There have been many efforts and discussions regarding how women are portrayed in fiction, particularly in film and television. For most of the history of these media, women were often relegated to the roles of supporting characters, usually the love interest or damsel-in-distress.
In the wake of more active females like “The Hunger Game’s” Katniss Everdeen, “Brave’s” Princess Merida, and “Avatar’s” Korra, as well as the controversial comments made by Crystal Dynamics executive producer Ron Rosenberg regarding the upcoming “Tomb Raider” reboot, we must ask: What does it take for a female protagonist to be accepted by the mainstream audiences?
I guess the easiest place to start is by looking at common mistakes writers and authors make when writing female characters. The biggest pitfall, and one that is not solely limited to the female gender, is the creation of the “Mary Sue.”
Mary Sue is a critical term given to overly idealized characters whose clichéd mannerisms ultimately serve as wish-fulfillment for the author. The term was originally used in regard to “Star Trek” fan fiction, but over time its use has spread to the fan fiction world at large.
It has also become a literally criticism applicable to many original works thanks to the introduction of canon Mary Sues, or “Canon Sues.”
There are many common elements of your typical Mary Sue. The character is young, attractive, and virtually good at anything and everything. She is incredibly lucky, always gets her man, wins every battle and is essentially unable to fail.
Beyond these similarities, there are two primary extremes when it comes to the production of your typical Mary Sue, which has to do with their personality, or lack thereof. In trying to make a female character who appeals to a mainstream audience, the two extremes can be summarized with simple phrases.
The first extreme is the “tomboy feminist.” This is where the female character has little to no romantic interest in anyone, often has a huge chip on her shoulder regarding the opposite gender, and engages in activities usually exclusive to men in most works of fiction, such as combat, sports or whatever activity can be used to create some sort of strife.
The opposite end of the spectrum is best described as “the helpless child.” This is a character that often starts out as a meek, easily frightened girl with low self-esteem. This character is then revealed to possess some sort of character trait that endears the audience and the other characters to her, resulting in the other characters going out of their way to make sure she succeeds with little to no effort on her part.
Now, I’m not saying that those are the only Mary Sue archetypes, but those are the two extremes I have found in many of the films, comics, novels and other works of fiction that I have perused throughout my life.
In recent times, there have been an increasing number of female characters that are actually characters. Some people have made entire careers out of creating these sorts of characters.
This leads me to the conclusion that the people who try to create a marketable female protagonist often make things far more complex than they need to be. When things go right, it’s not some formulaic approach that made the memorable female characters appealing, it’s that their writers didn’t succumb to the pitfall of making the fact that the character is a girl be that character’s defining trait.
When you take a look at the traits of characters such as Katniss Everdeen or Emma Frost, you’ll find that quite a few of those traits can be given to male characters and still accomplish the same purpose when it comes to the grand scheme of the story. All it boils down to is good writing.