The Failed Female Protagonist

As both reader and writer I struggle with female protagonists. They tend to bore me to snore-worthy levels and altogether fail to be compelling at all.

There are many memorable ones in literary history: Jane Eyre, and…well, that’s the only one I could come up on my own. Search engine browsing brings me Katniss Everdeen, Anna Karenina, Lisbeth Salander – and Hermione Granger.

Hermione, of course, isn’t the protagonist of the Harry Potter series and although she is indeed a strong character, would you read a complete novel revolving around her? I probably wouldn’t. She works well as the moral voice in and part of the trio, but hardly carries enough weight on her own.

For me at least, female characters seem to function best as sidekicks or background figures, and looking back at great novels, they tend to concern men. Off the top of my head: Gatsby, Frodo, Tyler Durden, Winston Smith, Bret. The list goes on.

In fact, the only novel with a female protagonist I find worth mentioning is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Pullman with Lyra (this one will keep popping up on this blog). Curiously enough, this one favourite of mine has a female heroine as lead, and Will, the boy, as her sidekick.

There is of course also an ocean of chick lit from for example Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, all with comic female leads.

Why are male protagonists more compelling? Are they at all? Is that just me? And if not, how come there is not more literature with female main characters?

I can understand works set back in history, where, sociologically, women did not have as much agency as they do today. Let’s be honest: 19th century female existence largely consisted of book reading and park walking (there are of course books written about that, too). The Angel in the House heroine seems only to become interesting through cynical readings of manipulative schemes or homoerotics (eg Bleak House). But now, 2013, I see no reason as to why women cannot stand in the spotlight of any genre.

In the YA fantasy novel I’m currently writing, my lead is female. With my scattered mind I cannot recall how this decision came about, but somehow it did, and, even stranger it seems to me, the decision still feels right.

Perhaps it is time to revolutionise the literary scene? The Millennium trilogy put Lisbeth Salander in the focal light, and Pullman presented his Lyra some years back. There is an empty space to be filled for sure, and I will continue to work towards contributing to this void with my female heroine, and I look forward to seeing how that pans out.

If you can think of any other compelling female leads, please comment and share. This post may say more about my literary habits than anything else!



8 thoughts on “The Failed Female Protagonist

  1. Pingback: Saturday Link Round-Up « Emilie Hardie

  2. Well, I would definitely agree about Katniss. She was incredibly compelling, and I can’t even imagine what the book would have been like from a male perspective. Other than that … City of Bones was great, although I didn’t really care all that much for Clary … Actually, I did just think of a really good example. Have you ever read the Xanth series by Piers Anthony? He’s written something like 30 books in that series, each from a different character’s perspective. One of the books, Man from Mundania, is from the POV of the Princess Ivy, who was fascinating and totally made the story. If you have a chance, check that book out. Love it.

    • Have not read Anthony, no. Will definitely explore 🙂 Thanks! I haven’t read Hunger Games, but from what I derive from the film, I do agree that it would probably be a lot less original/interesting in a male voice.

  3. Interesting post. Obviously it’s an ensemble piece, but Daenerys Targaryen is a viewpoint character in Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire and to that end is the protagonist of her thread of the story.

    Other ones that spring to mind are Gone with the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara) and a bunch of Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Beloved). Also, Austen surely writes pretty interesting female leads?

    Oh and btw, I enjoyed this line:

    “I can understand works set back in history, where, sociologically, women did not have as much agency as they do today.”


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  5. Pingback: Happy International Women’ Day! Top 5 books celebrating fictional women who rock | ofglassandbooks

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