One thing the paranormal romance, urban fantasy, romantic suspense and dark fantasy trends of the last decade have given genre readers is a different brand of female protagonist. She’s not the archetypal helpless virginal victim we so often met in the novels of the seventies and early eighties; this female is quite different.
Imagine a woman who doesn’t depend on her hero to define or redefine her, isn’t waiting for that someday when her Prince Charming will show up, and is not interested in fairy godmothers or glass slippers. She's not a shapeless lump of clay waiting to be molded by the hokey pokey of true love. This female could never be called helpless or spineless, and while she may welcome a little backup, she can fight her own battles just fine, thank you very much.
Readers often call this kind of tough chick female protagonist the kickass heroine. I’m not especially fond of that term because I find it somewhat demeaning to strong women, who in fiction as well as reality do not have to kick anyone’s ass to get the job done (so forgive me if I pass on the popular terminology and refer to her as TC for the rest of the post.)
Because TC-suitable stories are in genres that are most popular with women readers, the writer who chooses to cast this sort of character as a protagonist has to do more than arm her with independence, wit, and nerves of steel. The toughest job the TC has to accomplish – other than bringing down the bad guys in her story – is gaining the sympathy of her female readers.
From what I've observed of my gender, women seem to be stirred to sympathy most often when our nurturing or rescuing instincts are engaged, which is usually by something small, defenseless, injured, helpless, or otherwise in need of our care. Herein lies the quandary of making the TC sympathetic: Whether she’s cast as a cop or a PI, a shape shifter or vampire hunter, or just the girl who ends up in the wrong place at the right time, the TC is generally not in need of nurturing or rescuing . . . or so it seems.
When you strip a female protagonist of the classic vulnerabilities, you have to find other aspects of her character that have the best chance of engaging the reader's sympathy. How do you do that when you've created a self-reliant, resilient female who appears so invulnerable?
Let's say something in the past turned your female protagonist into a tough chick, and it still haunts her or has an ongoing effect on her life. If you take this approach, the reader will likely view her as a survivor versus indifferent or callous.
Here's a character sketch from my novel If Angels Burn: abandoned as an infant, Dr. Alexandra Keller spent her early years on the street with only her young brother to protect her. Her adoptive parents later die when she's a young teen, at which time her beloved brother dumps her in a boarding school and goes off to do missionary work in another country.
Alex has had no choice but to be self-reliant and resilient; life has shown her little pity. When we first meet her we discover that she lives alone, has no real ties, few friends, is estranged from her brother, John, and is practicing a profession that not only makes the most of her unusual talents, but demands exacting self-control and precision. She's independent to the point of being unreasonable about it, refuses to ask for help, and finds it very difficult to trust, much less love, anyone.
Why do we sympathize with Alex? Beneath the smart mouth and demanding personality, the fastest reconstructive surgeon in the world is alone, lonely, and scared. In one way or another, everyone she loves has left her to fend for herself. And despite her bitterness toward John and the curve ball fate throws her after she's forced to perform surgery on a disfigured immortal, Alex is still committed to help others, from helpless victims to her own kidnapper. She may have been abandoned, but she never abandons others. To walk away from someone in trouble is unthinkable to Alex.
According to disgruntled readers, Alex is the most unlikeable and annoying TC character I've ever written. Oddly enough those same qualities are what endears her to many other readers who are devoted Alex fans. Alex, it seems, is a TC you either hate or love -- but then, most of the strongest females among us usually are.
Under the Circumstances
Present day events can also make a tough chick out of the female protagonist, even when she’s the sweetest and nicest female in existence. Case in point: In Dark Fever by Karen Marie Moning (which I think Amie recommended I read back when I took suggestions for my current TBR), MacKayla (Mac) is the fluffiest pretty pink girl I've ever seen turned into a tough chick in the space of a couple chapters.
Mac, who travels to Ireland to investigate her sister's murder, discovers that she is not who she thinks she is. She has a rare ability that allows her to see things other humans can't, and even do something about them. Why has this never come up before? Mac lived in a little podunk Georgia town and never went anywhere, and thus never ran into the Inhuman Unseen before. In Ireland, however, she's inundated with them. She also has to join forces with one of the bigger and badder guys in order to protect herself and find out who killed her sister and why.
We sympathize with Mac because she is so fluffy and sweet, and is gradually transformed by circumstances beyond her control into a very different character. Mac is every woman who has undergone some ordeal and emerged from it fundamentally changed as a person. The thing I find admirable about Mac is how she still fights to hold onto some of that fluffy pink sweetness despite the horrors she's exposed to. It's the same reason we deeply admire women who don't abandon hope even after fate tears their life to shreds. We pray if we're ever in their shoes we can be half as strong.
I can't speak for other readers, but I know I sympathize with Mac because she isn't just a ball of fluff turned TC, she's an embodiment of hope -- what is left in Pandora's box after all the terrible things are unleashed.
Sometimes things happen to us without our permission, and to deal with them we have to undergo a transform that usually begins as a defense mechanism or a facade for some other important reason, and over time becomes an integral part of who we are. In other words, the role we play becomes real.
Jayr from my novel Evermore is a female protagonist whose body never fully matured, and after she is transformed into an immortal, she finds herself trapped in that boyish form. She deals with this by living the life that body fits -- that of a seneschal, traditionally a male role in her society. This also allows her to remain close to the lord she loves and yet believes she can never have any other type of relationship with.
When I proposed writing Evermore, the one comment everyone I discussed it with made is that no one wants to read novels with a female vampire protagonist, because it's the male vampire who is most appealing to women readers. I didn't totally agree with this, but I knew it would be tough to make a female vampire sympathetic. Still, I was pretty sure that my girl-knight had what it took.
Almost every female endures a lot of angst during puberty, especially in that time period just as all our lovely hormones wake up and attack us. We go from being children to young women, and it's a torturous process. In those few short years, we struggle daily with our self-esteem and self-image, and those scary and foreign desires that we don't yet understand.
I believe Jayr is sympathetic because nearly all women understand her struggle intimately, but we also know she can't grow out of it. Being stuck between child and woman, potentially forever, is an impossible situation for any female.
Building Your TC
There are an infinite number of other ways to make a TC a sympathetic protagonist; they’re not just limited to these three examples. I suggest the writer look at the strong female role models in their real life who most inspire them, and see what brought them to their place in the world. What drove them to strive beyond whatever cards they were dealt?
Poverty, deprivation and personal loss are all powerful motivators. So are the gifts some are born with or are called to, such as faith, teaching and healing. Don’t forget those circumstances, either; very often strong women don’t consciously choose to become TCs, but are shaped by their time period and significant life events. I know it's a lot to think about, but as writers we work very hard to make our TCs legitimate tough chicks. The same effort should go into also making her sympathetic to the reader.
One more thought: when I write the TC, I endow her with a suitable personality and whatever abilities she’s entitled to. At the same time, I deliberately flaw her, and I give her fairly serious flaws. On occasion I also allow her to fumble things, make bad decisions and otherwise mess up, just as real women do. The last thing I want in my story is a towering paragon of unshakable ability and endless confidence who never does anything wrong, because I know I’m not going to sympathize with her; I’m not going to believe she's real at all. And that's the kind of TC no one wants to read.