Female protagonists, male writers, Part 1

Female Protagonists, Male Writers, Part 1, tracking ID: UA-121606870-1

By Paul Murray, Wealthy Affiliate member

Much of the information in this post could just as easily apply to authors and wanna-be authors  both male and female. This post refers to how female characters in novels today should be written about, based upon my experience as both an author and a book reviewer, as well as my personal observations of how women wish to be viewed in the 21st century.

But let’s face it. I and other male writers of novels are at a disadvantage when it comes to writing about main characters, protagonists, who are female. As a man, I have not had the same life experiences as a woman, e.g. changes at puberty, monthly periods, bonding with female friends, pregnancy, menopause, etc. But what I can do is apply the lessons that I have learned from reading novels written by other authors both female and male that featured women characters that were engaging, intriguing and all-around exciting to read about. I can also apply the grimmer lessons I have learned from authors who wrote about female characters in their novels who were nothing but window-dressing, there to look pretty and be, if nothing else, sexy.

First off, the “damsel in distress” plot is out of date by about a century. I’ve been reading novels for over a half century and, truth be told, almost all of the plots featuring strong men rescuing weak women were written in the early 20th century or before. Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Me Tarzan, you Jane”) wrote about young women in distress on Mars, on Venus, under the earth in Pellucidar, on unknown continents in the ocean, and multiple other places. It was the era of pulp fiction and it had a lot of fans. Burroughs’ novels were selling very well all the way into the 1970s.

I have read only one recently-written novel (1980s or later) that featured a damsel in distress, and that was a poorly written fantasy novel about a knight who rescues his wife from some reptilian creatures.  I can’t recall the name of the novel, but the knight’s wife was barely mentioned in the story outside of the rescue scene. There were no other major female characters in that novel as I recall. Puh-leeze! The novel would have been far more engaging if the knight and his wife had teamed up to work together to defeat the reptilian creatures , perhaps together as a husband/wife team rescuing some other people, or their children, that the reptilian creatures had captured.

One of the best novels that I have read in the past 50 years was titled “Eleanor Hill” by Lisa Williams Kline. The novel’s main character, Eleanor Hill, starts out as a 12-year-old girl in about 1910. She is inspired by her teacher, Miss Rosalie, who is fired by her school board for being a mite too liberal for their neo-Victorian tastes. (Miss Rosalie has the audacity to support women having the right to vote.) Eleanor decides that she is going to be an “independent woman” like Miss Rosalie as she, Eleanor, grows into her teen years. Eleanor leaves her widowed father in Atlantic Grove, North Carolina, to move into the home of her Aunt Velma and Uncle Owen, whom she believes will allow her to continue her education and get a good job for herself. Eleanor is determined that she will not marry at all or else marry only for love, not because she needs a husband for a meal ticket. Aunt Velma and Uncle Owen are not quite the answer that Eleanor was seeking, as they are determined that Eleanor will marry a spoiled young rich kid who is full of himself. Eleanor leaves for San Francisco to visit her ailing brother, Frank, sick with tuberculosis, and to make a life for herself by herself, with her best friend, Virgie Mae. To make a long story short, Eleanor does show her independent streak by eventually defying her aunt and uncle to marry a young Italian-American Catholic man whom she falls in love with, and this at a time when there was virulent anti-Catholic immigrant hysteria in some American quarters.

Another good novel that I read with a female main character was titled “Auburn” by Valerie Thomas. The main character, Ashley Nimzovitch, is a high school girl with some problems at home. She moves her strength and energy in a positive direction, however, by starting up a rock band with two of her male friends from her high school.  The story is all about Ashley and her friends’ difficulties in starting up a rock and roll band and getting those first few initial gigs to launch them forward.  It is a good read for any young person, girl or boy, who is thinking about starting up a band, and what is entailed in an endeavor like that. A lot of hard work, sweat, tears, and limited success initially. The band name, Auburn, is based upon Ashley’s long auburn-colored hair.

Then there is “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t read the novel but I did see the movie. Alcott may have gone a bit overboard to make her point to a mid-19th century readership, but she illustrates the idea of young single women, and older married women, being able to think and act in their own right and move the action and excitement forward as they do so.  Alcott’s main character, Jo, rejects the marriage proposal of a young male friend and instead goes off to New York to try to sell her novels. Jo eventually does marry, after she falls in love with an immigrant professor.

I could keep going and make this a much longer post than it already is, but I think the point is made. The above examples illustrate young women, and women in general, who move things forward and solve problems, sometimes with the help of a boyfriend or husband, but always in partnership with that boyfriend or husband, never in a subservient window-dressing role. I daresay that I think male readers as well as female readers enjoy reading novels about female characters who are spirited and engaging and exciting and thrilling, but in a positive way.

I will have more to say about how I have applied these lessons in my own writing in Part 2 of this post. Please feel free to leave comments regarding what you think of my ideas.

Paul Murray has written four novels, available on Amazon.com, and is a member of Wealthy Affiliate, a non-scam, legitimate online affiliate marketing program for people looking to make extra money.


  1. Carprincess

    This was a very interesting read. I especially enjoyed the fact that you mentioned the novel “Little Women” since it was one of my favorites to read growing up due to the female representation.

    I’m really excited to read how you applied the lessons you learned from reading the novels you listed into Part 2.

    • admin

      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them very much. I am planning on “Female protagonists, male writers, Part 2” to be available for review in a couple of days.

  2. kmv

    Hello! This was an interesting read…looking forward to the next parts.

    While women don’t want to be the “damsel in distress”…and actually, they probably never wanted to be portrayed that way, is there still room for chivalry?

    I know a lot of women that are strong and independent, that also embrace their soft side and love to be taken care of.

    Any tips of writing in a way that shows a woman accepting chivalry is no less a woman? (If that makes sense.)

    • admin

      Hello kmv, thank you for stopping by. I have tried to portray women with strong, independent characteristics and who still like to be treated with kindness and gentleness by their male counterparts. I don’t particularly like “She-men” who are men in everything but gender. I think my best efforts to portray strong, independent women who still like to be treated as women are probably my books “Against the Wild Green Range” and “The Gifts and The Fruits”. I think there is room for strong female characters in fiction, women characters who actually do something and accomplish something in the novel. I would rather read a novel about a man and a woman accomplishing some great and dangerous task together, rather than some Tarzan-like character rescuing a woman from a dangerous situation.

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