Wednesday, July 7, 2021

3 Lessons From Writing A Female Protagonist


Babylon Red was my first attempt at writing a novel-length work anchored by a female protagonist. Unlike other modern fiction, I sought to write a female character, not a man with breasts. She had to think, talk, act and feel like a woman. How she sees and interacts with the world and other characters is grounded in her biology. To do this, I set three principles to guide her character.

This article is not about how to write a Strong Female Character™. You’ll find countless articles on how to do that from other sources, including actual women. This piece is an extension of those articles. It is about how to add an extra touch of authenticity, especially in a setting that demands intense action against terrible odds.

Play to Your Strengths

Every character has strengths and weaknesses. Kayla Fox is no different. She is a long-range specialist, with secondary skills in social engineering and cyberwarfare. It’s only logical for her to focus on tasks that make full use of her talents, and avoids her weaknesses.

Women are biologically weaker than men. No matter how long and how hard feminists complain about it, this is a fact borne out by militaries and police agencies the world over. Men can lift heavier loads, run faster and further, exert greater muscular force and absorb more force than women—abilities which are necessary in the field.

In terms of physical fitness, Kayla stands at the top 1 percent of women. She has received extensive training, she maintains her fitness throughout the series, and she has muscle growth implants to help her keep up with the men. She is as fit as a female Olympian, and a female Olympian has roughly the same physical capabilities as a fit 14-year-old boy.

You want proof? Check the female Olympic records, and compare them to world records set by 14-year-old boys. You will see that their performance is roughly on par.

Kayla Fox is as strong and fit as a boy half her age. This is not a knock against her—she is one of the fittest women in existence. But her biology places a hard limit on what she can do.

In the world of Babylon, monsters roam the streets. A mild-mannered accountant can suddenly erupt into a gigantic bipedal elephant. A dirty waif might be a total body conversion cyborg in disguise, hiding a frame capable of superhuman performance. The Elect of a lesser god has twice the strength, speed and endurance of a regular human, and an Elect of one of the New Gods is more powerful still.

Close combat tactics is determined by your ability to take damage. A huge, strong man can charge headlong into battle because he can absorb incoming attacks. A woman cannot hope to do the same. Her bones are weaker than a man’s, her frame less sturdy. A punch that would merely annoy the man would floor the woman. When the expected threat is much stronger and faster than a baseline male, there is no way a woman, even Kayla, can hope to confront the threat head-on.

Hence, guns.

By using firearms, Kayla takes out muscle and speed from the combat equation. It doesn’t take much strength to aim a gun, and even less to pull a trigger. She sets up in a sniper hide a distance from the fight, which eliminates the need for moving quickly while hauling around heavy weights in a dynamic situation.

The gun is the great equalizer. Or in a woman’s case, a superpower.

Adrenaline affects women differently from men. Men experience adrenaline as a short, sharp spike. It comes hard and fast, and quickly dissipates. In women, however, it takes a longer time for adrenaline to build up, and an equally longer time for the effects to fade away.

In the opening seconds of a critical situation, women do not experience the boost in strength, speed, stamina and aggression most men do. The adrenaline simply hasn’t kicked in yet. At the same time, they also do not experience the tunnel vision and loss of fine motor control that comes with an adrenaline rush.

Precision shooting is a fine motor skill.

And Kayla Fox is a sniper.

Kayla always chooses the gun from long range whenever she can. She plays to her strengths and avoids her weaknesses. She will never go hands-on with a threat if she can help it, especially an Elect who has transformed into a monster.

If she does have to go in close, she is usually performing social engineering. She is working in plainclothes to gain access to restricted areas and information.

Women are not seen as physical threats. It is simple biology: women are weaker than men. Further, women tend to be better at expressing and perceiving emotions than men. In a social engineering context, this gives Kayla the edge when she needs to manipulate people into giving up information and access, and in convincing others that she is a harmless civilian.

The art of war is simple: utilize your strengths against your enemy’s weakness, and avoid giving him a chance to use his strengths against your weakness. By staying out of range of enemy attack, and by manipulating others, she uses her strengths against weaknesses.

And when she is forced into face-to-face confrontations, the scene becomes that much more dramatic.

Male-Female Polarity

Kayla Fox is a woman. The rest of Team Black Watch are all men.

No matter how professional they may try to be, there is no getting around biology. Sexual differences inform every interaction and conversation they have. Modern writers try to paper it over, or have their Strong Female Character act like a man.

I prefer to highlight and work with these differences.

Kayla treats most of her fellow operators as brothers. She has a younger brother dynamic with Karim Mustafa and Zen Tan. She treats Will Connor as a peer, but is a bit more sensitive to avoid unnecessarily setting off his temper. She looks up to James Wood as a superior and an elder brother, and is more likely to follow his lead.

The men on the other hand… as much as they try to reciprocate, she is still a woman. Sexual dynamics are always in the background. Connor has to remind himself to act appropriately around her. Wood assigns her to watch over the next Sheriff of Moreno, because the Sheriff is also a woman. Karim keeps his distance, having once seen Yuri and Kayla interact. Zen is the man she feels second-closest to, because they are used to working in a sniper-spotter pair, and he can be more open to her.

As for Yuri Yamamoto… it gets complicated.

Modern Strong Female Characters prove themselves by butting into a situation, imposing their will on others, slapping down men, and generally being loud and domineering. Kayla takes the opposite approach.

In every story, she recognizes she came in to help her comrades. Bossing them around doesn’t help the situation. She treats them with respect, earned from years of shared blood, sweat and toil, a respect that the men reciprocate.

Not only that, she doesn’t know as much as the situation as the men do. While she has specialist skills, she doesn’t have the same degree of on-the-ground knowledge as they do. In situations that require her partners’ knowledge and abilities, she defers to them. In the same fashion, in matters of sniping and social engineering, they let her take charge.

Politically incorrect? Yes. Authentic? Also, yes. The former doesn’t matter. The latter means everything.

Do the Work

In a critical situation, there is no time for whining, complaining, or useless arguments. It doesn’t matter how disgusting the job may feel, how reluctant you may be to do it, or how difficult you think it is. If it has to be done, it has to be done.

Kayla Fox embodies that mindset. How she personally feels about a situation is a secondary concern, if at all. What matters is whether it has to be done, and if so, how to do it. Once committed, she throws herself into the process, putting in as much effort as the rest of her team, if not more so.

Do the Work. This is what matters most. The long, hard, thankless, but necessary work of holding the line against the depredations of the New Gods and their pet monsters. To do the work is to commit yourself to shoulder the grim burden of duty and carry on, no matter how hopeless or impossible it may seem, because it has to be done. To abandon that responsibility would be to fail yourself and everyone around you. To even admit to not want to do the work is to invite weakness, to open a crack in your psyche that might one day tear you apart.

 Kayla recognizes the weight of the work ahead. Nonetheless, she acts in complete faith in herself and those around her. She is reliable and steadfast, and commits herself to the work day after day. She meets the task with good cheer and builds up everyone around her. She does the work, and she helps everyone around her do it.

This, more than anything else, defines her as an operator.

Want to see Kayla Fox in action? Check out Babylon Red here!

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