Female Protagonists, Part 2
By Paul F. Murray, Wealthy Affiliate member, non-scam online moneymaking platform
I have laid out my viewpoint on how male authors should best represent women in their novels. Just a quick summary: (1) No damsels in distress needing rescue, please. That cliché plot was old a hundred years ago. (2) Have your women characters act to accomplish some great goal either by themselves or in equal partnership with a man, typically a love interest. (3) Avoid window-dressing, that is, merely using your female characters to act sexy and titillate. Male readers as well as female readers of novels want to read about women who actually do something in a novel (or a movie, for that matter). That’s my opinion, for whatever it may be worth.
So how do I implement these lessons in my own novels? I’ll take them one-by-one:
Against the Wild Green Range: This was the first novel that I wrote, although not my first novel to be published. My first published novel was Freedom’s Long March (see below). In Against the Wild Green Range, 22-year-old Alexia Rourke, daughter of an Irish immigrant and herself a product of Ireland, inherits a cattle ranch from her murdered father in 1873 Wyoming Territory.
Alexia thinks that her father was killed by renegade Sioux Indians but in reality he was killed by a relative of his who wanted the cattle ranch for himself. Alexia must not only fight against her cousin, who wants to sell the ranch’s cattle for a quick (and temporary) profit, she must also deal with hostile Sioux Indians onto whose hunting reservation her cattle keep wandering. She has the help of handsome Lieutenant Michael Prentiss from Fort Laramie, but throughout the novel Alexia is the prime mover whose schemes to save her ranch sometimes work and sometimes don’t.
There is a very brief attempted rape scene, but it is not graphic and it is only intended to introduce the other villain in the story, a married banker who is stalking Alexia mercilessly. I avoid anything gratuitous in the attempted rape scene that goes above and beyond the limited objective of introducing the second villain in the story. By the way, women do not have to all be beautiful in the same exact way—vary it up a little, as many marquee authors do. Alexia Rourke is a beautiful freckle-faced young lady. One of the heroines in West of the Sunset, Penny Linders, wears glasses. (See below.)
West of the Sunset: There are three key female characters in this Oregon Trail novel set in 1852: Penny Linders, Angelique Hapsburg, and Billie Kay Ellis. Penny is all of 12-years-old, but she has a huge crush on an older boy, 17-year-old French Canadian Alain Laurent (pronounced Law-RONE). Such romances were not uncommon in the Old West, where males outnumbered females by a wide margin. Alain requites Penny’s love and he will do anything, including risking his life on a dangerous mission to the Pawnee Indians, to impress Penny and her brother, Tyler Linders, the story’s main character, just as Penny will do later do anything in her generous nature to save Alain’s life. Along with Penny herself, Alain stands up to a pair of men who hint at wanting Penny sexually, and he pays a price for his heroism. Again, the moral here is: absolutely nothing titillating, the scene has no more than the absolute minimum necessary to make it clear that Penny is in danger. There is no need for anything gratuitous.
Despite her royal background, Angelique Hapsburg is someone that a lot of female readers will be able to identify with: a young lady who desperately tries to get the attention of a man she likes, in this case, Tyler Linders, who instead has eyes only for a femme fatale, Rachelle Palmerston, the gal that every unmarried man in the wagon train wants to get engaged to. Angelique works patiently to get Tyler to notice her just by being who she is—a young Austrian lady, a tourist, really, on the wagon trip to Oregon, who has a fascination with the American West. Angelique has studied Old West culture and Indian culture extensively and she uses her widespread knowledge to often settle conflicts among the pioneers and keep the wagon train from getting into trouble. She, with Tyler, save the life of an elderly pioneer who is just too stubborn to use a ferry (at $4 a wagon) to cross a deep river. Angelique is presented as knowledgeable and capable of swift action, which is quite engaging enough all by itself.
Billie Kay Ellis has a heart of gold who cannot stand to see others suffer. She will do anything she can to help others in need, including Tyler Linders, and including four orphaned children who have lost their parents to cholera on the Oregon trip. She plays matchmaker for Tyler, sincerely wanting to help him, compelled by her deep religious faith. The moral here is that female characters can be strong and independent based upon their own particular beliefs and values, but without acting like “she-men”. They can retain their femininity even as they exemplify independence and uncompromising determination to achieve their goals.
Freedom’s Long March was my first novel to be published. The key characters are Etibert Shorthair and his love interest, Batavia, with the story taking place in first century Germania and the Roman Empire. Batavia’s father, Cuthric, chieftain of the Tencteri tribe, is killed in a battle with Roman legionaries, with the result that the Tencteri tribe, including Etibert and Batavia, are forced into an alliance with the very Roman legionaries who have attacked them, or else face extermination. The Tencteri are forcibly marched a thousand miles with the involuntary objective of assisting the Romans in attacking the Dacians, who are threatening the Roman Empire’s northeastern frontier.
Batavia is not in the story simply to look pretty (although she is). Cuthric had no sons, and as Cuthric’s eldest daughter, Batavia is regarded by the rest of the tribe as a sort of stand-in for Cuthric and his authority. She is convinced that Etibert would make a good chieftain for the Tencteri tribe due to his devotion to the Germanic gods and, more importantly, his blacksmithing skills at making weapons. Together, as a team, Batavia and Etibert work equally to restore the pride of the Tencteri people to the point where they can stand up heroically to the Romans, who regard the Tencteri more as slaves than as allies. Batavia and Etibert are true and equal partners in seeking to accomplish their objectives, a plot line that, in my opinion, enhances their romance.
Cuthric’s youngest daughter, 11-year-old Catia, totally despises Etibert because she thinks that Batavia should marry hunky Helgur, who thinks with his muscles rather than with his brain and who is in collusion with the Romans to betray the tribe. Later in the novel, Etibert is able to befriend the Roman centurion Quadrinus, whom the Legate General Tullus places in charge of exterminating that pernicious new religious sect, the Christians, within the Roman and Tencteri encampment. After the conclusion of the forced march to Philippi, Macedonia, Catia happens one day to hear the Apostle Paul preaching in the town square. Etibert tries to order Catia to have nothing to do with Paul and the Christians. Delighted that she has found a way to antagonize Etibert no end, Catia eagerly embraces Christianity and tries to convert others in the Tencteri tribe, forcing a confrontation with Etibert, Quadrinus, and Tullus.
The purpose of the “Freedom Series” is to open the question as to whether mankind was better off when society was tribal, not civilized yet.
The Gifts and The Fruits continues the story of Catia. The story is divided into two halves, with the first half being the story of Philemon and the slave Onesimus, detailed in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Catia dominates the second half of the novel, with her wilderness smarts showing her ability to outwit her Roman pursuers and make fools of them. Because Onesimus is a city boy, she must educate him to the ways of the wilderness that the two of them must travel through. Catia is a fervent Christian throughout, but when she is sent on a mission with Etibert by Philemon, she quickly reverts to her barbarian roots. After meeting with Paul in prison, Catia and Etibert must outwit the Romans trying to stop them from escaping with some of Paul’s letters. The Romans, numerous as they are, are too often no match for one Catia. I think Catia is plenty engaging enough just with her wits and her survival skills.
My next novel, The One Who Loves You, represents a return to the Old West venue and features Saylor Tucker, a young lady who cannot speak due to a tongue impediment. She lets her actions speak for her, with her horse riding abilities and her knowledge of frontier smarts, learned from the Shoshone Indians, to keep the wagon travelers in Wyoming Territory in post-Civil War times out of trouble. Who is the one who loves Daniel Hackett—is it Saylor or is it gold-hungry Tawnie Eisenbarger?
I think I have made my point here—novels today need strong female characters capable of independent thought and action, and men who write novels need to include strong female characters in their novels. But how to present them? In my opinion, the best way is to characterize women as clear-minded and independent in their actions and not as sexual objects, and yet with retention of feminine traits. If you as a novelist write about a woman acting like a man all of the time, then you might as well make that character be a man. But if you can present your female characters as action-oriented and objective-achieving, perhaps in partnership with a male love interest, and yet with most of their feminine traits intact, then I believe that you will have crafted a novel which will appeal to both 21st century men and 21st century women.
I invite comments from others regarding what they think of my ideas expressed above.
Note: Paul F. Murray is a member of Wealthy Affiliate, a non-scam affiliate marketing platform that may work to help many aspiring writers pay the bills while waiting for that first big breakthrough novel to get published.