Beyond Badass: Creating a Modern Female Protagonist
The strength of patience, gentleness, and intuitiveness.
She’s a badass. The phrase has become shorthand for describing female protagonists in books and on screen. The term has its purpose. It implies strength, power, and an ability to punch out opposing pressure, whatever form it may take. For me, however, the word “badass” and its masculine overtone has become overused; it’s jumped the shark. It made the leap when a fashion blog I read began describing every shopper-mom contributor as such. My question is this: What else is she? Further, what about her feminine traits? Why aren’t they highlighted? Does their invisibility in modern vernacular make them unappealing or weak?
My assertion is that the term “badass” is not only overused, it does female protagonists a disservice. It fails readers in that it dismisses, or worse discredits, the power of feminine characteristics. While being a badass isn’t bad, I argue that there’s beyond badass strength in patience, gentleness, and intuitiveness. It takes far more mental toughness to respond to an antagonist with wisdom than brutishness. (It takes incredibly strong writing, too!) Who doesn’t relish a female character with impeccable timing, a sharp wit, and a discerning eye?
(I’m not suggesting that protagonists with in-your-face assertiveness and physical strength be eliminated in modern narratives. I’m saying that editors should seek and readers be offered a balance. Just as a powerful badass character is embraced or aspired to, so should a gentle or wise-beyond-her-years character. Such diversity in female protagonists is fair and serves arguments for inclusiveness.)
The strength of patience
Which takes more strength: Shouting an obscenity or holding one’s tongue? In my mind, it takes more strength to be silent rather than lash out. Offering a character who utters a wise reply in the face of adversity rather than respond in brutish ways makes the character more interesting and intelligent. It’s not that a female character can’t be physically strong. It’s that she evaluates her options and chooses to wait until she is in control before responding. Therefore, she has a greater, more advantageous impact on the outcome of events. Now, that’s a female protagonist I want to know more about!
Embedded in the characteristic of patience is wisdom. A character who is wise enough to know how to respond is compelling. I want to read about a woman who knows when a sharp retort is justified and when it isn’t. While she shows force on occasion, she also chooses to withdraw and respond later when it suits her purpose. That’s a wise woman. Again, that’s a female lead I want to read about.
A female lead who is compassionate to those who do and don’t deserve it isn’t just strong, she’s a saint. She’s compelling, she’s unusual. How did she get that way? Who instilled that in her? What tragedy in her backstory—compassion and gentleness often are inspired by calamitous events—created this character? I want to know why and how she can respond to conflicts in such an admirable way when others can’t or won’t. Further, could her gentleness be a reverse Achilles heel that impacts the plot? Or, could compassion be something she gains during the ascension of the story? Intriguing!
Intuitiveness is sexy
By sexy, I don’t mean physically attractive; I mean trending. Reading about a female lead who possesses a street-smart, macro-outlook on the world and human nature is modern; it’s beyond badass. The character is keen. She relishes her female intuition and she doesn’t apologize for it or deny it. For better and worse, she embraces it as part of her being and she uses it to overcome obstacles. I want to know a champion of feminine sensibilities. I want to read about a character who is wise enough to be patient and strong enough to react with compassion in difficult circumstances—and who reads people and their behaviors with the instinct of a Shakespearean scholar.
That’s sexy. She’s a strong character with feminine traits. That’s a woman I appreciate and want to know. She makes me think; she makes me want to read more about her. Is it easy to create and write about such a character? No, but then writing never is easy. (Note: I’m not advocating perfection in a female lead, nor am I saying describe her with a laundry list of feminine traits. As always, show don’t tell.)
If all females are badass, there’s nothing new about them
Using feminine traits in a modern, interesting way is new; it’s beyond badass. It isn’t easy, and it could veer into perfection territory, which is the kiss of death for a character. Conflict, both internal and external, is necessary for a successful story. A character mustn’t be perfect in her femininity; rather, she should embrace it to solve problems. Do gentleness, patience, and intuitiveness cause complications for her? Sure, but that’s part of the fun. As writers, it’s up to us to show readers new ways to embrace characteristics that are outside-the-box strong in their own way.
How can you go beyond badass to celebrate feminine characteristics? My advice is to write a list of what you think they are, then incorporate two or three to give your characters depth and appeal. The exercise may impact your story in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
Happy writing! Tracey Kathryn
Blog Shout Out: Flogging the Quill
Getting feedback, raw feedback, isn’t easy. It’s putting your work “out there” for everyone to evaluate. Unnerving, but into the breach writers must go! The blog, “Flogging the Quill” offers writers a chance to get their first page evaluated for free by an experienced writer-editor and readers at-large. It’s a chance to find out if your first page works. Brutal, but necessary. Wouldn’t you rather know about your first page’s effectiveness before submitting to an agent? Give it a try. Ray Rhamey blogs about writing and he’s a fantastic source for all things related to writing and books.