This post is about writing so is for writers, mostly, but many readers of mysteries and thrillers will possibly be interested in the way characters are formed. The way they interact with the plot and mirror society and the authors who create them.
I read Chuck Wendig’s blog this morning, called Terrible Minds. He writes boldly (in case you’re squeamish) about writing tropes, comics, thrillers, movies, and lately quite a bit about strong female protagonists. In this age of mass media, movies that are mostly shoot-em-ups or just silly, and idiotic reality television, finding the right balance in books with your female characters isn’t easy. How “real” should your characters be? Are they pros, policewomen like Cody Byrne in PLAN X? Are they lawyers like Merle Bennett? Does their job make them do things that mere mortals do not, like examine dead bodies or climb into a space capsule? Or are they an “everyman” or a housewife or a waitress? All these choices that you make as a writer inform the type of story you write.
So what do you like to read? (The best test of what you should write, you know.) Do you like books that challenge the status quo, that take the reader somewhere new with someone you might like to be in another life, or do you prefer the reading equivalent of ‘easy listening’ where the plot and characters are so comfortably familiar you can guess how it will end? If you like to read (and/or write) about smart, savvy women who, while caught in circumstances they may not have planned on, manage to figure out a plan of action and willfully execute it, well, you’re my people, people! I love to read about women’s lives, I admit. Women I think are somehow more complicated than men. (Ask your spouse.) I need some reality attached but also something that takes me to a new “world” where I can see possibly making those choices if only I were braver.
There are many types of readers and a million kinds of books. Reading choices are so personal. Even if you’re my best friend I may not like the book you recommend to me as ‘awesome.’ My advice is always Read What You Love.
There is this thing in the writing world called ‘narrative thrust.‘ It’s the urgency of the plot to move forward, as expressed by character action, suspense, tension, and the unexpected. If the unexpected comes from your main character, that is ideal. I don’t want people to predict what my characters will do. But there must be a balance there as well: the actions of the character must come from motivations that you the writer have built into them.
Chuck talks about “agency” as a character trait. This isn’t a term I was familiar with but he describes it this way:
Character agency is… a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
This is an excellent — a kick ass — way to test your character’s strengths as you’re building a character from scratch. In PLAN X Cody Byrne, a policewoman, is tasked with finding a bomb victim’s next of kin. But her own motivations for finding them are much more important to her, and thus to the story, than the task. She feels a kinship with this man without family. In this way the “lost family” becomes the theme for the book, both in the external plot and the internal plot. The external plot is the actual events of the story: stuff that happens. The internal plot is the journey and motivations of the main character, where she goes from the beginning of the story, what happens to her psyche, her mood, her reason for being, by the end of the book. Many writing pros think this internal plot is much more important to the success of the story than the external one. This is where the story magic is birthed, where readers connect with characters. If you want external plot, read a comic book. If you want an emotionally moving experience that helps you look at your own life with fresh eyes, read a great novel.
Read more about external and internal plots in Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.
As to strong female (or male) protagonists, this internal plot again is most important. Does she shoot bad guys? Does she know martial arts? Does she punch first and ask questions later? Not that important. A character can be strong and quiet, strong and loud, strong and aggressive, or strong and determined. She doesn’t need to hurt people or be physically violent. Like Merle Bennett in Blackbird Fly she takes action to save what’s hers and those she loves. She may not have asked for these problems but she doesn’t shy away from solving them. She doesn’t cower in fear. She has courage in the face of fear. She may be afraid of mice but she isn’t afraid of bad men.
So I agree with Chuck. Here’s how he ends his post:
Forget about kicking ass.
That’s not the metric you need to worry about.
The only ass that your female character need to kick is the ass of the story — that’s the power you want to give them. The power of agency. They can be sexy and sexual without being sexualized or objectified. They can kick ass or not kick ass or have Power or Not Have Powers as long as you elevate them above mere action figures (“Look how poseable she is when she does her sexy high-kicks!”) They can be vulnerable or flawed or unlikeable as long as you treat them like real people, not like video game characters or a list of abilities or dolls or lamps or The Reason That Dude Does The Thing He’s Meant To Do. They’re not proxies, they’re not mannequins, they’re not mirrors, they’re not Walking Talking FleshLights, they’re not princesses in towers waiting to be saved, they’re not emotionless ass-kicking chicks who still don’t kick as much ass as the hero. I’d even argue that calling them “female characters” has its problems because it sounds clinical, distant, a characteristic, a check box, a footnote.
Think of them as women or as girls.
Think of them as people.
Then give them agency within your story, within its world, and equal to the other characters.
Read the entire post over on Terrible Minds with lots of great comments on favorite strong female protags.