There’s always talk about how to make a good female protagonist. It should be noted that there is no one way to do it, but these tips will help you create a character that isn’t flat on the page.

A woman with glasses looking for something on a library book shelf with the text "How to Make a Good Female Protagonist"

Original photo by Clay Banks 

When it comes learning how to make a good female protagonist, there are a lot of factors to consider. And unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to say what not to do than to explain what should be done.

I also think good is a relative term, and maybe when we mean good in this context, we mean believable. Or maybe we mean complex. We could also mean understandable.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a female protagonist — just as much as goes into creating a male protagonist.

There's a lot that goes into creating a female protagonist -- just as much as goes into creating a male protagonist. Share on X

So, it’s with that in mind that I give you these tips, and a reading list of books for you to check out some examples of good female protagonists.

How to Make a Good Female Protagonist

I think it should be noted that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to making a good female protagonist. Instead, I have a few guidelines.

001: Human first.

I think sometimes writers rely too much on stereotypes or portraying female characters as overly fragile.

I don’t think this works for a number of reasons, but mostly because we live in an era where that fragility has largely been proven to be false.

Sure, there are women out there who are fragile and who aspire to meet all the benchmarks of stereotypical femininity. Looks, size, and personality traits all come in to play here, but I want to throw this idea out here: Even if there are people in real life who are placeholders for the ideal version of their presented gender, they wouldn’t make great characters.

Instead, focus on the things that make the character human. What drives this woman? What does she want more than anything? How does she solve the problems presented to her?

If you answer all those with some kind of stereotype, then your character will fall flat, and thus, won’t be a good female protagonist.

002: Agency always.

When you read a good book, it’s easy to see how the characters and the choices they make are driving the story. When the story drives the characters, it’s hard to enjoy it.

And it’s with that in mind that I encourage you to give your character some agency.

Sure, women haven’t always had the same agency they have now, nor are they always able to explore or embody that agency in their daily lives.

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But ultimately, we need to see this character make decisions for herself. We need to see how her choices are driving the story.

And it would be nice if every now and again stories that portray female agency aren’t tragedies. I think we’re done with stories where women who choose career over love, or where women who choose not to have kids are punished in the narrative by a sudden or unnecessary death.

Women can have cake and eat it too, you know.

003: Antiheroes come in all genders.

Truth be told, I’m pretty much done with antiheroes all together. I think the trope has been done to death, and I’d rather just see an average Joe (or Jane) try to overcome their circumstances.

But, if literarily, we are going to uplift the novels with terrible male antiheroes, then we need to do the same with female antiheroes.

Women are just as capable as men of doing drugs, making poor choices, or doing things that we don’t typically ascribe to female characters.

So let your female protagonist have traits that are undesirable. Maybe she’s a slacker. Maybe she sleeps around. Maybe she does drugs.

Basically, if it happened in Bukowski’s Factotum, the women in your story can do the same.

Basically, if it happened in Bukowski's Factotum, the women in your story can do the same. Share on X

Books with Good Female Protagonists

001: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Granted, this book has many characters, but Shana is my favorite character, and the character who starts the whole story.

She’s a teenage burnout, and she’s ready to be done with high school. But one day her sister starts sleep walking. And thus begins a 780-page book, and I’m not going to tell you anymore.

What I like about Shana is that she makes her choices. She’s fierce and protective, but doesn’t care so much about her own reputation or how she looks.

There are other great characters in this book, by the way — both male and female. Wendig’s strength is not only in his ability to convey really complex topics in an easy to read way (lots of science in this tome), but his characters are alway so clear and easy to envision.

002: Next Girl to Die by Dea Poirier

I just finished this one the other day, and I liked a lot of things about this book.

I’m not one to guess who the killer is, pretty much ever, just because I approach life with the mentality that at any point, anyone could murder me. (It’s not healthy.) But if you are the type that needs to be shocked by the end, this may not be your book.

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What I like most is how clear the female protagonist, a detective, is. Her motivations are apparent, and you can see how every past experience this detective had is shaping who she is and how she approaches her work.

Also, you get a lot of the main character’s thoughts in this one, so you can see clearly why she is making decisions, and how she approaches conversations where she, a shorter woman, may have to verbally strong arm a man.

003: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I think it’s important to show the inner lives of women, especially in patriarchal contexts, and The Poisonwood Bible does this well.

Each of the Price women are given a voice in this book, and the father, Nathan, a Southern Baptist minister who drags his family to the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, does not. This is strategic. His motivations are clear. Why the women follow him and do what they do is what takes the story to tell.

(I fully acknowledge that last sentence was weird but I’m leaving it because I like it.)

I have to say that I was most intrigued by Orleanna, the mother, and the choices she made, and how clearly Kingsolver is able to justify these choices through the storytelling.

And I’ve had a few people tell me they’ve never read this book because they don’t like colonialist stories. Neither do I. This book definitely illustrates how the Price family shouldn’t have been there, and how the presences of colonial forces destabilized the entire African continent.

So, yeah. There’s no point where you’re rooting for destruction of the cultures indigenous to Africa.

004: A Widow for One Year by John Irving

Shout out to John Irving for being there for me the summer when I was 21. I really needed him, and just typing this reminds me how much a great writer can bring me out of a depression.

This book is split into sections. The female protagonist I’m talking about here is Ruth, but she doesn’t take control of the narrative for a while. The story begins focusing on her father, a children’s book author, and moves on to her life when she’s an adult.

(The first section was made into a movie called The Door in the Floor starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.)

The sections dealing with Ruth’s life cover everything from a distressing sexual assault scene to her marriage, the death of her first husband, and how she falls in love again just a year later.

There’s a lot more that happens. This is an Irving novel, and if you’ve never read any Irving, I recommend starting here or with A Prayer for Owen Meany.

005: Where’d You Go, Berndadette by Maria Semple

This book was such a joy to read and the protagonist is flawed and exceptional at the same time.

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Yes, this has been made into a movie. Yes, the previews gave away the entire plot. Yes, apparently the movie is already out and on streaming services. Yes, the movie has a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The great thing about the book is you slowly learn about Bernadette, who she is, what she came from, the traumatic experience that brought her to where she is now, and how she overcomes it.

Also, there is a hilarious relationship with a neighbor, and I absolutely love the snide comments regarding Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

006: Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

If you like YA and creepy as hell stories set in the south, grab this book.

After a hurricane sweeps through Savannah, Georgia, our protagonist, Dovey, is medicated to help her deal with the death of her friend, Carly. She believes her friend was taken by the storm, but then she starts to see things that make her doubt this.

I truly enjoyed reading this one, and watching Dovey go from depressed and numb to active and in control. It was also a truly creepy story, which is something that I really enjoy.

007: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

This story is not for everyone. Remember when I mentioned that we need antiheroes too?

This story follows an American expat Anna, who lives in Zurich with her Swiss husband and their children. Anna is hard to root for, and you are literally reading a story of a woman destroying her own life.

Anna’s choices are clear, and reading this can feel like you’re watching someone spiral out of control.

Fair warning: There is a scene of domestic violence in this book. And I don’t think it’s the best example of a female antihero. So, I’d love to get some recs from you!

What sort of traits are you looking for when it comes to female protagonists? Share on X

How Do You Make a Good Female Protagonist?

What sort of traits are you looking for when it comes to female protagonists? What books would you recommend that show off good female protagonists? What’s your stance on antiheroes?

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