Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.
This doesn’t have anything to do with fighting, but I’m posting this for two reasons. 1) It’s an excellent article by Laurie Penny about societal expectations for women and 2) It’s a reminder about what female character characters need to be (not stereotypes) and what we can’t allow them to become in our own fiction.
A female protagonist must be the hero of her own story, a female action hero (whether or not she’s a side character) must see herself as the hero of her own story, even when she’s an actor in someone else’s. She’ll love herself too much to stay content as a one note playact in your protagonists epic, she’ll probably start wanting more for herself than just love and it’s okay to let her. One thing the accumulation of skills can do is create a safe space inside ourselves, even when we’re beat down, alone, lonely, and confused about who we are, and are caught between who we want to be, who we think we should be, and who the person we’re with wants us to be (who we want them to be can also be an issue).
One of the problems I’ve noticed in stories written by women as well as men is that while the female protagonist is supposed to be the hero of the story, she’s a passive actor in it. It’s becoming more common to find female action protagonists and less common to find action protagonists who happen to be female, though the latter was never common to begin with. Because we are all so familiar with the stereotypes we’re presented in our everyday life, because we (white women specifically) are taught to please from a very early age, it can feel natural and right for our protagonist to take a backseat and let the male characters lead the way. A female action protagonist needs to take the lead in the plot and she must do so in a way that is (for the most part) rational, reasonable, and logical inside the story’s own internal consistencies. We’ll talk more about how to structure a female character so that they can do so without being the rebel, the outcast, being overly aggressive, being successful just because they’re better or somehow stronger than the boys, and some of the other standard cliches that are becoming so common.
It’s important to consider that the heroic ideal and the traits that characterize those heroes are not within the sole domain of men. They are human feelings that are representative of our existence.
When I was little I wanted to be Peter Pan and Robin Hood, I dreamed of flying through the air, fighting Captain Hook or Guy of Gisbourne (Or Maleficent the Dragon) on the decks of the Jolly Roger or in the depths of Nottingham Castle. In all of that, I never wanted to be a boy, for all that my mother kept my then platinum blonde hair cut boy short and I went everywhere in red dinosaur shirts and knee length shorts or pants, I just never saw the difference between what the boys and men on screen could do and what I would do if I was there. I was lucky growing up that I was surrounded by adults and friends that were happy to let me play out those fantasies of being the female knight on the mighty steed who rescued sleeping princes. I’ve never wanted to be a subordinate player, though in my college years wasn’t sure if I’d ever amount to more than that. And of course, I’ve been lucky enough to find a man who wants a partner in life instead of a sidekick, a fantasy, or a pet.
But we’re not all that lucky and life isn’t easy for those of us who choose to buck the trend and go our own way. Fiction is a powerful tool, media can change the world and it can change the way we think, feel about, and see the world around us. I’ll end this with what’s always been my stance for women as well as people: we need to be our own heroes, life’s just too short to wait around for anyone else.