Sunday, January 2, 2011

Crafting Likeable Female Characters

The WIP stalled for a little over the Christmas period for all the obvious reasons but I'm ready to wade back into the process but I have been thinking about my protagonist.  I quite like her but she needs fleshing out a little more so I've been doing some research on what makes a female character likeable.

Essentially it all boils down to two very simple things: she has to be flawed and she has to grow/change.  Her flaws ought to be something that the reader can identify with.  There's no point in expecting a heroine whose one and only flaw is that she prefers Cristal to Krug to appeal to an wide audience.  She needs to make the same sort of mistakes that most women make: love, men, child rearing, work, family, mother/daughter etc.  And the changes she undergoes and the growth she achieves must make the reader forgive her her flaws or allow the flaws to be seen as the means by which the character became new and/or better.

To illustrate my theory I looked at the best loved literary heroines and the mistakes they made/make:

Elizabeth Bennet: Probably the best known female character in literature but for all her wit and wisdom she doesn't always get it right when it comes to men - she misjudges both Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham but at least she refuses Mr Collins for all the right reasons.  But her relationship with her best friend, Charlotte, suffers when Charlotte accepts Mr Collins.  Elizabeth can't understand how a woman could possibly settle for a man like Mr Collins but that in itself is a flaw because in refusing Mr Collins' proposal she is very likely condemning herself, her mother and sisters to a homeless existance because of the inheritance laws.  In that light, Elizabeth could be viewed as somewhat selfish.  So to sum up Lizzie is quick to judge others, is outspoken, selfish and a bit of a rebel.  But of course all of that is tempered by her fire and her intelligence and her belief in herself which we love and makes Elizabeth Bennet an extremely likeable character.

Scarlett O'Hara:  A controversial gal that people either love or hate.  Why is she hated?  Let's see.  She's spoiled, conniving, manipulative, self-serving, thought poor people were trash, kept slaves (and hit them) and can't decide between two men.  But again the reasons she's loved (brave, intelligent, confident, passionate and able to do what she must to save what she loves) are what mitigate most (note I say most) of her flaws.

Hester Prynne: The female protagonist from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel the Scarlet Letter, Hester's flaw is that she committed adultery.  While it's not exactly unheard of these days, it still manages to shock and disgust because of the pain it can inflict on the innocent parties.  Back in Hester's day though it was enough to condemn a woman for the rest of her life and colour the way everyone thought of, and dealt with, the adultress.  Hester possesses other flaws but minor ones - eg the lack of discipline in her raising of her daughter Pearl impacts upon the child (and later upon her).  But ultimately Hester's strength and her ability to love and forgive change the way her community see her. 

Bridget Jones:  Anyone not familiar with Helen Fielding's adorable heroine must have been living under a rock.  And I suppose as Bridget is a rehash of Elizabeth Bennet, I am technically cheating but as a modern female character that caused such a uprising of support, I thought she was well worth looking at.  Bridget's flaws include drinking too much, eating too much, not exercising enough, extremely poor taste in men (up to a point), obsessed with her love life in addition to misjudging people as per her Lizzie tendencies.  But she's so honest and her ability to laugh at herself is lovely.  Bridget's growth is more obvious than Lizzie's because Bridget herself tells us all about it but that aside, it's through her own endeavours that she achieves her happy ever after and what's not to like about that?

So a likeable female character is not the perfect Mary-Sue or even the near perfect ones.  It's the endearingly less than perfect ones that we can most relate to.  The ones we root for.  The ones we side with.  The ones we'd like to slap but completely understand.  They are the ones we like the most.

So that is what I need to write.  Wish me luck!


Jackie Ashenden said...

Heroines are something I struggle with, mostly because I'm way more interested in the hero. It's important too since the reader is supposed to live through the heroine. Still, I'm getting better. At least, I like to think I'm getting better. :-)

L'Aussie said...

I do wish you luck Elissa. You have set the bar high. I know what you're talking about. If the reader doesn't care, you may as well not bother. Happy New Writing Year!

Elissa Graham said...

Jackie I think we need to do a collaboration - you write the hero's part and I'll write the heroine's - maybe between the two of us we can get it right (although I suspect you'd be carrying me what with you being a bee's private parts away from being a published writer and all that)!!

L'Aussie - all wishes for good luck are most welcome :)