The Three Types of Heroine: A Closer Study of What Makes a Strong Female Protagonist, Part 2

This article is the second in a three part series dealing with the three types of female heroines available to writers. Part One may be read here.

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Last week we reviewed the first type of strong female heroine originally described by Anthony Marchetta here. In order for an author to properly portray this kind of heroine, the writer’s female protagonist must have either lost or sacrificed some aspect of her femininity to enter combat. Again, it must be stated that creating female leads of this kind is perfectly acceptable, future writers. It only becomes undesirable when an author tries to shoe-horn a heroine from this class into the second category: that of the female warrior who is strengthened by her ties to a hero, whom she ennobles and strengthens through her devotion. In contrast to the prior class, characters in this division can form lasting, loving connections with a man. When this occurs not only are the women’s lovers made more heroic, but the female leads themselves become stronger.

This may seem like a contradiction at first, but it is not an inconsistency; we have regularly heard it stated that the collective is more powerful than the individual, have we not? If this is true, then shouldn’t the romantic tie between a man and a woman make them more effective together than they would be separately? Obviously, the answer to this question is yes. If a group of individuals working together for the greater good is stronger through their mutual association, then this must be true when a male and a female character become amorously related to one another. Should your heroine and hero become romantically involved, they will be better able to fight against evil together than if they faced the darkness independently.

Something writers creating female characters such as these ought to remember is that the woman in question and her future male companion may not immediately recognize their attraction. If the couple does have this epiphany, consciously or subliminally, they usually refuse to act on it right away. There can be many practical (and impractical) reasons for this, but the one we will focus on here is the proclivity by both parties to “rub each other the wrong way” initially. Whether or not the “friction” between them results in quiet, intense dialogues or explosive shouting matches does not matter; the fact is that this is a necessary part of their story.

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We see this in the partnership between Kate Beckett and Rick Castle from the crime comedy Castle. An exceptional detective and good shot, it is shown many times throughout the series that Beckett can generally hold her own in a scrap. Nonetheless, her competency is not absolute, demonstrated when she first encounters and arrests Castle on suspicion of murder. From the moment the two meet, it is clear that Beckett and Castle have chemistry, something one wants to take advantage of and which the other desires to avoid. This makes them both examples of the heroine and the hero ennobled and strengthened by their love for one another.

At first, Castle only desires a temporary liaison with Kate; during the early seasons of the show, he pursues her as an object, not a person. Beckett therefore instinctively refuses his advances, taking every opportunity to scorn him for his disgraceful interest. Still, her correct reaction does not blind her to the facts: despite his faults, Castle’s gift for storytelling makes him a good investigator, which means he is a competent partner on her cases. But for some time after their first case, Beckett must continue to contemptuously rebuff Castle’s amorous passes.

Acting on the false premise that she is just playing hard to get, he maintains his pursuit of her, considering Kate to be nothing more than a prize he can and should win. The longer they work together, though, the more Beckett’s sincerity, strength of character, compassion, and intelligence impress Castle. Her steadfast rejection of his attempts to secure a date with her and claim victory in what he originally perceives as an amusing diversion eventually leads him to see her for who she is. Subsequently he becomes invested in Kate Beckett as a woman, a detective, and an intellectual equal; in a word, he falls in love with her for herself. Thus his flirtatious attentions develop into his authentic love for Beckett, not for what he can gain from her.

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Kate does not respond to Castle’s genuine interest at once. Accustomed as she is to his adolescent behavior, his manly interest frightens her. Dedicated to her profession and to finding her mother’s murderer, Beckett has come to cherish what she believes is her autonomy. In actuality, however, what she is really clinging to is her pride in her perceived independence. Beckett mistakenly believes that as long as she remains single her focus and commitment to her profession will never waver. The reality is far different; while Beckett’s cause is just, her method is selfish and isolationist. This leaves her lonely, unhappy, and unfulfilled up until she begins working with Castle.

Nevertheless, she persists in pushing Castle away for some time, believing he will get tired of her or, worse, distract her from her job. This leads to more frequent and painful arguments between the two, which only end when Kate rejects her pride and humbly accepts Castle’s genuine affection. This leads to Castle’s growth into and acceptance of maturity; he stops being a “man-child” (for the most part) and grows into a real man who can love Kate for herself, not for her physical or mental aspects. It also strengthens Beckett because it allows her to acknowledge her femininity and to realize the influence it gives her. Looking back, future writers can see that neither outcome would have been possible without the friction that existed between these two early on.

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Another heroine who exemplifies this category is Marion Ravenwood, from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the course of the film, Marion grows to be a better woman through her loving reliance on her man, convincing Indiana to improve himself to become worthy of her devotion. In the beginning of the film, Marion demonstrates that she is a relatively able combatant. She can drink most men under the table, punch with a will, and use improvised weapons to protect herself. She is also a hellion when angered or threatened. This is due in part to the fact that she is naturally feisty and strong-willed, but it is also a result of the fact that Marion has had to rely on herself since her father’s passing and since an earlier, failed acquaintance with Indiana left her without emotional and physical support.

Like Beckett, Marion’s emphasis on her autonomy has morphed into a deadly form of arrogance that isolates and harms her. Despite this, it does serve as a viable defense mechanism. While it is a double-edged sword, Marion’s abrasive manner allows her to keep all but the most predatory men at bay without the need for physical force, though this harms as much as it helps her. No one truly wishes to live alone and Marion is no exception to this rule.

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The result is that, up until the middle of the film, she and Indy remain locked in an almost constant struggle with one another. Even when they are relaxing in relative safety with Sullah, their banter is not the congenial dialogue of a couple relying on and reinforcing each other. During this time Marion remains sharp, proud, and defiant, as does Indiana. This prevents them from working in perfect harmony and leads to Marion’s first capture.

Still, these characters’ harsh exchanges serve an important purpose in rekindling their relationship. By wearing one another down with continual arguments, the two eventually demolish the barrier that pride and past hurts have put between them. This enables them to reaccept their femininity and masculinity respectively, shown at the end of the film. Here Marion is dressed in a way that accents her form, making her appear more womanly than she did before. Having abandoned her pride and the false sense of independence it gives her, Marion has become a stronger woman through her recognition of her femininity.

This gives her an influence over Indy that she did not possess before – the power to inspire him to become worthy of her regard. Indy gallantly taking her arm and leading her down the steps makes this plain, since it shows that he has embraced his role as her principal defender, as well as her mental and spiritual equal. He was not quite prepared to do at the start of the movie but, after spending so much time with Marion, he is ready and willing to do it now.

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DC Comics’ Artemis Crock, from the hit animated series Young Justice, is also formed in this mold. Similar to Beckett and Marion, she is a female warrior who is enhanced by her connection to a hero (Kid Flash/Wally West in this case), bringing about his obvious growth in seasons one and two of the series. Since she has chosen crimefighting as a career, Artemis is a more talented fighter than the heroines mentioned above. Apart from her skill with a bow she is a good hand-to-hand combatant, able to hold her own with various opponents. However, when Artemis begins the series, she arrives with a defensive attitude and takes umbrage at the slightest provocation – usually Kid Flash’s juvenile conduct.

In contrast to the leading ladies above, Artemis’ main problem in the first season of Justice is not pride but insecurity. Determined to prove to herself and to her family that she can successfully live on the right side of the law, Artemis drives herself to become the consummate, professional heroine. This puts her in direct conflict with the proudly immature Wally. For his part, Kid Flash originally resents Artemis’ appointment to the team and blames her for every setback they experience during her first mission.

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As episodes “Bereft” and “Failsafe” attest, though, the two begin this rivalry partly because they wish to deny their mutual attraction. “Bereft” in particular demonstrates that they have the capacity to get along well, since during this adventure Artemis and Wally briefly share an affable friendship devoid of trouble. Later, in “Failsafe,” Wally is visibly distressed by Artemis’ apparent “death” within a training simulation gone haywire, with the following episode then making it clear that Artemis’ greatest fear is that Kid Flash will hate her when he learns her parentage. Much like Beckett and Castle, their polarized relationship is the result of their refusal to accept their joint interest. Until Artemis overcomes her insecurity and Wally dispenses with his immaturity, neither is ready or willing to admit their romantic interest in the other.

This is why they continually clash during season one, and why it is only after Wally confesses his trust in Artemis, followed by her revelation of her family history that they can acknowledge their reciprocal affection. By season two of the series, the effects of this open respect are obvious; Artemis is secure in her identity, shown by the way she wears her hair and the manner in which she dresses. Her ponytail is shorter and combed while her casual attire is more relaxed than it was in season one. Wally’s love has given her the security she fought so hard to find; thanks to his unconditional love, she no longer feels she has to prove her integrity to the world at large or to herself and her family in particular.

Likewise, by season two her regard has inspired Wally to grow up and behave in a more noble fashion than he did before. In order to give Artemis’ affection true credit, he transitions from a self-absorbed, cocky teen into a young adult capable of making the ultimate sacrifice without hesitation. Again, though the early stage of their relationship is fraught with conflict, this give-and-take is an essential part of their progress as individuals and a couple. If they had not worn away one another’s “rough edges” in this manner, their relationship would never have occurred.

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As we have seen, most heroines in this category are “softened” through romantic love. There are unique cases, however, where a fraternal or paternal love can lead to this change in a particular female lead as well. Picking up from where we left off a week ago, True Grit’s Mattie Ross is an example of the heroine who is strengthened by her relationship with the hero, as he is ennobled by and through his bond with her. Although she remains abrasive and domineering to the end, Mattie’s rapport with Rooster Cogburn – as the 1969 film attests – does temper her pride.

More so than any of the women discussed herein, Mattie demonstrates a sense of near-uncompromising self-importance. Through sheer force of will, she reacquires the money her father spent to buy horses, buys one back from the same seller at a good price, engages the services of Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s murderer, then joins up with him and Ranger La Boeuf after both men have repeatedly told her to stay in Fort Smith or go home. In contrast to Marion and Beckett, her peremptory demeanor is the result of her determination to get what she desires, needs, or believes she needs in the manner she wants it. Her surety also differs from Artemis’ extreme self-doubt. Mattie is naturally proud and confident; in general, this allows her to go where she pleases and do as she sees fit.

But Mattie soon discovers she has met her match in Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Like her, Rooster is used to getting what he wants through pure determination and the strength of his personality. During their search for Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, the two argue with one another almost as often as they do with Ranger La Boeuf. While crossing the river rather than returning to Fort Smith proves Mattie’s fortitude and secures her position in the investigative party, it does not help her when she attempts to make Rooster do things he does not want to do, such as stop drinking.

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But Rooster, too, finds himself challenged when Mattie’s respect for him does not prevent her from obliging the old Marshall “to do the Christian thing.” While she is unable to convince him to give up drinking, in other instances she does compel him to maintain the right. One of the most obvious moments of her growing power over Cogburn comes when Mattie obliges Rooster to fulfill a promise he made to a dead criminal. Attempting to sell the dead man’s personal effects rather than send them to his brother in Texas, as he had promised, Mattie ensures the property is not sold but passed on to its rightful inheritor by accurately reciting the address given by the dying outlaw.

In her resolve to be “a good Christian,” the girl relentlessly tests the Marshall’s patience at the same time she reawakens his conscience and desire to be a good man worth her respect. Without Mattie’s continuous “pushing and shoving,” Marshall Cogburn’s sense of morality would not have been realigned. The effect Mattie has on him is proven when he races against time to save her life after she is bitten by a rattlesnake in the final confrontation with the outlaws. The “fat old man” she met at the beginning would not have fought so hard or so desperately to get her medical attention as the man who traveled with her for weeks did.

Finally, whether one believes Mattie is carrying a torch for Rooster or not, the story makes it clear that she cares deeply for him. His affection and respect for her as an equal, despite her age and sex, strengthens and ennobles her, proven when she tells Cogburn that she wants him to be buried beside her in the family cemetery. Had the Marshall ever ceased to deny Mattie her will from time to time she might not have learned the humility that led her to make this offer. Having come to rely on Cogburn in a paternal manner, Mattie has achieved the grace of humility and accepted, to some degree, her femininity. She may only demonstrate her more womanly qualities in Rooster’s presence, but if she had not associated with him, she may not have acquired either characteristic.

Clearly, this class of heroine provides a great deal of opportunity for authors who wish to introduce romance into their tales. She is, in fact, the most popular kind of female character in fiction today. So if you want to create an amorous dynamic for your hero and heroine that will crackle with passion, future writers, this type of female lead is probably your best bet. As the success of the tales listed above show, female characters in this mold are the ones most audiences best remember and appreciate.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com.

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8 thoughts on “The Three Types of Heroine: A Closer Study of What Makes a Strong Female Protagonist, Part 2

  1. “In order for an author to properly portray this kind of heroine, the writer’s female protagonist must have either lost or sacrificed some aspect of her femininity to enter combat. Again, it must be stated that creating female leads of this kind is perfectly acceptable, future writers. *It only becomes undesirable when an author tries to shoe-horn a heroine from this class into the second category: that of the female warrior who is strengthened by her ties to a hero, whom she ennobles and strengthens through her devotion.*”

    Bingo. You just nailed a pet peeve I’ve had since I was ten years old. Once you’ve picked a character archetype, you can’t change it and remain internally consistent. Cordelia Vorkosigan is a Type 2 heroine even while a ship captain–calm and maternal. Elli Quinn is a Type 1: the warrior who enjoys combat and abhors the thought of settling down to a traditional female role.

    On the note of archetypes, this, Type 2 heroine, if you remove the ‘warrior’ part, is basically the archetypal female adventure character: Lady who inspires her Knight–Beauty, Queen Guenivere, Dejah Thoris. Deconstruct it (she leads the Knight in a bad direction), and you have the femme fatale.

    Whoa, mind blown. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great post. It ties into something that I see sorely lacking in many modern stories (books, TV, etc.) and that is honest romantic love. You articulate the reasons why this can make for such rich, compelling storytelling. Looking forward to part III!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always thought Mattie Ross, especially of the original novel and Coen Bros. movie, more closely fit type 1. Mattie ends up old and alone and extremely difficult to deal with – all of her stubborn grit and strong will that serve her so well on the trail are utterly unsuited to domestic life.

    In fact one might say that Mattie would be happier to be born a man. The lost arm is a visible reminder that Mattie lacks and will always lack the quality she really needs to be truly happy – femininity.

    She is metaphorically missing an arm – she can get by but there is always something missing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Mattie is primarily a Type 1 heroine. My only point in using her as an example for Type 2 was to show that heroines might cross all three “genres” to a degree during a story. Mattie has some Type 2 and 3 traits, but they are eventually overshadowed by her Type 1 attributes, as you say.

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  4. I think it is important to note that type 1 seen as a desired state- “I can get married and live a wonderful domestic life, I just WANT to be a kickass warrior!” – rings false. The character must either be robbed of their femininity, like Black Widow, or deliberately renounce it, like Olivier Armstrong of “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”.

    I’m going to go back to Olivier Armstrong, because I think she represents a really subtle example here. Any time someone mocks her lack of femininity, it makes her REALLY angry. She made a choice, and now that part of her life is gone.

    Being happy about it can work…for a villain. Because they’re nuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Type 1 is definitely being pushed as THE ultimate state for a woman, in and out of fiction. It drives me crazy to hear it, which is why I put so much emphasis on Janeway, Samantha Carter, and Xaverri’s wistful wish for a domestic life or pained remembrance of domestic happiness. A Type 1 heroine can enjoy her career and remain unmarried, but if she doesn’t always look at a family and wonder, “What if…?” then she’s either a villainess in disguise or she’s treading dangerously close to the Dark Side.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Three Types of Heroine: A Closer Study of What Makes a Strong Female Protagonist, Part 3 | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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