Writing Strong, Likable Female Characters is Tough

David Mullin

I have grown up around strong women my entire life. My mother is and always was a firecracker, never afraid to speak her mind to any and all who got in her way. My sister was also strong but in a quieter way. She is one of the sweetest persons I've ever known but she still has strong convictions and stands up when pushed too far. My wife is also an incredibly strong, independent woman and we have raised my two daughters to never shy away from being themselves. So why is it when I write strong female protagonists that I can't make them likable?

Earlier this year, I completed a screenplay with a strong female protagonist who lost her father and mother at birth and was raised by foster parents. It turned out her grandfather had declined to take custody of her and the story was about her journey to find her grandfather and the relationship that they then create. The universal feedback I received was that no one liked the main character. In the spring I wrote a short story about two women running for their lives from genetically modified killer buffalo (soon to be released on this site for free) and the feedback I received from beta readers was that they liked the story but didn't like the main female character. WTF?

The answer is somewhat obvious but also is found in societal perceptions, in my opinion. The obvious part of the answer is that I'm a man, and no matter how many women I've been around my entire life, I'm still a male with a male ego and male perceptions of what's strong and what's weak. Another answer, separate from my two main points, is in the writing itself. In writing these strong female protagonists, I jumped right into them being aggressive, both verbally and physically, without showing the reason for the reader to be rooting for them in the first place. The societal point revolves around the often heard argument that a strong willed woman in the work place is called a bitch while a man exhibiting the exact same behavior is called aggressive. Man or woman, I think that perception is strongly ingrained in all of us. No matter how much we want there to be the same standard, I don't think we're quite there yet internally.

While I wrote my female protagonists to be swashbuckler types, having them act physically and verbally aggressive seems to put people off. When a male character is shown acting aggressively without any other information, most people just say, "Oh, what a typical guy." But if I do the same with an aggressive female character, a lot of people would say, "Man, what a bitch."The problem with being male and writing a female is that we tend to think of strength in terms of fighting back in one way or another. We can overlook strength of fortitude or the greatest female strength, IMHO, of just pushing on through pain and sorrow without complaint. Those are types of strength stronger than any physical altercation and I need to remember that in my writing.

I'm not sure what the percentages are when it comes to which issue has the largest effect on the likability of my characters, be it the poor writing, the fact that I'm a man, or our society's built-in gender perceptions, but something is wrong and I need to work on fixing it. Obviously, there have been great female protagonists written by men (i.e. Ripley in Aliens, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, etc.), they just happen to be way better writer's than I am at the moment. It's been a frustrating but fascinating struggle and it will only serve to make me a better writer. Still, I hope that I can get across the characters that I see in my head. Characters with empathy and compassion toward others but who also don't take shit from anyone and can take care of themselves and those they love.