Is it possible to make a strong female protagonist but still make her mega insecure?

Yes.

You also never need to ask permission. You want to do something? Just go.

I’m tempted to just leave it there, but we should probably talk about character traits, flaws, and development. The issue with the term “Strong Female Character” is that it’s misleading and often misinterpreted. Very often, in certain circles, it’s presented that strong = flawless. Combined with the whole pressure cabin of worries surrounding the “Mary Sue”, it can lead to some interesting places. Usually into either too much or not enough territory.

When someone says “Strong Female Character” what they usually mean is “Well-written Female Character” which is, I admit, almost as intimidating. However, it’s not just that the well-written female character has flaws, it’s a matter of how those flaws interact with their narrative.

You want to write a female protagonist with insecurities? That’s great! There’s plenty in this world for a woman to be insecure about. However, the development doesn’t stop there.

The next questions are the most important ones when working with any flaw and all flaws. Ask yourself:

What is my character insecure about? How does that affect how they view and interact with the world around them?

One of the biggest issues with the ways that flaws get handled in some fiction, especially with younger writers, is that they assume the key way to escape the dreaded Mary Sue moniker is to  give a character flaws. The problem often being that those flaws often don’t affect anything. The difference between a well-written character and one that isn’t (but may still be compelling to some like wish fulfillment characters) is that their flaws directly affect how they engage with other characters and the surrounding story. They influence their judgement, cause them to make choices which may be dubious, build tension, and are often a direct source of character conflict.

The flaws serve a purpose rather than just existing in an effort to deflect criticism or to make the character seem more human. It’s important to remember though that the more deep seated the insecurity then the more difficult it will be to overcome. The same is true of any other kind of flaw and, really, any other kind of story. The bigger it is then the bigger the impact will be. The more powerful the characters then the bigger the narrative must be to accommodate them. (Or we go in the reverse and have human drama be the focus as it often is with characters like Superman.)

So, the deeper seated the flaw then the less easy a fix will be. They are the only one who can really decide whether or not their insecurities matter and no matter how many times someone else tells them that they’re amazing, confident, powerful, or strong, it might not take until they start to believe it themselves.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Sara has been training at the military academy since her parents sent her when she was six, she’s now 17 and approaching graduation. Though she ranks in the top or near the top of her class, and is constantly complimented on her fighting prowess, she worries about how well her skills will translate into the field. Being near the top, she’s been trained to take charge of other cadets but the thought of possibly having to decide about her friends makes her feel a little sick. She works hard and doesn’t have time a for relationship with boys or girls, but every so often she stops and stares in the mirror as she’s getting ready. The face staring back at her looks nothing like the girls she’s seen crossing the street from the Prepatory, the ones all the boys and some of the girls sigh over, or the ones on the movie posters. The clothes at the mall never fit quite right.

Whenever she looks at herself a nagging feeling slips underneath the surface, is this a face anyone could love?

Jenna’s been scraping the bottom of the barrel since her parents pulled strings with the General to get her in. She never wanted a military life and she’s tried her best to washout. Blew off her training sessions. Skipped class. Flunked gym. Maybe she can put together her rifle in a few minutes, but it’s not the rigid coordinated thirty seconds of her classmates. Still, graduation’s approaching and the bottom is still a direct line straight into the army. She doesn’t want to be a jarhead, shaved is just not a good look for her. Maybe her family’s from a long line of career military, but she never wanted this. Sure, knocking a few good looking guys and girls around the training floor is fun but put a gun in her hands and ask her to shoot? That’s another question entirely.

The question here is how these insecurities present themselves and often our fears lead to deeper seated fears at the bottom of that deep, dark internal well. Then, there’s the question of how they deal with those insecurities in their day to day existence. Do they avoid them? Do they ignore them? Do they repress them? Do they try to find some other way out of these entanglements? A character labeled as lazy might be actually be trying to find a way out that doesn’t involve admitting they’ve quit.

However, the passage of thought often leads to more questions which allow you to explore the character and those surrounding them more fully.

If Jenna is so determined to drop out then why doesn’t the Academy let her quit or toss her out?

Are Sara’s insecurities a result of the fact she’s dedicated herself to an ideal and cause but never really stopped to evaluate herself and what she wants? Or is she just insecure about her looks? Either way, it’s lonely at the top.

Whatever you do, try to think about how it affects their personality, their interactions, and the way they behave in the world around them. Character flaws inform a lot about a person and their journey in overcoming those fears and adversity is what defines a character as “strong”.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a character being weak, either.

It’s mostly just a question of the kind of story that you want to tell.

-Michi

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