Elizabeth Bennett. Scarlett O’Hara. Katniss Everdeen. Hermione Granger.
These are some of the most beloved leading ladies in the world of literature. Most of us have at least heard of them. Some of them may be included among your own favorites. Often when I come across writing advice about how to craft outstanding females, there seems to be the underlying assumption she must be some sort of femme fatale, equally comfortable in heels and ballgowns as leather and boots (with heels, of course), whose “equality” lies in her physical skills.
I’m here to challenge that notion.
What makes any protagonist memorable? We don’t remember Sherlock Holmes because of his awesome fighting skills, do we? Frodo Baggins doesn’t conjure any visions of testosterone-laden male prowess. And while Stephen King’s John Coffey may be physically strong, ultimately that’s not what makes him stand out.
Qualities of a Leading Lady
Let’s come back to that initial group of females I mentioned:
- Elizabeth Bennett: Clever, witty, refuses the societal pressure to marry for money or position and overcomes her own personal failings (pride/prejudice) to marry for love.
- Scarlett O’Hara: Schemes her way in and out of marriages and uses her “feminine” skills to charm her way into survival during harsh post-Civil War circumstances.
- Katniss Everdeen: Tough, resilient, and self-sacrificing. Though she’s great with a bow and arrow, what ensures her survival is her ability to outwit her enemies.
- Hermione Granger: Brilliant, brave, and quick under pressure. Also a remarkable team-player who knows how to use her role as the “smart-one” to the strength of her “team”.
All of these leading ladies have qualities that make them transcendent to the body of literature, and it doesn’t have to do with whether or not their stories have romantic plots or sub-plots. It also doesn’t have to do with their physical strength and ability to face down an enemy, guns-blazing with nary a hair out of place. These women weep. They have times when they are frail. They love. They have flaws.
But like all good characters (male or female) their journeys represent a challenge to them, where they are forced to face their emotional wounds, flaws, and difficult circumstances and overcome. Here’s a great article on an out-of-the-box way to revisit the hero’s journey: The Hero’s Journey – A Quick and Dirty Rundown. Still, these women aren’t just good characters. They’re beloved. What makes them so?
Skills and Unusual Traits
It’s not a coincidence that a lot of beloved characters tend to excel at something. They might be the most brilliant, most clever, most determined. (Ironically, this can even be applied to some “ordinary” characters who are the “most ordinary.”) As humans, we tend to gravitate toward characters who show excellence in some way, whether in literature or real life. Heroes who show incredible bravery, societal figures who use their voice to change an injustice, athletes who set records, scientists who create new theories or discover cures—these people tend to be universally admired for those special qualities.
Choosing to give your leading lady a special skill of this nature is certainly one way to make her out-of-the-box. Depending on your novel, it can help make her stand out.
But is it enough?
The Perfect Woman for Your Plot
In any plot, it shouldn’t be a coincidence that your character is the best-suited protagonist for that story. It doesn’t matter if your character is a housewife, an astrophysicist, a bank teller, or a nurse: they need to be the perfect person for that plot. When your character encounters that inciting incident, her reaction should be different from the way another woman would react in that circumstance.
For example, let’s take Katniss Everdeen again. When her sister’s name is called as a “tribute”/forced-participant for the Hunger Games (a barbaric, televised battle-to-the-death between children in a dystopian future), Katniss does the unthinkable: she volunteers to take her sister’s place. What’s important here isn’t just that Katniss knows this move will likely lead to her death (thus showing her bravery)—it’s also that no one else has done it before. Other young girls in her district have been sacrificed as tributes. Their sisters didn’t volunteer to take their place. Katniss is the only one. And that’s why we care about her story. Because she’s the perfect person for it.
The perfect leading lady for your novel isn’t about just flipping the script and making a male lead a female instead. And you can give her all the skills and unusual traits in the world—it won’t matter unless it’s clear that no one else could replace your character for your plot. Your character and your plot have to be perfect for each other. Do that, and you’ll make a leading lady everyone will want to read about—truly out-of-the-box and truly enduring.