The Three Types of Heroine: A Closer Study of What Makes a Strong Female Protagonist, Part 1

This article is the first in a three part series dealing with the three types of female heroines available to writers.

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Readers, you may remember that in the comments below my article “How Do You Create Strong Female Leads,” I promised to revisit the premise of that post in the future. This was due to points raised by both Misha Burnett and Anthony Marchetta, which reminded me of a character I had forgotten in my initial write up. It was also plain that this author had not been as clear when writing about this topic as she had hoped to be, something that ought to be rectified.

Though it may seem overdue to return to this subject now, this issue is no less timely than before. More than a few writers have felt the pressure to create over-the-top heroines who are better than the men they fight beside. Whether or not this comes from fellow authors or academia, the fact is that the irrational demand is there, clamoring for attention. If one hopes to create a genuine, interesting, and memorable heroine for their readers/viewers to enjoy, this matter must be addressed.

In light of this, each of the categories previously discussed in “How Do You Create Strong Female Leads” will have an individual article dedicated to it. Four heroines will be used to demonstrate what differentiates these types from one another. It is also worth repeating something mentioned in “The Three Main Categories of Villainess”: the female protagonist in a story need not be a member of only one category. She may qualify in two or in all three.

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A character who illustrates this truth is the heroine Mr. Burnett and Mr. Marchetta reminded me about in the comments section: Mattie Ross, from True Grit. She fulfills the requirements of each class Mr. Marchetta has outlined on several occasions and which we reviewed previously. In one sense, Mattie is a Passive Heroine. She initiates the entire adventure in True Grit to avenge her father, but does not do battle alongside Ranger La Boeuf and Rooster Cogburn. The first time she uses her weapon the recoil on the pistol is powerful enough to knock her over, spoiling her second attempt to fire it. The third time she pulls the trigger, Mattie is thrown into a pit full of deadly rattlesnakes. Her physical battle skills are practically non-existent.

However, despite her lackluster performance in a fight, Mattie proves she has mettle. She uses her knowledge of economics, the law, and people in order to get what she wants. Primarily, Mattie does battle with her wits and her will – but she does so in a manner that sacrifices a feature of her femininity. As the novel and new film version of the story show, Mattie remains unmarried throughout her life after the main adventure in True Grit. This is due in no small part to the fact that she is waspish, sharp, and pushy. No matter which adaptation of the story one reads/views, it is clear that Mattie is determined to have her way in spite of those she encounters.

It is this aggressive attitude which constantly irritates and almost immediately alienates her from La Boeuf. In the 1969 movie the Ranger admits that he had “planned to steal a kiss” from her, but proclaims by the end of this conversation that he would like nothing better than to spank her. Other men probably came to a similar conclusion; Mattie’s abrasive, domineering manner upsets most people, especially the male sex.

We will discuss why Mattie qualifies in the second category delineated prior to this article next week. For now, it is important to turn to our next example: Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager. Like Mattie, Janeway qualifies as a model of the woman who has given up an aspect of her femininity in order to enter battle. Captain Janeway possesses extensive training in the arts of shooting and close combat. By the end of the series, she is also a capable starship captain. In terms of sheer tactical skill, cunning, and determination she is – so far – the only Star Trek captain in a sequel series to equal the franchise’s archetype: Captain Kirk.

Thus, like Kirk, despite her desire to “settle down” Janeway never succeeds. She tries several times but, on each occasion, the man leaves her or she must turn him away because of her duty to Voyager and its crew. This is made poignantly clear in the two part episode “Workforce.” Having finally met a man who deeply loves her and whom she cherishes, Janeway has to turn him down because Starfleet regulations – like the regulations of real naval forces – forbid romantic liaisons between senior and junior officers or crewmen. This means that the only way her man could travel aboard Voyager would be as a passenger, an untenable situation that even their mutual attraction could not render bearable.

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For Janeway to continue to command her ship, she must eschew romantic ties with her officers and, more often than not, with men who are not members of the crew. In essence, to remain a captain Janeway has to relinquish her love for a man and the potential love and happiness to be found in raising a family in order to continue in her career. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty and, since she is currently lost in the Delta Quadrant, it would also be a deadly risk to her ship and crew.

In a way, one might say that Janeway is married – to her ship. From Ancient times to the present, there has always been a special tie binding the captain to the vessel he or she commands. As time passes they often become indistinguishable from each other because ships, moreso than cars or swords, tend to take on a life of their own after they have been christened and sailed at sea/in space for a period of time.

Once an item is given a personalized name, such as Voyager or Excalibur, the user(s) of said device bestow upon it some form of personality. Is it the ship that responds to the captain’s orders, or is the captain carrying out the will of the ship? Thousands of years after the first vessels were made and sailed no one has the proper answer, because the truth defies easy definition or explanation.

Although this may seem to be a useless aside, it is not, future writers. The crew of the Voyager may well be the ship’s “soul,” but Janeway is unquestionably the craft’s brain and heart. As such, she must remain focused on what is best for the vessel and its “soul” – her crew – or else Voyager will founder and be destroyed. Thus Janeway cannot yield to her womanly desire to marry the man she loves in “Workforce.” She must remain the captain of the ship, which means that she must refuse his love, sacrificing her natural femininity in order to do her duty.

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The next heroine who fits this type comes from A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy. Xaverri, an illusionist and temporary paramour of Han Solo, surrenders her femininity in order to accomplish her personal mission. Though it is not shown within the trilogy, Xaverri is a good hand-to-hand fighter. Having lost her husband and children to the Empire before Han meets her, Xaverri has turned her skills to crime. She is, to use a modern phrase, a grifter. Relying on dangerous cons and schemes, Xaverri takes revenge on the government which robbed her of all she loved.

During the time she and Solo are together, he helps her recklessly deceive and dispatch high ranking Imperial officers. As they come to know each other better, Solo realizes that his lover takes desperate risks to hurt the Empire and those who support it because she no longer cares whether she lives or dies. With her husband and children murdered, Xaverri has sworn off remarriage and motherhood altogether. Suffering the loss of those she loved once was enough to convince her that she never wanted to endure such pain again.

It is for this reason that Xaverri leaves Han six months after they meet on Nar Shadaa. Knowing that she is falling in love with him, she refuses to allow herself to return to her previous attitudes on marriage and family life. Though he is able to call on her for aid some years later as the smugglers prepare to battle the Empire above Nar Shadaa, Xaverri never attempts to pick up where they left off. When they meet again after his marriage to Leia, Han finds Xaverri is still doing her utmost to destroy the Empire that slew her family. He also discovers that she has maintained her oath to never remarry or have more children. Once again, we have here a clear case of the heroine who forfeits her femininity to enter battle.

Now we turn to the final model for today’s article: Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Like Janeway, Carter is a member of the military and therefore is discouraged from having romantic ties with a man above or below her in rank. In direct contrast to Janeway, Sam wishes she could have such a relationship with one of her colleagues. Many episodes in the series clearly point to the fact that the man Carter wants to spend the rest of her life with is her commanding officer: Colonel Jack O’Neill. The two have an obvious attraction, but they cannot act on it and remain in the military. For Sam to “get her man,” she would have to retire from the Air Force and the Stargate Program.

This is the sticking point for her and Jack throughout the series; although she truly loves him and wishes to have a family, Carter also wants to remain a member of the Stargate Program. She decides to continue fighting the Gou’aould; to protect Jack, Daniel, and Teal’c’s backs during a firefight, and to see new worlds with her own eyes. Hers is a choice between two goods: the good of a fantastic job that leads to intoxicating discoveries, or the joy of being a wife and mother.

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In the end, Sam chooses her career over her domestic wishes. She sacrifices her natural, feminine desire for marriage and a family in order to maintain her occupation. She does this for two reasons: first, because remaining in the field means she can stay close to Jack. As long as she is beside him, Sam cannot be tortured by long nights of sleepless worry when he goes on a mission while she must stay behind. No matter where he goes through the Stargate, while she remains part of the team, Sam will always be close to him.

Second, it is very hard for anyone who becomes enamored of an adventurous lifestyle to surrender it. Though it might be an unscientific term, the fact is that the thrill of exploration is fairly addictive in and of itself. No one on the SG-1 team enjoys killing or is an “adrenaline junkie,” but they do take pleasure in doing their job and doing it well. Sam naturally considers other vocations – whether they are fulfilling or not – to be bland and boring by comparison. Giving up her position at the SGC would leave her craving the action and adventure she had found traveling through the Stargate. So she stays in the Stargate Program, foregoing her hope for a family and a husband.

Future writers, there is nothing wrong with having a heroine in this category. More than a few of us will have such female protagonists leaning on the doorjamb of our minds at some point, waiting to be placed in a tale. What we have to be careful of when creating these female leads is how we present them and their fighting skills. Both Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate SG-1 generally kept their heroines’ physical strength and prowess at natural levels, though there are times in certain episodes where the actresses are clearly struggling to follow through on a combat maneuver.

Due to her height, some of Janeway’s fight scenes show clear staging, as she has to stand on tiptoe to hit a larger male opponent and ends missing by a few inches. Similarly, some of Carter’s scenes were visibly improbable: her punches or kicks didn’t even appear to make contact with her opponent’s body. Both women did better when firing a phaser, a P-90, or some other weapon at their opponent(s) in a given episode. Unless your heroine relies on speed, acrobatics, and surprise to the degree that Marvel’s Black Widow does, hand-to-hand confrontations should be a last resort for her when she enters a battle.

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There are only two ways for female lead(s) in this category to escape this fact: they must either be naturally tall and muscular, or they must be enhanced somehow. Tigress, from the Kung Fu Panda franchise, exemplifies the former. She is as tall as Po and has a sturdy, well-conditioned physique. Black Widow is an example of the latter. Though the films have not stated the fact in situ, Natasha Romanoff received a Russian variant of the Super Soldier Serum given to Captain America. When in combat she is not fighting with natural strength and stamina but with the help of an artificial additive.

Not all such augmentations need be synthetic, of course. If your heroine has alien heritage, is from a high gravity world, or is half faerie, she may be short and lithe while possessing strength beyond that suggested by her appearance. Several of the faerie women in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series are physically stronger than he is, despite the fact that they look weaker than him. Although I do not watch The Orville, I understand one of the female characters in that series is an alien from a high gravity world. For this reason, although she is relatively short, this heroine can punch above her weight and likely take hits that would kill a human woman of her size.

Some writers certainly do not want to hear this, but the truth is that women are rarely a physical match for a man in combat. If you want your female lead to be capable of competing in a fight with her male opponents exclusive of artificial aids (including guns), she will have to be tall and muscular. This increases the likelihood that your heroine in this category will not be able to form a steady romantic relationship with a man. She will probably end up single, just as the women we discussed above did, due to her pursuit of a career in combat.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, future writers, as the examples above demonstrate. In reality, this is the price men and women who choose to maintain a career outside of family life have to pay. Even if they accept it willingly, they are surrendering a good they desire to protect others who cannot or will not make such a sacrifice. This is what makes them heroines; they give up what they want so that others do not have to, preserving innocent lives so that civilization might continue to flourish.

Despite our ability to suspend disbelief when enjoying some form of fiction, most readers and authors want stories to have a basis in the authentic world. In order to create this type of strong female lead for your fiction, you will have to keep all of these things in mind during the writing or revising process, future writers. Otherwise, the heroines you create in this category will not appeal to the audience.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in the now defunct Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Lunaand Uranus*. Order them today!
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12 thoughts on “The Three Types of Heroine: A Closer Study of What Makes a Strong Female Protagonist, Part 1

  1. I saw Kate Mulgrew at a con a few years ago, and she talked a bit about the tension between her and the writing staff on Voyager. Apparently the writers thought that they had to make the character as un-feminine as possible in order for her to be believable as a starship captain. Mulgrew disagreed. She wanted the character to “let her hair down” both literally and figuratively, and as the series progresses Janeway does become more relaxed, more feminine, and (I think) a more interesting character as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That does explain Janeway’s considerable improvement from season four onward; I noticed that she became more interesting after she “let her hair down,” too. It’s one of the reasons why I chose her for this article; I was not trying to state that Janeway was completely denying her femininity. As you point out, Kate Mulgrew’s insistence on “letting her hair down” made the character more feminine and gave her poise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Caroline,

    Great article! As my forthcoming book has a female protagonist, I’m curious to read about your other two. My main character is KIND of this type—she is in the process of abandoning her femininity, or in the throes of, maybe but never loses it and, in fact, it is what helps her succeed where others have failed.

    Enough self-promotion: this is good stuff you’re posting! And it’s giving me food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alex,

      Thanks so much for your encouraging words! Sounds to me like your heroine fits in Category 2, but as I said, a heroine can “cross genres” here. An author can have a female character who qualifies as Type 1-2 or Type 2-3. Some female leads even qualify in Categories 1-3, though they’re rare – or at least hard to spot.

      It’s great to know that this post was enjoyable and helpful. I hope you enjoy next week’s article as much as this one. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

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