Making a Strong but Damaged Female Protagonist

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SamanthaDrake

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I'm trying to make my FMC a gun-toting badass with intimacy issues but even though I have her shooting off her mouth as much as her gun she still comes off as weak. Can a woman be seen as strong in a story and still cry, have panic attacks, and run away. What would make her look weak? How could you make her look strong?
 

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I'd say the 'running away' doesn't look good - unless like, giant fire, or something else that she obviously can't do anything about.
(There's the whole 'run away, but live to fight another day' thing.)
If she panics but fights her way though to do what need do be done, or cries, but keeps going, that shows strength.
If she's constantly panicking and crying, that's just sort of annoying.
 

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I'm trying to make my FMC a gun-toting badass with intimacy issues but even though I have her shooting off her mouth as much as her gun she still comes off as weak.

I wonder how often your FMC shoots off her mouth, and under what circumstances she does so.

Personally, I don't feel "shoot off her mouth" necessarily means strength. It could give me an impression of an overly-emotional loose cannon instead.

Can a woman be seen as strong in a story and still cry, have panic attacks, and run away. What would make her look weak? How could you make her look strong?

This all depends on your definition of strength.

Does strength mean you never run away? Does this mean that even if you're caught in a war zone and your only hope of survival is to flee from an oncoming army, like what happens to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, you're weak if you do so? Scarlett has many faults, but weakness is not one of them.

Oh, and on the subject of Gone with the Wind, Melanie is never the sort of woman who yells and blusters and refuses to take any shit from anyone. She's quiet, shy, polite, and self-effacing. But she is incredibly strong. Her first line of spoken dialogue in the book is courteous disagreement with her fiance, showing that she knows her own mind and does not let other people, even the man she will marry, sway her. And she will do anything to protect the people she loves.

Also, why would strength mean you don't cry? This equates tears with weakness. I think it's healthier to cry, under certain circumstances, than to bottle everything up and pretend that you're unaffected by it. As frimble said, a character who cries and runs away all the time would be annoying, but tears alone don't mean weakness to me.

By the way, this is one of my favorite quotes from A Game of Thrones on the subject of strength :

Bran thought about it. "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave," his father told him.
 
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I'm trying to make my FMC a gun-toting badass with intimacy issues but even though I have her shooting off her mouth as much as her gun she still comes off as weak. Can a woman be seen as strong in a story and still cry, have panic attacks, and run away. What would make her look weak? How could you make her look strong?

I don't know. Beatrix Kiddo kills people a lot and also cries a lot...

I don't know what would make her look weak. Maybe shooting people would make her look weak to me. Depends why she does it. Some people try to plug the toilet holes in their humanness by comforting themselves that they can demean, dehumanize, or destroy the person next to them if they so choose. That's weak, to me.

Basic ideas of weakness (crying, being nervous) and strength (arrogance, killing people) always seem deeply unsatisfying to me. Crying, having anxiety, running away, etc are not markers of weakness to me; nor does shooting people make you strong. It can easily be the other way around...it's more about what's underneath it than the external marker, you know?

Strength, I think, is about forcing yourself past your own hangups/interests/fears/desires in order to do something you think is more important? I don't know, that's just a shot in the dark. Modify as needed :p But I just mean...it's more internal.

I said that already. Gonna shut up now :)
 

Cyia

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How do you define weakness, and what specifically do you perceive as weakness in the character?

Tears don't make a person weak - they can be the acknowledgement that an impasse has been reached and hope has evaporated. Carrying a gun and running their mouth doesn't make them strong or brave. Often it makes them stupid.

Bran thought about it. "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave," his father told him.

Game of Thrones has a lot of good examples of this. Look at Sansa and Tyrion in the crypts. They bemoan being useless and hiding, yet, when it seems like they might die, Sansa decides to go down fighting, knife in hand if that's what it takes, and Tyrion's right there with her. Not a word required, just her pulling out a ridiculously small weapon, and him kissing her hand. And look how many times he shed tears throughout the seasons?

Look at the Sand Snakes' mother. Tears abound for the fate of her daughters, but so did defiance and strength. Same with Circe.
 
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SamanthaDrake

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I wonder how often your FMC shoots off her mouth, and under what circumstances she does so.

Personally, I don't feel "shoot off her mouth" necessarily means strength. It could give me an impression of an overly-emotional loose cannon instead.



This all depends on your definition of strength.

Does strength mean you never run away? Does this mean that even if you're caught in a war zone and your only hope of survival is to flee from an oncoming army, like what happens to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, you're weak if you do so? Scarlett has many faults, but weakness is not one of them.

Oh, and on the subject of Gone with the Wind, Melanie is never the sort of woman who yells and blusters and refuses to take any shit from anyone. She's quiet, shy, polite, and self-effacing. But she is incredibly strong. Her first line of spoken dialogue in the book is courteous disagreement with her fiance, showing that she knows her own mind and does not let other people, even the man she will marry, sway her. And she will do anything to protect the people she loves.

Also, why would strength mean you don't cry? This equates tears with weakness. I think it's healthier to cry, under certain circumstances, than to bottle everything up and pretend that you're unaffected by it. As frimble said, a character who cries and runs away all the time would be annoying, but tears alone don't mean weakness to me.

By the way, this is one of my favorite quotes from A Game of Thrones on the subject of strength :

Bran thought about it. "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave," his father told him.

Her strength comes from being a skilled fighter, but she is a loose cannon sometimes. The first incident occurs after she kills someone as she is struggling with guilt it also brings up memories from her past. She winds up tangled up with the MMC on a sparring mat after a sexually tense fight, she is enjoying it while she is on top but when he rolls her over and she realizes she is trapped, she panics and screams at him to get off of her. His reaction is 'what did I do?' to which she says 'you didn't do anything. I'm sorry." runs away and hides in the locker room. She is fragile in a lot of ways, but she is loyal, defend people she cares about. She eventually winds up putting herself in front of a bullet to save the MMC. There are two incidents where she puts herself behind a locked door and both of them were close sexual encounters. She is very young and very inexperienced. She is 23 but sexually inexperienced. She fears losing control the most and the MMC makes her lose control.
 
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SamanthaDrake

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I'd say the 'running away' doesn't look good - unless like, giant fire, or something else that she obviously can't do anything about.
(There's the whole 'run away, but live to fight another day' thing.)
If she panics but fights her way though to do what need do be done, or cries, but keeps going, that shows strength.
If she's constantly panicking and crying, that's just sort of annoying.


When I say running and crying without context it sounds bad. There are two incidents of running and putting a door between her and the MMC where after a close sexual encounter because she is 23 and sexually inexperienced and fears losing control the most. She is clostraphobic. The panic attack happens at a crime scene when she is examining a victim that physically resembles her and has injuries ahe remembers having. Crying twice because she almost opens to the MMC to have him do something idiotic because he is dealing with emotions he isn't using to having. Running from a physical fight she will never do. Run from a sexually charged situation; maybe.
 

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When I say running and crying without context it sounds bad. There are two incidents of running and putting a door between her and the MMC where after a close sexual encounter because she is 23 and sexually inexperienced and fears losing control the most. She is clostraphobic. The panic attack happens at a crime scene when she is examining a victim that physically resembles her and has injuries ahe remembers having. Crying twice because she almost opens to the MMC to have him do something idiotic because he is dealing with emotions he isn't using to having. Running from a physical fight she will never do. Run from a sexually charged situation; maybe.

None of this is "weak," and I kind of reject the weak/strong dichotomy anyway.

I'd think you'd want her to be not cowardly in physically threatening situations, but PTSD at work and intimacy issues don't keep a character from being heroic.
 

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When I say running and crying without context it sounds bad. There are two incidents of running and putting a door between her and the MMC where after a close sexual encounter because she is 23 and sexually inexperienced and fears losing control the most. She is clostraphobic. The panic attack happens at a crime scene when she is examining a victim that physically resembles her and has injuries ahe remembers having. Crying twice because she almost opens to the MMC to have him do something idiotic because he is dealing with emotions he isn't using to having. Running from a physical fight she will never do. Run from a sexually charged situation; maybe.


She is not weak, she sounds like she has PTSD and that is not a weakness but a consequence to trauma. Physical strength is only a small aspect of overall strength. Also crying doesn't automatically indicates weakness. Having issues and working through them even though it's hard and you will likely experience set-back that is strength.
 

Cyia

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Panic =/= weakness, and neither does trauma.

And, again, the ability to fight doesn't make someone strong. Sometimes the strength is in knowing how to fight, but choosing not to. (a common weakness in "loose canon" characters; they don't know when to walk away, and are easily manipulated into fights). Same with the jumping in front of a bullet thing. This doesn't necessarily denote strength. It can denote training or even brain-washing / a lack of self-worth, depending on how it's written. Plenty of female characters get fridged because they think the male character is more important - that's not strength; it's weakness. (Jumping in front of a bullet because they choose to save someone, is different)
 

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I'm trying to make my FMC a gun-toting badass with intimacy issues but even though I have her shooting off her mouth as much as her gun she still comes off as weak. Can a woman be seen as strong in a story and still cry, have panic attacks, and run away. What would make her look weak? How could you make her look strong?

I've not read the other replies.

I think shooting her mouth off would make her look weak. Strength would be restraint she shows (through thought) when anyone else in the room would be shooting their mouth off.

A common trick that works in any gendered direction is to have a different character (usually male and in power) offer commentary about the character you are characterizing. This trick has often been used by (some) male writers wanting to show a woman as strong. (I'm rereading Mistborn at the moment, and around page 200, Kelsier and Sazed discuss for pages on end all of Vin's myriad strengths and foibles. Sanderson did the same thing in Elantris.) For the record, I love Sanderson.

So anyway, that trick is part of various writers' toolkits. It raises my hackles a bit, that having male characters define a female character as strong works, because... the subtextual mysogyny in it just makes me want to scream (which I refrain from doing.) On the other hand it clearly 'works,' is commonly used, and I use a version of the trick when people aren't getting from my characters the nuance I need them to get.

I'll more often have women commenting on the woman's strength (or whatever character trait might be missed by reader bias), although in the piece I polished off yesterday I have the top political leader (a male) do so, in the woman's presence. We were in her POV and so were privy to her thoughts, which were basically annoyance that his comments should matter.

Anyway, it worked with my readers, and as far as I can tell this kind of trick works every time.

As far as panic attacks and crying, of course these are fine. In no way do they show weakness (in and of themselves.). One of my novel's redeemed assassins is always moist-eyed, because of the weight of his past, and it isn't weakness. It's remorse.
 
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SamanthaDrake

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Panic =/= weakness, and neither does trauma.

And, again, the ability to fight doesn't make someone strong. Sometimes the strength is in knowing how to fight, but choosing not to. (a common weakness in "loose canon" characters; they don't know when to walk away, and are easily manipulated into fights). Same with the jumping in front of a bullet thing. This doesn't necessarily denote strength. It can denote training or even brain-washing / a lack of self-worth, depending on how it's written. Plenty of female characters get fridged because they think the male character is more important - that's not strength; it's weakness. (Jumping in front of a bullet because they choose to save someone, is different)

When she takes the bullet It does appear that it is partly a self worth/ having feelings for the MMC. At first she tells herself it's because she cares but during an argument she blurts out 'Because you're important and the things you are doing to save the world matter. I've never done anything important in my whole life.' So dang you called it.. what i need to focus on his how to make her likeable despite her issues...but the whole book is about her journey to freedom. The title is 'Bird in a Silver Cage'
 

SamanthaDrake

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I've not read the other replies.

I think shooting her mouth off would make her look weak. Strength would be restraint she shows (through thought) when anyone else in the room would be shooting their mouth off.

A common trick that works in any gendered direction is to have a different character (usually male and in power) offer commentary about the character you are characterizing. This trick has often been used by (some) male writers wanting to show a woman as strong. (I'm rereading Mistborn at the moment, and around page 200, Kelsier and Sazed discuss for pages on end all of Vin's myriad strengths and foibles. Sanderson did the same thing in Elantris.) For the record, I love Sanderson.

So anyway, that trick is part of various writers' toolkits. It raises my hackles a bit, that having male characters define a female character as strong works, because... the subtextual mysogyny in it just makes me want to scream (which I refrain from doing.) On the other hand it clearly 'works,' is commonly used, and I use a version of the trick when people aren't getting from my characters the nuance I need them to get.

I'll more often have women commenting on the woman's strength (or whatever character trait might be missed by reader bias), although in the piece I polished off yesterday I have the top political leader (a male) do so, in the woman's presence. We were in her POV and so were privy to her thoughts, which were basically annoyance that his comments should matter.

Anyway, it worked with my readers, and as far as I can tell this kind of trick works every time.

As far as panic attacks and crying, of course these are fine. In no way do they show weakness (in and of themselves.). One of my novel's redeemed assassins is always moist-eyed, because of the weight of his past, and it isn't weakness. It's remorse.
Thank you... that is exactly what I need is a way to show her strength despite her issues... the whole book is about her journey to freedom...The title is 'Bird in a Silver Cage'
 
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SamanthaDrake

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I have gotten great feedback. Thank you everyone! What I need to do is focus on ways to show her strengths despite her issues.
 

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Is it romance or women's fiction?
If i told you it was urban fantasy/romance would you believe me lol... I'm trying to take the genre and do something meaningful...but there will be shifters, magic and eventually undead... the is lots of violence, guns, sex, but also a story about a girls journey to womanhood and freedom. The whole power of love thing.
 

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I have gotten great feedback. Thank you everyone! What I need to do is focus on ways to show her strengths despite her issues.
And make her issues a strength -- if she knows her weaknesses and owns them, that is in itself a strength. If she can use her weaknesses to drive the resolution to the problem, even better.

I highly recommend Stacia Kane's "Downside" series. Chess is probably the most flawed and screwed up heroine I've ever read, but also one of the strongest. Against all my expectations, I fell in love with her.
 

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I don't think weakness and strength are mutually exclusive things. They exist on a continuum in most people, and an individual can be heroically strong in one situation but weak, even shamefully so, in another. Say there's a person who can run into a burning building or step between a shooter and their intended victim, but when it comes to standing up to someone they love or admire (but is wrong), they just can't do it. Or maybe they can't handle social disapproval, or are claustrophobic, or terrified of spiders, or are willing to take the risk of being shot, but even the thought of burning to death paralyzes them.

Characters can also start out weak or cowardly about something and find a core of strength or courage as part of their arc.

I just read a book by Mary Robinette Kowall where the protagonist is a woman astronaut (the setting is an alternative historical timeline) who had been in the women's air corps during WWII. She was incredibly brave (and brilliant), as you can imagine. Flying planes and enduring the intense discomforts needed to go into space, not to mention being in space, were very challenging and dangerous things in that time in history, and in the story (and as a woman in the story timeline, she had a lot more obstacles to overcome as well).

BUT she also had a social phobia that caused her no end of suffering and shame. She also had other personal flaws she had to recognize and deal with about herself.

In other words, she was human, and convincingly complicated, and the story and character had a satisfying arc.

I think it's better not to worry about whether or not your protagonist is "strong" and instead focus on whether or not her responses to different situations make sense and work for the story you are trying to tell.
 
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SamanthaDrake

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And make her issues a strength -- if she knows her weaknesses and owns them, that is in itself a strength. If she can use her weaknesses to drive the resolution to the problem, even better.

I highly recommend Stacia Kane's "Downside" series. Chess is probably the most flawed and screwed up heroine I've ever read, but also one of the strongest. Against all my expectations, I fell in love with her.
In the end i have her face three gauntlets. The first is ego death. She has been sharing her body with a spirit creature called a sith that entered her as a child. They exist in a split state which is an unnatural state for a sith. The FMC can't merge with Kiva (sith) because she fears disappearing. It's worse than physical death in the characters mind because she fears it will erase her. Even when she finally agrees to it to save the MMCs life she still involuntarily resists until Kiva tells her 'i love him too'. Their relationship is beyond intimate. Even then it's difficult for the FMC. That's my idea for her facing her fear..She has to give up control willingly..
I don't know if it's driving the resolution but i hope it works out as a satisfying resolution. After that she has to face bondage and death when she faces the killer.
The third is telling the MMC she loves him and what she is.
 
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Cyia

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You need to tread carefully with "sith."

It's likely a trademarked word, owned by Disney, and you do not want to open that hornet's nest of litigation.
 

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Really? Because it actually has Scottish origins but thanks for the heads up..i'll check it out i don't know how similar the spirit merging thing is to that ive only ever seen the movies. I took it from Scottish folklore cat sith.
 

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You need to tread carefully with "sith."

It's likely a trademarked word, owned by Disney, and you do not want to open that hornet's nest of litigation.

Terry Goodkind used the word in the sword of truth and it actually has Scottish origins


Sìth, Scottish Gaelic semi-deities, spirits and fairies
Daoine Sìth or Aos Sí, Scottish fairies
Baobhan sith, a spirit vampire, and the Leanan sídhe, a Manx counterpart
Bean sith, another term for banshees
Cat Sìth, a Scottish fairy cat
Cu Sìth, a spirit dog sometimes known as a mound dog who haunts the barrow mounds
 

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Yep, maybe Star Wars didn't invent the word sith, but they did pretty much re-invent it and embed it into the current lexicon to the point that most readers will see 'sith' and their brains will automatically go "sith lord, darth vader, star wars, light saber, blahblahblah...."

Kind of the same way that you could theoretically create a race of cheerful happy elves and call them "gay elves", but readers are for the most part going to think....differently. Or physically able vs physically deformed elves -- if you called them straight elves vs bent elves, many readers will not have their brains leap to the automatic assumption that it refers to their spinal structure.

So taking into account current connotations of a word is always wise.
 

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Yep, maybe Star Wars didn't invent the word sith, but they did pretty much re-invent it and embed it into the current lexicon to the point that most readers will see 'sith' and their brains will automatically go "sith lord, darth vader, star wars, light saber, blahblahblah...."

Kind of the same way that you could theoretically create a race of cheerful happy elves and call them "gay elves", but readers are for the most part going to think....differently. Or physically able vs physically deformed elves -- if you called them straight elves vs bent elves, many readers will not have their brains leap to the automatic assumption that it refers to their spinal structure.

So taking into account current connotations of a word is always wise.

True. I'm not worried though. I don't think anyone who reads my book is going to mistake Kiva for a Sith lord. Spoiler alert lol... their dragons! They are also called storytellers because of their long memory. I think they are different enough that it won't be an issue. And there is so much to my more to my story than Kiva that it's almost a non-issue because of that. The sith in my book don't come into play until the second book and by then it's pretty clear what they are.
 
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