I had a discussion with someone who claimed she'd once read (though she couldn't remember the source) that men can identify and empathize with male as well as female protagonists, while women identify better with female protagonists (the claim being, they can certainly sympathize with male protagonists, but identification is harder).

To me, this seems like a gross and peculiar generalization (though it's hard to say more about it without knowing the source). Still, if it's hypothetically valid, it would create some odd dynamics in stories with a male protagonist and a female antagonist.

I was wondering if anyone has heard of anything related to that - if you also remember any possible source, it'd be a bonus.

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    I feel that this is too subjective. In what context is the story in? For example, if someone writes a smutty/dirty novel, indeed I can see your friend's point of view as being valid if the text central focus is in the engagement of the act. If the writer is writing a romance novel, then I would have to disagree with your friend. Romance, love, and other feelings differ too strongly to be able to make a definitive statement. Who's to say my perception of love is not as strong (I'm a man)? Could be? But compared to who?
    – Tucker
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 7:21
  • You could look at book sales. In your example, romance novels are heavily favored by women. It's hard to draw conclusions from such a fact, but in an informal discussion between dudes, it doesn't seem unreasonable. Still, I'd agree it's a gross generalization that really shouldn't affect a writer's instinct of plotline.
    – Stu W
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 10:28
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    You could try asking this question on Skeptics , they're pretty good at finding relevant research results. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 9:12
  • People identify with what is already in their background/understanding. The issue is that this consists of many more factors than just sex/sexual orientation. Good characters will have enough in common with the readers so that they can be understood or empathized with. I'm sure men find it a bit easier to understand men and women - women, but underneath that, we're all human beings with all the same issues. If there's a dynamic such as you suggest, then that could be a good thing for your story.
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 19:31

4 Answers 4


I've had a related discussion with my wife two weeks ago about whether there's anything significant about men writing a female protagonist and women writing a male protagonist. For example, Robin Hobb writing about FitzChivalry, or Witi Ihimaera writing about Paikea.

In the end, my wife and I concluded together that the protagonist's gender is really only a small part of what makes a reader identify or empathize with the protagonist.

The larger part that causes the reader to engage with the protagonist is how similarly or dissimilarly the protagonist's experiences and objectives match the readers own life experiences and objectives. We found that my wife's upbringing and my own upbringing have lead us to enjoy and desire different qualities in our protagonists.

Also, in some cases, a secondary character induces a sense of identity and empathy that may also not align by gender. For example, my daughter connects more with Draco Malfoy over Hermione Granger. Go figure.

Here's a secret for you. If there were an article that stated, "that men can identify and empathize with male as well as female protagonists, while women identify better with female protagonists", and if your personal experiences and objectives align with this statement, then you may be much more likely to consider the article to be truth.

  • The anime New Game! has an all-female cast, and yet I empathize with them far more than I do many anime casts, because they're all video game developers and I can strongly relate to their struggles. Season 2 was the first anime to make me cry without killing anyone off.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 11:15

men can identify and empathize with male as well as female protagonists, while women identify better with female protagonists (the claim being, they can certainly sympathize with male protagonists, but identification is harder).

Anecdotally, I would consider the reactions of a percentage of male fans to the all-female Ghostbusters, Daisy Ripley's Rey in The Force Awakens, and the female lead of Rogue One, just in the past year, to refute this assertion.

Obviously I am also speaking in gross generalities, but seriously: male leads have dominated fiction in most media for, like, millennia. American fiction is finally reaching a point where female leads are starting to show up more often in bigger-impact works, and a certain subsection of the audience is losing their tiny bigoted minds. These men don't want women to be protagonists in the entertainment they interact with because they cannot empathize or identify with female protagonists. Those female-led stories are outside their experiences, and it makes them uncomfortable and upset when they, and their stories, are not the focus of the tale being told.

There have primarily been male protagonists for a significant majority of time and fiction, so by default, any female readers would only have had male protagonists to emphathize and identify with. Women simply haven't had the option of a woman being the main character driving the story in a Star Wars movie before now. Not that Leia didn't kick ass and keep her head, but the journey was clearly Luke's. So little girls had the option of playing "Leia, the sidekick and love interest," or pretending to be the hero, Luke who is male. (Or Han, the snarky sidekick. I confess I never met anyone who wanted to be Chewie.) Now little girls can be Rey.

I have no particular statistics to back up my assertions either. I think the answer to your question may be yes, but in the opposite way your friend claimed.

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    I don't think I could disagree with your assertions more, from what I've seen it's not the tiny portion of bigoted males in the audience that are slowing things down, it's the faux-outrage and tearing down of successful and strong female roles by women that causes issues - look at the red-carpet questions asked of women by women as an example of belittlement. Most of my male friends don't really care what gender the protagonist is - as long as it's well written. Sex of a character doesn't come into it, unless it's central to the story (i.e. romance novels).
    – user18397
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 23:17
  • @Thomo I am very pleased to hear that of your male friends. As I said above, I have no stats, only observations of my own. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 9:30
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    I think, personally, it comes down to just not noticing/caring about the superficial when it comes to the story. I can't recall a single time when I've read a character and thought "I can't connect because of gender" - it's the same as race or religion - it just doesn't matter unless it's central to the story. There's been plenty of times where I've gone "I just can't connect because it's a whiny, two dimensional cardboard cutout of a character" but not once has that been because of gender.
    – user18397
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 11:40
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    It's an interesting conversation anyway, and one I might take up with my group. Incidentally, I didn't understand the whole Rey thing in Star Wars - I thought hers was one of the strongest characters. Finn on the other hand...not so much (but the stereotypes were lampooned nicely)
    – user18397
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 11:42
  • Agreed. But things seem to be changing even if slowly. Suzanne Collins Hunger Games gender demographics seem to be (I'm not too sure about the source) close to even. And the superb Ancillary books by Ann Leckie, and their unique perspective on gender are brilliant record winners. As a side note there was a study a few years ago about gender imbalance in children's books.
    – armatita
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 10:56

The opposite of this rule, that both men and women identify with a male protagonist, but only women can identify with a female protagonist, has long been used as a standard pretext for focusing exclusively on male protagonists in movies and books. The logic is that you halve your audience with a woman in the lead. Similar arguments are often made against films with black and other minority leads.

However, the science indicates this is entirely spurious folk wisdom invented to justify internalized prejudices.

  • This is where I really hate conversations like these :/ People tend to generalize people and many end up miss labeled (on both sides) due to the generalizations made by both sides. Personally, I could give 2 hoots about a female lead as long as the story is good. I only had an issue with a black storm trooper because Jango Fett is a pacific islander, and all of our previous knowledge of storm troopers are that they are clones which threw off everyone in the trailer. This may have been done on purpose to stir racial talks, but the marketing could have been done better to explain why
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 15:31
  • Instead of leaving a bunch of angry nerds to guess. Once I found out that the army isn't a clone army anymore, I didn't care about Finn being black. But to all the people looking for an argument, they are going to toss aside my notion that it's just an excuse and I am just racist. Ultimately, I think MOST people don't care about sex or race they just want a good story, but people who like to cause issues on both sides tend to blow up issues more so than it needs to be.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 15:34

The fact is that females are grossly under-represented across most fiction. There have been various studies to mathematically prove this (here's one: https://seejane.org/research-informs-empowers/data/). Studies like this show that often there are very few women at all, or there is only one named female character (and they are usually a love interest, or in some way their role is tied to being a woman in a way that doesn't happen for the male characters), or there are a few, but still vastly lower than 50%.

The skew in representation has a huge impact on what we consider normal and how we view the world.

This imbalance would definitely lean towards the opposite of what your friend stated - it would suggest that women would find it easier to identify with and empathise with a male character, because they have so much practise at it. They are expected to do it all the time.

Whereas, men would find it more difficult, because it's not something they are required to do very often.

That this is more likely to be the case is supported by the anecdotal stories that publishers don't believe that boys will read stories with a girl as a protagonist, but don't worry so much about girls refusing to read about male protagonists - such as Harry Potter.

The Hunger Games and Divergent are happy modern exceptions to this, and let's hope they are a sign of changing times, where people care more about the depth and charisma of a character than their gender.

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