fictional world works is key to determining if a character is sexist. What may be standard fare in rights for you as a real person is not going to apply to a fictional world that a writer has created. Quite frankly, that’s fine to me. I don’t think it’s right to squash another person’s creativity because you can’t switch your imagination on and your SJW off. That’s your problem, not mine. Writers should be allowed to make their characters whatever gender they want if they feel it suits the character. There is no quota or standard for what needs to be between the legs of a protagonist and numbers aren’t the same as a character having substance.

So in conclusion, do we need more strong female protagonists? No, we need more characters that are actually characters and not social just Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Step down from your soapbox, shut your mouthhole, gain some common sense and focus on real character design. I guarantee you that if you do that you won’t be concerned about what’s between the legs of the protagonist in the next book you write or read. Before you dump on a person’s main character for not being the right gender,color,sexual orientation or whatever try pulling your head out of your ass and allowing yourself to actually experience the book for what it is. It’s fine if you don’t like it but it’s not fine when you start bullying creators who aren’t meeting your imaginary quotas or catering to your inability to relate to characters that aren’t exactly like you.

That is the end of my rant for today and if you enjoyed it and don’t find me completely horrible I have a ton of other blogs on my site  you can check out. Please feel free to let me know  how you feel about this topic by leaving a comment or using the contact form on my site here to reach out to me. Also if you like my work  and would like to see more of it or support it I’d love it if you’d check out my Patreon page or follow me on Facebook or Twitter via @themeinav!

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