Discussion: Male vs. Female Protagonists


I recently read an article entitled “The Harriet Potter Effect” that drew attention to a collection of poll results, highlighting that both men and women preferred to read books with male protagonists.  But why?  One possible explanation could be the prevalence of male “heroes” throughout history, both fictitious and realistic.  Another could encompass a significantly larger number of female readers than males, causing authors to gravitate toward an attractive male protagonist to save the day.  My personal theory: men are a heck of a lot simpler to understand – they don’t try to sugarcoat everything or say the exact opposite of what they truly mean (hint: when asking a girl what she wants for her birthday/Christmas/Valentine’s Day, “nothing” never actually means nothing).

If you’re an extremely indecisive individual (like myself) and are still debating your preference in main character gender, perhaps the following breakdown of stereotypical protagonists will come in handy.

Female Protagonists

Ladies first.  To help me accurately describe the majority of female protagonists, I asked a few fellow bloggers for some adjectives that they would use to describe these characters.  I was able to compile their responses into the following list:

  • moody & hormonal
  • sassy
  • obnoxious
  • predictable
  • needy
  • self-absorbed
  • insecure
  • lacking confidence
  • flawed

Nowadays, most YA books feature either the damsel in distress or the kick-ass female protagonist with very little middle ground.  Needless to say, both stereotypes have their perks and their downsides, and they can be equally annoying at times.  Most of these characters have several insecurities that are revealed later in the story.  And yes, the majority of them do end up falling head over heels for some charming young man.

Male Protagonists

Once again, I turned to some friends for more descriptive adjectives.  The males accumulated a much shorter list than the females:

  • handsome
  • independent
  • brooding
  • perfect
  • confident

Most of the males that grace the pages of YA literature would be classified as popular “book boyfriends” – they appear absolutely flawless at the beginning of the book, but some dark past or undiscovered secret is revealed later in the novel.  In my reading experience at least, very few of them are portrayed as geeky or nerdy, or even ordinary.  They have to be drop-dead gorgeous and completely smooth throughout all social interactions.

While I was seeking insight from my peers to aid me in writing this, Kathy from The Novelty of Life so wonderfully summed this post up:

Recently in the books that I’ve read, the male protagonists are either trying to emulate the “boy next door” image or possessing qualities that make them seem mysterious and in a sense untouchable in pretty much every aspect. I personally think that this bad boy sensation is a rebirth of the byronic hero of Charlotte Bronte’s age.

On the flip side, female protagonists are almost always shown in growth. They often start off with some sort of character flaw that has people underestimating them or viewing them in a negative light and transition into someone who is strong and independent. I think that those two adjectives in particular truly embody the vast majority of female protagonists I have read who were created in recent years in particular.

What about you – do you prefer reading books that highlight a male or a female protagonist?  Does the age of the protagonist have any influence on this?

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I am a senior in high school and an avid reader/reviewer, horseback rider, and graphic designer.  Since a young age, I have fostered a love of reading, beginning with my forays into the Nancy Drew series.  I’ve branched out significantly in my reading tastes since then, and my favorite genres include young adult, romance, mystery, and thriller.  I’m constantly trying to expand my horizons, however, so I do dabble in other genres.  While I’m not reading, I volunteer at a hippotherapy center and a veterinary clinic, practice agility with my dogs, play piano, and sketch.
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2 thoughts on “Discussion: Male vs. Female Protagonists

  1. This is a great discussion. I have never thought about a preference before, but I kind of prefer the female protagonist . . . as long as she isn’t portrayed as a damsel in distress, like you mentioned. I relate to the female protagonists more, I think.


    • I completely agree – I tend to find female protagonists much more relatable, as long as they’re not constantly the damsel in distress! I looked through all of the books that I’ve shelved on Goodreads as five stars over the past year, and about 75% of them had female protagonists (not sure if this is a reflection of my preference of female protagonists or simply a strange coincidence).


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