A compelling female character isn’t hard to find. She is probably overrepresented across a plethora of genres, particularly in commercial fiction. Her character traits are irresistible to readers who want to find her in different books again and again. So how do you create your own compelling female protagonist? In this article I am going to highlight five key character traits a writer needs to develop in order to create a gripping female protagonist.
I once read a commercial fiction book centred around what I thought was a compelling female character. In the story her best friend and boyfriend had slept together and by the end, she eventually found it in herself to forgive her friend and rekindle her romantic relationship with her man. As a reader I was bewildered. I felt unsatisfied with that conclusion, one which in my eyes didn’t point to the strength or growth of the character. I was new to writing at the time and thought, is that how it really goes? What I had wanted was one of two conclusions: the first being my female protagonist having kicked both of their butts before saying good riddance, having realised her self-worth. The second of my preferable conclusions would have been that she made peace with those who had hurt her but refused to take back the cheater, (perhaps) wishing him well instead.
You see, we tend to enjoy the learning curves of characters. A large part of fiction writing is conveying the growth of the protagonist. Even a perpetual doormat needs to stand up for themselves, lest the readers eventually abandon them. As a writer, I can’t think of anything juicier than concocting how my potentially compelling female character might gear up to collect their self-esteem off the floor and take their power back. Of course, in Literary fiction, this doesn’t always need to be the case as happy endings aren’t guaranteed. However generally speaking, female protagonists must be compelling. I have outlined the five traits of the most captivating types of women in fiction.
Nobody likes a perfect character. After all, what would be the point of a story if it was driven by somebody’s total perfection? Stories where everything goes right for the main character aren’t the ones we tend to read. On the contrary, the most compelling stories see our heroines fighting through the issues they face. Imperfection is a virtue. Considering that none of us are perfect in real life, imperfection is a relatable trait. Whether it’s a physical flaw that might bring on self-consciousness and a need for gradual self-acceptance or a poor habit like persistent lateness, readers tend to become attached to characters they see themselves in. Habits such as clumsiness, paranoia, laziness, overtalking and overthinking are traits which humanise characters and bring them to life.
What is life without humour? Dull, that’s what. A character who can look at the bright side of life, offers dimension to a story. They have the ability to make light of their disappointments, even if momentarily. Additionally, humour is seen as a character strength in our society; a bit like intelligence or athleticism, it’s yet another item to add to the bag of tricks that we carry with us through life. Furthermore an easy-going character who doesn’t take everything so seriously makes it that bit easier to carry a storyline.
Check out this article which links laughter with likeability.
Integrity is a trait that has earned many a character the respect of their audience. A protagonist who has unwavering morals is a memorable one. Standing up for what they believe in: Piping up at the racist joke in the office, refusing to be somebody’s booty call when they want a boyfriend or not taking back a cheating partner are all examples. Of course, they don’t have to start out so strong and ballsy, we are all human with weaknesses. Integrity is often borne out of challenges and adversity and it is always rewarding to see a character learning to have more integrity. This leads me to my next trait…
We all have weaknesses and some of us are more vocal about this than others. I love the fact that so many public figures are open about their insecurities. Especially after years of the media having made them feed us the narrative that they were perfect. This is no different to characters in a storyline. Vulnerability is an emotion that we can all relate to and it often resonates with us when we see others experiencing the same.
Female protagonists who are naturally inquisitive about the environments they encounter make us want to go on a journey with them. Imagine a story where nothing piqued the character’s interest: not a job advertisement, nor that handsome stranger or the opportunity to travel: things would get boring pretty quickly. Inquisitiveness can act as a catalyst for a character’s journey, thus the overall plot, making for a more intriguing read.
Check out some of my reads here.
What character traits do you like to see in fictional female characters?