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How to Write a Powerful and Also Relatable Protagonist
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
March 2020
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
March 2020

Today's guest post comes from the author of Greedy Heart (available April 7, 2020), A.P. Murray.

Everybody wants a powerful female protagonist.

Writers are hearing this more and more.

Historically, it’s been hard to sell a book with a powerful heroine. Not a few writers, including me, have been told to “tone it down.”

The reason: Society still conflates the words “powerful” and “unlikeable” when it comes to women.

Today, with the success of streaming series like Pretty Little Liars and the explosion of strong-slash-unlikeable female characters in films such as The Favourite, a tipping point is at hand. Writers and publishers perceive a reader demand for powerful heroines in novels.

But things don’t change overnight. It’s still exceptionally challenging to write a powerful female lead in a novel and avoid falling into the dreaded category of “she’s too unlikeable to read.” As with real-life powerful women, your fictional-life powerful heroine has to walk a tightrope of sorts.

From page one of my forthcoming novel, Greedy Heart, it’s clear protagonist Delia’s no softie. She’s after one thing—money— above anything else, including love.

I’m proud to say Greedy Heart has been greeted with some early acclaim and was named one of the Top 10 Most Anticipated Books of 2020. So it is possible to write a powerful heroine, even one with not-so-nice traits, that readers fall in love with.

Here are some tips on writing a powerful but relatable woman:

Save the Cat

Save the Cat is a classic film-writing book by Blake Snyder.

The Save the Cat Principle goes as follows:

The hero or heroine has to do something endearing when we first encounter them (e.g. save a cat who’s stuck up a tree) so that we like them and want them to win. This premise is doubly true if the heroine starts off a bit of an ass.

In screenwriting, the idea is that the save-the-cat moment happens immediately. For full-length fiction, you can dole it out more gradually. As with screenplay save-the-cat episodes, animals help.

My heroine, in addition to being a whip-smart Wall Street computer programmer, is an excellent horseback rider. She masters a recalcitrant horse no one else can ride and develops a love for him. She names the holy-terror horse “Whitey,” first for his white markings and second as a nod to the gangster, Whitey Bulger.

I thought I saw a chance for Whitey. With me as a rider—and perhaps an exorcist. Truth be said, I was growing fond of that horse. He was intelligent, he was bold, and he was wicked. He just needed an opportunity to realize his full potential.

Sounded like someone I knew well.

Humor

I have a writer friend who once shrugged her shoulders and said to me, “Yeah. I’ve realized I’m just not that funny.”

Not everyone can do humor. But if you can, it’s an excellent way to make your powerful woman really approachable.

Delia says she has turned her back on Christianity because of the beatitude, “Blessed are the poor”—which makes her sound like a stone-cold killer. However, she is also humorously self-reflective on the matter.  

Turns out, I was just ahead of my time in the matter of religion. Hardly anyone believed in God anymore. His branding had been tarnished by frauds, zealots, and maniacs. The Catholic Church itself was on the skids, like a home team that hadn’t won a pennant in decades.

God had been replaced by things like spinning and kale. Also Reiki, Steve Jobs, airline points, Landmark seminars, iron man triathlons, colon cleansing, TED talks, veganism, helicopter parenting, social media, and discovering Reykjavik.

It struck me this could be problematic for society in the long run. If you cared about such things. My current chosen deity, Money, was a concrete and reliable god. He had an exchange rate.

Mad Skillz

People like smart, especially in a usual area. So, make your heroine smart, and you have great scope for readers to love her.

Delia is a gorgeous computer programmer, which, she finds, is a great combo for getting a date.

What made me even hotter to men was my profession. I was a female programmer, fast and good and smart. I talked about compiling, integrations, data ingestion, AI, and performance under load. I was Xena, Warrior Princess, but better.

Humble the Male Lead

It’s delicious in a story when your heroine gets the better of someone—like the love interest—especially when he’s powerful and she is unrecognized.

In Greedy Heart, Delia’s potential boss, Peter Priest, a handsome and legendarily brilliant hedge fund manager, immediately recognizes her talent.

“I am impressed by your work, Ms. Mulcahy. It is truly remarkable.”

Well, that was a new reaction. The minute my professor heard my proposed topic, he told me to pick another subject. I forged ahead. I thought my idea was original. Most importantly, I was sure it could make money. Evidently, Priest thought so, too.

“How much did you pay my thesis advisor?”

Priest’s smile glinted. “That’s none of your business. You stand to be compensated plenty.”

Steer Clear of Stereotypes

As every writer knows, it’s super easy to land on a character who is a stereotype. The Ambitious Vice President in red high heels. The housewife who is also a spy.

We try to shake things up by creating a conflict with the stereotype. So the Ambitious Vice President falls in love with a ski bum who doesn’t care about money.

You have to kick it up a notch or two beyond that.

It’s inevitable that sometimes writers start with a stereotype. If that’s the case, really layer in more complexity.

(Hint #6 below is great for that.)

Explain How She Got This Way

How long did it take for your protagonist to actually get powerful? What situation was she reacting towards or against?

We are all apt to be more sympathetic towards a person when we know the reason they are who they are.

In Delia’s case, she took years of night school to become a programmer.

As for her past, her aunt, who was her nanny and surrogate mother, committed suicide just at the time when her family lost all its money.

Sure, I could have grown up differently, if my world hadn’t been blown to bits; if there were still money; if Aunt Kathleen and Dad were alive; if, after losing it all, Mom hadn’t had a nervous breakdown. But that whole fleet of ships sailed a long time ago.

Remember Why Writing Your Strong Heroine Is Important

Let’s face it, Holden Caufield is a little shit. And don’t get me started on Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy.

We have had strong and unlikable male protagonists for, approximately, forever.

It’s time for the gals to get in on the act. Because it’s important.

Why?

One word: Redemption

It’s a simple arithmetic equation.

Amount of Redemption = End point – Starting point

Put another way, your character’s redemption is greater the further they need to travel from their beginning state. And the bigger the redemption, the more powerful the novel.

We are cheating ourselves from writing powerful, enduring novels if we continue to be afraid of writing powerful, possibly unlikeable, heroines.

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