Fictional survival instincts

So I’ve been realizing (or maybe just finally articulating) that as a reader, there’s something that’s even more important to me than that protagonists, especially female protagonists, have some form of agency.

It’s that for me to truly enjoy following a protagonist on her journey, she cannot be anti-survival.

This doesn’t mean she can’t have weaknesses and make mistakes, even big ones. It definitely doesn’t mean she needs to have ninja-like superpowers, or carry serious weaponry, or be a trained fighter in any form. It does mean that when the Big Evil Thing — whether it’s a supernatural monster or that abusive-but-human guy at school — attacks her, she don’t roll over and let it.

If a protagonist really is going to choose not to defend herself, I need a good reason — good enough a reason that it’s actually a plot point. (Say, she’s been raised to honestly believe believe she can’t defend herself, or isn’t worth defending, and the whole book is about her struggle to come to a better sense of self worth; or the last time she defended herself innocents died horribly, and she isn’t willing to risk that again.)

Otherwise — I don’t care how deeply and passionately in love a protagonist is. I don’t care how deep and meaningful her dreams are. I’m beginning not to even care how convinced she is that no one will listen if she goes for help. (Unless she’s gone for help in the past, and indeed, no one listened and there were terrible consequences.) I want my protagonists make a genuine effort to, well, avoid being eaten by monsters, whether they’re real or metaphorical.

I’m not even all that picky about how a protagonist defends herself, so long as it’s in character — weapons or negotiating or hiding or running like mad are all valid options. I don’t even require that she actually succeed in defending herself — it’s not as if I would do all that well against most monsters myself.

But this business of female protagonists essentially staring dreamily out the window while bad things happen creeps me out. Depending on the story, a protagonist may not have a lot of power, and what power she has may utterly fail to save her. It may come down to luck or true love in the end. I’m all for true love saving the day once in a while.

But please, protagonists, use what power you have. Try to survive.

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