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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Strong Women as Main Characters: Do They Need Superpowers?

Once a reader puts his or her nose into a book, one key element that pulls them along with the story is whether or not they like the main character. Without some kind of connection, the reader won't care what happens to them or, worse yet, may look at what that character does with a jaded eye putting the whole plot in jeopardy. After all, buy-in with the main character is essential if the reader is to suspend their belief enough to become immersed in the writer's carefully constructed story.

Skillful writers use the reader's own biases to quickly create a connection. It's not a coincidence that many murder mysteries have intelligent, quirky women as prime sleuths or razor edge thrillers have steely-eyed men  as MCs. These character types come with a wealth of baggage that a writer can quickly unpack to dress a scene with a few key phrases and keep the story moving in the right direction.

When creating a thriller or suspense novel, the MC is going to be placed in situations that a reader would never encounter in real life and then has to extricate him- or herself out of it with cunning and skill. They need to find a special strength to win against the bad guys. Having a woman MC in a thriller is a tougher act to create because the writer is has to balance existing baggage of stereotype with that "special something" which enables them prevail.

Some thriller writers create their women MCs with superhuman powers. Maybe it's an ability to read minds or have lasers shoot from her eyes that provides the extra element that pushes the story over the top. Handled with skill, enhanced powers can trigger a connection with the reader by tapping into an unspoken fantasy. Who hasn't walked into a crowded room and wondered what people were thinking?

A writer doesn't have to imbue special powers in the MC or sacrifice action when a woman is in the center of it. They just have to be keenly aware of what reader biases they are tapping into and how they are manipulating reader emotions. After all, putting superhuman powers into a woman MC is acknowledging a stereotype that a mere human woman isn't strong enough or smart enough on her own to prevail.

The best women MCs are those that play against stereotype in some fashion. By providing another dimension, the writer creates a living, breathing person that the reader cares about. A strong woman can quickly become a two dimensional cardboard cutout if the writer isn't careful - a Rambo in a cami only goes so far.

A believable strong woman main character needs to have the following traits:

  1. Warmth. She needs to be able to connect with other characters around her and form a believable relationship. The bond she forms will enable the reader to say to themselves, "Oh. I get her. She would feel like I feel." The bond doesn't have to be with a person. A compelling MC may be a woman with Autism who can't connect with people but forges a bond with an animal. But showing that warmth can also expose an essential weakness that can be a mechanism for driving the plot forward.
  2. Intelligence. The woman MC needs to be able to put pieces together in a way the reader might not do. The MC does not have to be a genius, but just has to understand her world enough to figure out the ins and outs of a situation with a fresh perspective that makes a reader think.
  3. Passion. Readers understand going the extra mile for a cause that is near and dear to their hearts. Tapping into a passion ignites the drive that raises a regular woman into a tigress. Just threaten a mild-mannered mother's child to see this in action or put into jeopardy someones deeply held political beliefs. 
  4. One special skill. The world created in a thriller often revolves around a unique characteristic of the main character. The special skill for a woman needs to both flesh out her world for the reader and her abilities for the story. For example, a brilliant chemist will inhabit a world with test tubes and beakers and may hold the key to prevent a chemical weapon from being created. 
  5. Beauty. She needs to possess a beauty that the reader can admire or aspire to. Whether it's inner or outer beauty, the woman MC benefits from a beauty that transcends the reader's everyday world.
  6. Resourcefulness. The main character in a thriller is going to be in a sticky situation or two. Figuring out how to survive when she can't morph into a moth or bend a steel bar is going to create compelling scenes for the reader. 
  7. Vision. Simply put, she needs to see a better world that can be created from her efforts. 
If the writer is able to create a female main character who avoids the pitfalls of stereotype and provides traits that a reader can relate to, then they have created a way for their stories to move forward on a suspenseful journey.

FRIDAY FEATURES is a steady presence on Out of the Fog where I explore the concept of "strong women." Who are they? What makes them strong? How do we see them in writing and/or in business? If you're an author, what is their place in the world of thrillers of mysteries? If you're in business, how is the working environment impacted by the presence of a "strong woman" and how are they seen as leaders and team members? If you're an emerging strong woman, tell us about your journey. Have other questions you find compelling? Ask away and I'll post the answers here.  

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