Writing a Female Protagonist

My latest book, SIN, the first in the Sinclair O’Malley Series, has a strong female protagonist. A question I seem to be getting quite a bit these days is, “Being a male author, what’s it like writing a female lead?” The funny thing is I don’t think I’ve answered the question the same twice. It has taken me a while to come up with what I would consider an adequate answer.

The truth is I thought that it would be easy writing the character of Sinclair O’Malley. She is a young, rather high strung, potty-mouthed, rouge FBI agent with a chip on her shoulder. What could possibly be hard about that? Everything, I discovered.

At first, she was too ‘in your face,’ then she came across as too soft, and then she was a bit too intelligent for the character. I found I had to blend the three incarnations in order to come up with the personality I was looking for. So where did I find the inspiration for the character? It ended up that I didn’t have to look any further than my own family.

I am surrounded by three generations of strong, willful, yet compassionate and loving women. My wife is an intelligent, beautiful woman who has the reasoning to find her way through most dilemmas. My daughter is a strong-willed, tell it like it is young woman in her early twenties who will put her 4 foot, eleven inch frame against anyone of any size and come out on top. She will cut you down with her wit and mind before you even have a chance to draw your ‘weapon’ of choice. And then finally there was my mother—my inspiration for all things, especially writing. Much like my daughter, she was quick-tongued, smart, sarcastic, and not to be messed with.

When I put all of their attributes and weaknesses together, stirred in the mouth of a truck driver, and baked—Sin was born: brains, sass, and unstoppable.

So to the three generations of women in my life, I say, “Thank you. Thank you for being the people you are, thank you for allowing me to be part of your lives, and thank you for coming together as ‘Sin.’ ”

Until next month,

J. M.


7 thoughts on “Writing a Female Protagonist

    • Tom Avitabile

      I not sure I follow your comment, but if you mean, why sweat the feminine details? Viv-la-differance! Then may I suggest that occasional aberrations and character peccadilloes are certainly the craft of creating a character. But for me, as a male, writing a (hopefully) believable female protagonists, I need a strong foundation to build any and all idiosyncrasies upon. A character driven version of “you have know the rules, before you can break them.”

      To me, if the spine of the character isn’t inherently female, especially in a thriller, where she is likely to see more action and adventure than an average man or woman would experience in a lifetime. In this instance, I feel I need guardrails that stop her from veering over into the male lane. At that point I would just be writing, out of convenience, an androgynous character without the “female” spine.

      But again this is very subjective as in “I, as a male, writing a female character” And good for you if it is an unconscious part of your talent and skill to write a male character that a man could read and not think, “A guy wouldn’t do that!,” but I am not that skilled or lucky.

  • Tom Avitabile

    Wow… This topic is so close to my heart right now. I just finished the third installment in my “Thrillogy” I decided that this third book would focus more on the life of my (J.M. you’ll like this) former Female FBI agent, Brooke Burrell, now the main operator in a Top-secret Operations Cluster being run out of the White House. As a writer, the biggest fear I have in trying to write a lead female character is not simply writing a male character with breasts. A female lead must be endemically female. Not a modification of a male or an augmented male.

    For an average man like me, women are complex, often seemingly contradictory beings. After much soul searching and inquiry I found the map. The map of the internal processes and pathways of the female homo-sapien. However, to my dismay all the markings and road signs were in a Cyrillic kind of cuneiform that was unreadable by my male eyes. So I engaged in a stimulus-response series of experiments to better understand the feminine mystique. I posed ethical, moral and situational dilemmas to a wide variety of females. Their answers, in many cases, shocked me. But they illustrated the basic wiring differences between the genders. That wiring allows us to perform different roles in evolution, unconsciously. *Other than procreation, I do believe that either gender can perform either role but not without applying extra effort.

    So it wasn’t enough when writing a female character to just add a moment after using the rest room to check her make up. That doesn’t make my character a female. What helps is knowing how everything she does is connected to a nurturing instinct, positive assumptions of intention- until proven otherwise, avoidance of needless confrontation, but firm in resolve if provoked. There are more underpinnings that served, not as an absolute profile of female predilections, I would never have the hubris to say that, but these fundamental instincts are helpful handles, tools if you will, for a male writer like me, to decode those elements of the female that elude our philosophy.

    I don’t know if this is allowed in this forum but for more on this, here’s a blog I wrote “Defending My Inner Female”
    http://tomavitabile.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/my-internal-war-on-woman-defending-my-inner-female/

  • Amy Lignor

    I never knew there was such a difference in mind thought and pressure in writing the female protagonist from a male POV. Again, J.M. Leduc teaches me something!! (I love the shout out to the females in your life – I have them too, God bless em). 🙂

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