There have been several articles lately about how complicated writing female protagonists can be. We want them strong but not too strong. Amazingly competent but not unrealistic. Gritty but not abrasive.
By my count, I have now written thirteen female protagonists (maybe more depending on your definition of protagonist) in my novels and novellas. Here’s some of the reader and reviewer feedback I’ve gotten about my female protagonists:
“clever” “boring, plain, over-emotional, and kinda stupid” “kickass!” “pathetic” “spineless ninny” “awesome” “relatable” “no personality” “one-dimensional” “all-time favorite heroine” “weak” “brilliant”
And ladies and gentlemen, this is all feedback for the same character! I’ll leave you to guess for which because honestly, this could be for any and all of them. Reader perception ranges SO wildly (and always has) that I tend to stick with the philosophy that has guided me from the beginning of my writing career. It’s simple, actually. It’s one single question:
“Do I know anyone that acts or has acted this way?”
If the answer is yes, then it’ll probably show up in a character somewhere. Which means my protagonists (both male and female) are kickass! And weak. Often in the same book. They’re so clever! And also dumb. Because that happens in real life. See, the same situation where one person can feel competent will make another, equally intelligent person do something stupid.
Because we all have our strengths and our blind spots. We all have our moments of weakness and moments to shine. That’s life. And even though I write fantasy, I need to ground my characters in reality. There are no real-life superheroes. Or maybe we can all be superheroes if we really need to be. (<-I pick that option personally.)
And yet, all that said, I find myself nervous about my next release, Waking Hearts, because I have created a character more open to criticism than perhaps any other. Ladies and gentlemen, I have written…
A real, honest to goodness optimist.
I can already feel the metaphorical lips curling. Because how banal. How trite. A perky mom of four who always tries to look on the bright side? Her children are even (mostly) well behaved?!
Clearly a fantasy character, the cynics sneer. The pending echoes of “Mary Sue!” chase me off the interwebs.
Okay, I’m probably exaggerating. After all, I’m writing a paranormal romance, right? Everyone expects the happy ending in romance, whether it has shapeshifters or vampires or mermaids. Everyone has read this story before! HEAs aren’t real after all, are they? Romance heroes don’t really exist.
Feel that pat on the head, romance writers? That’s the patronizing pat of dismissal from the “real” writers. The ones who write those “strong female characters” who fear nothing. The cynics and the realists. The scarred NOT-Mary Sue who know that happy endings don’t exist.
I was listening to a sermon at my church yesterday that really spoke to me. (Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into one of THOSE posts. Everyone can relate to this. I think.) And the pastor was talking about suffering. And walking with God through the hardest times in life. And he shared something that was happening with his family that was gut-wrenching. I cried. And then he talked about how helpless he felt. And how hurt.
It was an incredibly brave moment. It was complete emotional honesty in front of a whole bunch of people, many of whom may have been hearing him teach for the first time. And then he said something that really struck me. (Forgive my paraphrase.)
The best evidence of spiritual maturity is a wide-open heart in the midst of suffering and adversity.
You don’t hear people say that! It’s not a “sophisticated” thing to say. Because real life is hard and breeds cynicism.
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
We hold our hard hearts up like a badge of honor. And they’re understandable badges of honor! Life hurts us all. If you’re not going through a hard time right now, then you’ve either just come out of one or are about to go through one. Because sometimes, life sucks. It’s inevitable.
And it’s natural to put up shields. I have lots of my own! It’s natural to narrow your heart until only those who have really and truly earned your trust are allowed in. We’ve been taught that this is this the smart thing to do. Wise, worldly people are not optimists.
But nothing about that makes the world a better place! When we’re closed off, we aren’t open to the good things that may come. We’re not open to those we meet who may touch us in positive ways. And we’re not going to see those around us who are also searching for connection.
To me, there’s nothing more daring than an optimist. There’s nothing braver than the person walking with an open heart through a life that has hurt them. Still looking for the good in people, even when others have wounded them in the past. There’s nothing more audacious than hope after disappointment.
Because that hope, that optimism, tells the world: “You can knock me down and kick me. You can take it all away again. But I’ll keep getting up. I’ll keep going. And I’ll do it with a smile on my face and hope in my heart. Because I’m an open-hearted badass.”
And that, readers, makes romance the bravest genre. The most optimistic, despite all the heartache in the world. We lay our hearts on the page, looking for happiness and connection in a world that mostly tells us that we’re searching in vain.
Write characters that reflect that audacity.
The literary world is not going to ever want for cynics. Don’t be afraid to write some optimists. Write them despite the criticism you may face from the “sophisticated” reviewer:
This is me choosing optimism. Because I do believe there is no greater evidence of emotional or spiritual maturity than a wide-open heart in the midst of adversity. Adversity is all around us. Adversity is life. We choose how to walk through it, and we choose the characters who reflect that journey in fiction.