I am a middle grade author. I spend my days building a fantasy fiction world that my young readers can escape into when they’ve had a hard day. Or week. Or year. A world that includes female characters like them, ages ten to fourteen. This world also includes characters who remind them of someone at home, at school, on their team, or at an event. One important part of writing for middle grade readers has been learning what types of adventures my targeted audience relates to or likes. For this article, I’d like to focus on female protagonists. Not what others want for young girls. It is easy to find articles written by older women speaking for young girls. I want to know what the girls themselves want. Which types of characters do they admire? Detest? Love to Hate? Root for? What inspires them most as readers? And, most importantly, what real power does a healthy female protagonist have on girls over their lifetime?
As a mom of thirteen-year-old twins, my world is filled with new teenage emotions and activity along with a host of opinions about everything. What’s a middle grade writer to do with such abundance? I take notes. I quote them (they hate this unless they like it – trust me, you’ll know). I recently asked my daughter her opinion about the type of weapon one of the female characters I was creating should wield. She immediately replied, “Give her a really awesome bow.” When I asked another thirteen-year-old girl what skills she thought a female protagonist should excel in, her response included, “She should be super smart, independent, and knowledgeable about weapons from all over the world. Samuri swords would be really cool.” When I asked which internal struggles a female protagonist should work to overcome, she replied, “Perfectionism. Letting others down. Letting herself down.”
My college age niece Cherish Dawsey was more specific in her responses to my question about what her favorite female characters struggle with most. She replied, “Prejudice. Ignorance. Evil.” When I asked her what these female characters’ greatest fears were, she mentioned, “Disappointing family, rejection, and social anxiety.”
Everyone wants to belong. Middle School is all about identity development and exploration. It is one thing to tell girls how they should act or feel in an article. How tough they should be. How independent. To tell them that they can be anything they want to be. As well intended as those words are, I fear they send messages that support an unhealthy aspiration towards perfectionism for women and girls. If girls can be anything they want to be, then the playing field is level. Yet, everyone knows that it’s not. So, let’s not mislead girls about that. The girls I’ve been talking to say they appreciate honesty. This helps them feel seen and heard. I truly believe it is more useful to encourage girls to explore their interests, to practice embracing change and uncertainty, to value different leadership styles, and to know they will and should fail over and over in order to succeed. It’s also worth knowing that what we don’t like can be just as valuable as knowing what we do enjoy, so our experiences should be broad and varied.
My daughter’s response to my first question about a bow for my female protagonist triggered a sudden cascading recollection of similar responses from her in the past: a request for a bow and arrow set as a gift after learning how to use a bow in her middle school P.E. class, a costume of a woodland elf with a bow that she wore in elementary school. And then, I remembered that her favorite movies are Brave by Pixar Animation Studios and Hunger Games, an American dystopian action film series, both portraying a female protagonist skilled with a bow. Suddenly, the lightbulb went off. My daughter’s initial interest in learning to use a bow came from watching the film as a little girl. She didn’t know anyone who used a bow in real life. In the film, my daughter was introduced to images of a female protagonist mastering the technique of using a bow and arrow through visual storytelling. Then, she watched another female protagonist lead using a bow in another film. My young daughter was paying attention. Our girls are paying attention!
Reading about inspiring female protagonists has REAL POWER. Well-written stories can truly counter unhealthy messages girls encounter each and every day with positive ones. And let me be honest here. These positive messages also have a positive impact on older women, too. The more we listen to girls and write, the more we show and don’t just tell girls what’s possible in life.
Here are the top five requests that young girls want writers to know about female protagonists:
- Let the girl lead. In order to make mistakes, you have to be making the decisions. Not helping other characters make the decisions. Not providing the key information or support that the male protagonist needs to save the day. Girls want to be in the action. They want to hold the coolest weapon. They want to give the signal or decipher the code that saves the world.
- Show that it’s okay to just finish the task. Don’t get caught up in every detail. Perfectionism is dangerous for mental health and sanity. “Done is better than perfect.” – Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, author, founder of Lean In)
- Show how inclusion matters in relationships and in communities. A strong female protagonist’s journey should reflect elements that we become stronger when we work together. Girls want to see female protagonists who look like them and share similar struggles and experiences. When we recognize that we all have unique strengths and flaws, we feel less judged. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Dr. Maya Angelou (American poet, singer, civil rights activist)
- Write scenes that show girls helping each other. We are taught in society that girls are often competition for each other. In reality, we are often each other’s strongest allies and confidents.
- Write female protagonists who like themselves and are intrinsically proud of their hard work. Don’t have the female lead save the day only to have the narrator or an adult character explain the importance of what their character just did. Have the female protagonist narrate what she did and why. “It’s not your job to like me; it’s mine.” – Byron Katie (author, The Work)
The world needs more writers to listen to our girls and write powerful, relatable, female protagonist characters who inspire readers to dream. As a writer who has fought hard for the opportunity to write full time for a whole year, I am finally proud to be the mother my daughter looks up to each day. I am finally proud of myself. The following quote by Beyonce seems to sum it all up; “Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.” It’s time to raise for writers to raise the bar. Let’s show our girls what’s possible.
Blog post by KJ Martin March 21, 2022