I’ve been thinking a lot about opening chapters and crafting relatable characters. I’m so appreciative of all of you who like my Rapunzel character, but overall, I seem to struggle with likeable female leads. Even with Rapunzel I hear from readers that she’s a little too over-the-top, a little too crazy.
My romance heroines are sometimes called bitches or selfish by those who don’t like the stories.
Actually, it seems people either love my female characters or they hate them. I didn’t intentionally write them to be divisive. I write females to be independent and smart with some sort of flaw they have to fix or at least come to terms with during the story.
So what’s going on?
Recently, I read three stories: two urban fantasy and one romance. It occurred to me that the two stories that have a female lead start with the character caring for someone else. In the urban fantasy, she has to save her sister. In the romance, she’s the mother figure for her employees. In the urban fantasy with a male lead, he’s abused by his dad and strikes out on his own. We are made to like him based on how others treat him, not how he treats others.
Hmmm. I began to run through beginnings of stories I like. Bilbo launches his adventure without caring for anyone or anything but his own comfort. Harry is another orphan story—we feel sorry for him and want him out of the bad situation. But in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg gets in a fight to defend her baby brother.
Do female characters have to be caregivers at the beginning of a story for people to relate to them? Why can’t a female strike out on her own for an adventure without any other reason—like a male does?
So I researched. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but I think the findings were interesting enough to post. I picked at least two books from each decade starting in the sixties. They are all fantasy or science fiction. I only looked at the opening chapter. Some of these books I’ve read all of, others only the first chapter. My theory was the boys in the very opening scenes would be unattached while the girls would be caregivers to someone or even an animal.
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, 1964: Taran, a boy, wishes to be a hero but has to be a pig keeper and learn lessons instead. He wants to make a sword, but his mentor forces him to make horseshoes.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, 1968: Lessa is shown as orphaned. She’s also destroyed much of her hold as revenge to Fax who conquered her hold in the past. But it’s contrasted with her attachment to the watch-wher who she cares for when no one is watching.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, 1973: Meg is seen right away defending her baby brother. It is refreshing that in the same chapter we see the baby brother takes care of her possibly more than she take care of him.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 1979: Arthur Dent is completely unattached to everything but his house. He’s launched into adventure when not only his house is demolished for a highway, but the earth is demolished as well.
The Hero and the Crown by Robin Mckinley, 1984: Aerin wishes to go on a diplomatic war mission with her father and army. She isn’t shown as caretaker to anything. She just wants to get out of the castle. It’s a Newbery Award winner and definitely an exception to my theory.
Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! by Terry Brooks, 1986: Ben is a widow who hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife. So the reader does see that he can care. But widowing is a bit of an adult version of being an orphan. Ultimately he’s driven to purchase a Magic Kingdom in a different world because he has no attachments in this world.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, 1997: Great beginning with her rebelling against the enchantment she’s given, but ultimately the first chapter ends with her caring for a sick mom and bargaining for her to get well.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by JK Rowling, 1997: Harry is seen as a baby after his parents die. The first time we see Harry as a child, we hate the Dursley’s, his foster family. Our empathy for Harry hinges on how he’s treated by them, not how he treats others. He does have a “Sucks to be us” conversation with a snake, but I wouldn’t quite categorize it as caring for the snake.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher, 2000: Dresden is a supernatural detective just trying to make money.
Horn by Peter M. Ball, 2009: Miriam Aster is also a detective dealing with the supernatural. Refreshingly, she’s just in it for the money like a man.
Personal Demons by Stacia Kane, 2009: Megan is a radio talk show host who has psychic insights and cares about her caller.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, 2006: Kovac is introduced with a female partner. There’s a gunfight. He doesn’t seem to try to help her much. It’s implied that she can handle things herself. She dies. His feelings for her aren’t clear.
Mad Skills by Walter Greatshell, 2010: Maddy is a cyborg, but we first meet her as a nanny caring for two children whose lives she saves.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, 2006: This one surprised me. Percy cares about a friend who is crippled in the very first chapter.
Pegasus and the Flame by Kate O’Hearn, 2012: Another surprise: Emily has a healthy relationship with her dad while being independent and capable.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008: We see Katniss right away as the caretaker for her whole family.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner, 2009: Thomas wakes up with amnesia and beaten up. He’s incapable of caretaking at the beginning of the book.
These last two are both vampire books, both with female leads. One is hugely popular, and the other is written by an award-winning author but is not nearly as well known:
Sunshine by Robin Mckinley, 2003: The defining lines from the first chapter: “It was a dumb thing to do but not that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.”
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 2005: The defining line from the preface: “Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved.”
Eventually both characters are attacked by vampires. The Sunshine character is attacked because she was trying to get away from her family and friends. The Twilight character thinks she’s saving her mom who’s being used as bait.
Do we sympathize best with female characters who are caretakers? Do authors and publishers consciously make the decision to put females in a position at the beginning of a story where they are taking care of somebody else, even an animal? Or is it something subconscious?
And why do we love stories where males are victims of circumstances or even not victims and get to strike out on their own without a care?
Looking at my stories:
Rapunzel: Stay at Home Mom: Caregiver.
A Sunset Finish: Stephanie can barely take care of herself.
Sienna: Kindergarten teacher, caretaker.
Grace: Victim of circumstances. Trying to put her life back together. Not a caregiver.
So I’m fifty fifty. But the current story I’m working on definitely starts like a male beginning—Gwen wants to break away from her family and get out on her own. Readers don’t always relate to her.
What is the beginning of your favorite story like?
Please post in the comments below. I’m really interested to hear what you think!