Let’s compare the wildly popular Black Widow and the (unfairly in my view) not wildly popular Captain Marvel. Then look at who I have in my fantasy series.
I settled on Endearing Female Protagonists as a title as YouTube’s Abbie Eammons’ How to Write a Strong Female Character… who isn’t toxic and annoying seemed a little harsh.
We all like Black Widow. Over nine or ten movies, Scarlett Johanssen, an expressive, sympathetic and vulnerable actor got to build a strong female lead with a complex backstory and redemption arc. By contrast, Brie Larsen only got one good shot at Captain Marvel. She’s cool, spikey and hard-edged. Johanssen was well served by serial scripts. Larsen got short-changed in one.
Amnesia and an overly complex plot frames Carol Danvers story. She’s repeatedly told to hide her emotions. We already have a protagonist who is locked down, reserved, cool, contained and never really out of control; like every male action hero from Clint Eastwood to… you get the idea. Yes, she’s pissed off with the Kree Space Corps. So was I, within the first three minutes of a very looooong prologue. She does not wear her heart on her sleeve. Like a normal person, then?
The character is super-powerful and does stomp through much of the movie like a very male action hero. She’s Jason Bourne with photon blasts. But there’s very little we can warm to until the third act.
We see do see her internal conflict in flashbacks; all of her ‘this girl can’t’ moments of failure since childhood. In addition, she’s constantly berated by toxic, mostly male authority figures.
Her internal conflict is constantly fighting her failures and a sense of unworthiness. She fears failure. Her goal is regaining her identity and earning her place on merit – breaking the Glass Ceiling. Her flaws include a failure to connect with people (my view) and her maverick nature. ‘Doesn’t play well with others’ underscores her report card. Her constant pulling away from people doesn’t express vulnerability. Cool, calm and isolated may suit a fighter pilot, it doesn’t endear us to a comic-book hero.
More than anything a poor script and story structure lets the character down. Much as I like the very well done ‘this girl can’ montage in Act Three, it’s too little, too late.
By the end, she’s Superman, breaking and blasting everything in sight. It reminds me of the gender-switched action-flick Atomic Blonde in which Charlize Theron goes all John Wick. Except Keanu Reeves’ Wick had a wider emotional range; now there’s a sentence you don’t hear very often. Theron turns in a chilly, repellent performance, entirely suited to the spy-game, but disastrous for establishing a sympathetic character. All hyper-competence, with no internal conflict, misbelief or fatal flaw.
All for the Widow
Natasha Romanov’s Black Widow is a super-confident secret agent. Romanov is a kick-ass heroine with no superpowers; just ingenuity, competence and advanced interrogation skills. And a clear moral compass. Conflicted from the start, she verbalises her goal to ‘wipe out the red in her ledger’ at least four times (twice in one movie). Her goal is redemption. Her fear is not earning it.
It’s not just Johanssen’s expressive performances across the MCU. The character is never afraid to express emotion or reach out to other characters. She takes a huge rejection from Bruce Banner in Civil War that magnifies her doubts and uncertainties. Her fatal flaw is self-condemnation. This is the misbelief she tries and fails to overcome right up to her eventual self-sacrifice in End Game.
Romanov is also Jason Bourne, the ex-assassin, without the amnesia plot. She’s in full control, acknowledging her past misdeeds. Her redemption arc is front and center.
Writing an Endearing Female Protagonist
What do I have in my fantasy series? Jovanka is a half-blood Roamer seer with second-sight and super-competent fighting skills. Her internal conflict is two-fold; coming to terms with her identity and inheritance; choosing paths that hurt people close to her. What does she want? Some kind of justice served on the Emperor. What does she fear? Winding up alone and misunderstood; turning into her father, a ruthless killer.
In fiction, it’s easier to explain all this through the character’s internal monologue than it is on-screen, showing or telling externally through the character’s dialogue and actions. On the minus, the character mustn’t be a Mary-Sue paragon of virtue, or a whiny little wimp. She can’t be submissive to male demands, nor can she be the Terminator in a corset, or Rambo with a hair ribbon. In a fantasy world where life is cheap, she has to stand up, fight the good fight, but not lose touch with her humanity. She’s shaped by trauma and abuse but it mustn’t define her. She keeps making mistakes and bad decisions, but we need to keep rooting for her.
In the end, it’s the reader who builds a representation of the character in their head. Unlike with Johanssen and Larsen, this bit of casting is unique to each reader. All the writer can do is lay out the clues.