Writing strong female characters that subvert classic female tropes is important in crafting a compelling storyline that forces your protagonist to drive the plot. And character-driven plots are the only type of plot that makes stories worth reading.
Crafting compelling characters that give the plot substance isn’t just about their character profile. You can lay all the foundation you want, but if you don’t write a plot surrounding your characters that drive them to overcome their challenges, then you’re doing it wrong. You’re writing about things, not people; and things don’t scale mountains or fight evil by themselves.
HOW NOT TO WRITE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
The Mary Sue Protagonist
The Mary Sue protagonist is an insert character. It’s someone that has no defining characteristics; someone so generic they could be anyone walking down the street. Many suggest the Mary Sue is an author inserting themselves into their own book. She’s more of an avatar than a character; a vessel through which to tell any story.
The Perfect Protagonist
Perfection in and of itself is unrealistic. You want a protagonist your reader can relate to, and perfection isn’t something most people find relatable. The Perfect Protagonist is an idealized protagonist. They have Mensa smarts and are incredibly athletic. They catch on to new things quickly or without much training or effort. Having them fail for a moment would be out of character, so it just simply doesn’t happen. They trudge through the plot without any real stakes or obstacles.
The Damsel in Distress
This female trope isn’t just annoying, it’s completely insufferable. Damsels in Distress are unable to save themselves. They require someone to intervene during every obstacle and push them through it, instead of solving the issue at hand on their own and driving the plot themselves. The issue with Damsels is that if someone else is pushing them through the plot, the story is no longer about them. So why are they the protagonist?
The Action Girl
The issue with many action stories, both in books and film, is that the story is all the same. The fights are the same; the dialogue is the same; the reactions are the same, and that’s just totally unbelievable. Women aren’t exactly like their male counterparts. People aren’t all the same, but what you most often find is that the female action-y, butt-kicking protagonist is discernibly interchangeable with any male counterpart.
HOW TO WRITE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
How to Subvert the Mary Sue
Since Mary Sue characters are often just a vessel through which to solve the story, you can easily subvert them by creating goals for your protagonist. Create goals and setbacks to drive your plot and give your characters reasons to persist. Characters with goals they need to reach (or else!) and obstacles they need to overcome (or else!) will help craft a compelling protagonist.
But remember, your story isn’t simply the plot. Your characters drive the plot, not the other way around, and backstory is important. Their lives didn’t start on the first page.
How to Subvert the Perfect Protagonist
Perfection isn’t possible and going beyond the stretches of reality in your story makes it… well, unreal and unbelievable. Perfect protagonists are boring because no matter what’s at stake, nothing ever truly is. They’re able to overcome any obstacle because you’ve written it into their character profile.
The writer wants them to be able to overcome any obstacle, so they give them so much that they can’t possibly fail. The problem with that line of thinking is that the writer is who’s writing that failure. If you don’t want your protagonist to fail, give them goals and stakes and obstacles and a brain to overcome them.
Create uniquely flawed characters that readers can relate to. Give them emotional insecurities, mental health problems, family issues or any number of other ways to create flawlessly flawed protagonists.
TLDR; The Perfect Protagonist should be imperfect.
How to Subvert the Damsel in Distress
Many people subvert the Damsel in Distress by replacing the Damsel with a Dude. While this does technically subvert the Damsel part, you shouldn’t have to change out the sex of the character.
Instead, focus on the other side of the trope. The Distress. Have your protagonist overcome their Distress in whatever way suits your story. Are they clumsy? Or scholarly? Or are they good at thinking outside of the box? What kind of powers do they have?
Use your protagonist’s unique characteristics to engineer a simple solution to a fantastic problem. Remember, obstacles are only obstacles until they’re overcome. Then they’re simply history.
How to Subvert the Action Girl
Since the problem I find with Action Girls is that the role is interchangeable with a man’s, it makes sense that you can subvert this trope by utilizing something unique to women. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. Use them in your story.
Aim for real and believable protagonists. Gift your readers with a main character they can both relate and latch on to. The only question left is: How will you subvert classic female tropes?