Protagonists and Readers

Greetings from a cold Ireland.  My brain is jumbled up with thoughts today, and I’m not sure how coherent this blog post will be.  I’ll strive to do my best, however!

I read an excellent blog post on the gender of protagonists in fiction yesterday, and whether child readers respond better to stories where the protagonist is the same gender as themselves.  I’m not quite sure how links work, but I’ll try this and hope it’s not illegal or immoral, or anything: This issue interests me because my WiP features a female ‘lead character’, who is not a typical heroine; I have often wondered if she will appeal to boy readers, and I think it’s a vital question to ask.  The author of the blog questions whether boy readers are less likely to engage with a female protagonist than girl readers are to a male protagonist, and I think there might be something in that viewpoint.  I started thinking about female characters in fiction, generally, and why there are so few heroines as opposed to heroes, and whether this is something that needs to be addressed.

This blog post interested me so much that I actually rooted out one of the Middle English romances that I did some research on, years ago, because I remembered there being a wonderful female character in it.  After some rather dusty poking about under the stairs, I eventually found it.  The text is called ‘Ywain and Gawain’, and the character I remembered so well was named Lunet.  A potted summary of the text runs something like: knight goes on a quest, meets a variety of fabulous beasts and wonderful characters; a mysterious girl (possibly a fairy – it’s never fully explained) helps him to win the heart of the woman of his dreams, which he goes on to betray and, hence, lose; knight goes into the wilderness and goes a bit mad for a while, picking up a faithful lion companion on the way; enigmatic girl helps him restore his sanity and win back his wife.  Cue joyful and triumphant conclusion, of course.  It’s one of my favourite texts for many reasons, not least of which is the marvellous lion, but I really love it because of Lunet, the possibly fae-girl, who – while not being the protagonist, exactly – is absolutely vital to the plot.  Without her, the knight would never have won back his lady, they would never have lived together in harmony, and the kingdom wouldn’t have been restored.  Normally, in romances, the standard reward for a female character is marriage – the princess gets her prince (and, by extension, the prince gets her kingdom, but we won’t go there), and the faithful serving lady usually gets married off to a lesser nobleman, and everyone goes home happy.  But Lunet is different.  Lunet is asked what she wants for a reward at the end of the text, and she clearly says something unexpected, because it is described like this:

‘And trew Lunet, the maiden hende./

Was honord ever with ald and ying/

And lifed at hir owin liking;/

Of alkins thing sho has maystri,/

Next the lord and the lady… (lines 4014-4018)

Loosely modernised, this means: ‘And true Lunet, the fair maiden, was honoured for ever among old and young.  She lived just as she pleased, and she had mastery/control over everything, after the lord and the lady.’  She gets (and asks for) no husband, and she is left to live as she wants to.  I can’t stress enough how much this stuck in my mind when I first read it.  It’s so unusual as to be unique, at least in my experience of the medieval romance.  I wondered what happened to this type of female character, and why she crops up so infrequently.

Even in the modern world, with our Katniss Everdeens and our Katsas and Queen Bitterblues, we still struggle to shake off the idea that for a story to end completely, the female characters need to get a man, or get married, or settle down in some way.  For instance, I love ‘The Hunger Games’ books, but one thing that enraged me about the ending was the way Katniss was forced, in a way, to betray her own desires for her future.  I don’t want to give away too much in case you haven’t read it, but when you do, I hope you’ll know what I mean.  It wasn’t enough that she suffered as much as she had, and achieved the great things she’d achieved – she also had to sacrifice something vital, and something she had sworn to herself, because a male character wanted her to.  I can’t help but wish it had been written differently.  I’d love to see more Lunets in literature – heck, I’d even love to see more Wives of Bath!  I know her character is defined by her husbands, too, but she’s the one doing the pursuing.  I don’t think anyone ever told Alysoun of Bath what she could and couldn’t do.

It’s funny that there are characters in medieval literature that seem somewhat more ‘modern’ in their viewpoints than some contemporary heroines.  Of course, though, it’s not as simple as this.  The majority of female characters in medieval texts are either not important at all, or do end up married or otherwise under the control of a male character.  Even in ‘Ywain and Gawain’, you could argue that Lunet is such a singular woman because she has an element of the supernatural about her – it’s like the author couldn’t conceive of a fully human woman who didn’t strive at all times to find a husband.  The ‘romance’ novels we have nowadays didn’t develop in a vacuum; they owe a lot to the medieval romances of the past.  I just can’t help thinking that more boys would read and enjoy books where girls are the main characters if those characters didn’t always have to end up giving away their power at the end of their story.  Maybe those same boy-readers would then go on to become men who would expect women to own their own choices and responsibilities, and who’d accept nothing less.  And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

8 thoughts on “Protagonists and Readers

  1. Sam Seudo (@samseudo)

    Great post on an interesting topic (and in the setting of a “jumbled up” brain, too!) Never read “Ywain and Gawain,” but this Lunet sounds like my kinda gal. 😀 Obviously this is just my opinion, but I think that social pressures play a big role in why female protagonists seem to appeal less to young male readers. A lot of parents discourage their boys from reading books with female protagonists. Then once the boys get older, they themselves worry about what their male friends might think of them reading books with female leads. This is, of course, a generalization. When I was a boy, I think I enjoyed books with male and female protagonists equally. I might describe myself as a non-heterosexual “softcore gender-bender,” though, so I think I’ve always been less inclined to restrict myself to doing and liking “boy things.” But now I’m just rambling! I agree that female protagonists might appeal to young male readers more if they were portrayed differently in general, but unfortunately I think a lot of other social factors need to change before larger numbers of them start embracing female characters en masse.

    1. sjohart

      Holy cow, I have intelligent readers! 🙂 Thank you for this observation. I think you’re right, and it is a real shame. I hope (if my current WiP ever sees the light of day, that is) that boys will appreciate my girl-hero as an all-round interesting character, not just a wuss because she’s a female, regardless of how much cool stuff she gets up to. *crosses fingers*

  2. Rand Howard

    My 13 year old grand-daughter would scoff,”do boys read! can boys read?”. She is in the stage where she is cynical about everything except science. But, I think she and her friends are part of generation where planning a career is more important than having a boy friend. Not having any grand-sons, I not sure where boys are these days. I do know that girls/woman are moving into many areas where it was previously mostly males and I see it only growing.

    Thinking back to when I was a boy and the first heroine I remember, was Juana in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which I read in high school. She is like many of Steinbeck’s heroines, strong leaders of the family with the ability to act forcefully and quickly in times of crisis. And, lately I have been reading Octavia Butler and her heroines, who are protagonists on there own against many forces para-normal and societal, being young black women in America.

    Your post has me thinking about my own WiP and how best to present the heroine. My thought all along was that she would be protagonist liken to Octavia Butler’s. The legend of Finn Bheara is definitely not favorable to women and the young protagonist would bring him into the reality of the 21st century. How best to do that so as to appeal to general readership, I had not given much thought to.

    Great post.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      You know, it’s funny – sometimes I think women write ‘sappier’ heroines than men do. Sometimes!! I love Juana in ‘The Pearl’, too – I think Steinbeck had a good way with female characters in general. Perhaps my post is coloured with my experience of YA novels, where romance is a huge theme. Of course, relationships are important, and they’re a huge part of growing up – so they have a vital place in YA fiction. But part of me wishes readers and writers would show that relationships aren’t the *only* thing that girls are interested in. Not this ‘girl’, anyway. 🙂 I’m glad I gave you food for thought re. your own WiP. I hope it’s going well.

  3. Kate Curtis

    Thank you for this – fascinating topic. I think that there is some truth that young boys find it more difficult to relate to female protagonists. I think too this can be especially daunting if they’ve had trouble getting into reading in the first place. But too, there are social pressures for some boys not to be seen reading perceptually “sissy” books.

    Recently, I read a book in first person and I was a few chapters in before I discovered that I’d incorrectly assumed the narrator was male. I found this intriguing. Why had I presumed male? It also indicated that the book would have worked just as well if she had been male. So interesting.

    1. sjohart

      That’s an amazing concept re. first person narration – I’m intrigued by that! What an excellent idea, and more effective a way of breaking through gender restrictions than what I was proposing in my blog.

      It’s such a shame that boys are put under pressure not to behave in certain ways because it’s ‘sissy’. I *hate* that word so much! Thank you for your comment; really great food for thought there.


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