Sunday, February 23, 2014

Strong Female Characters?

There have been plenty of words written about writers writing characters of the opposite sex. About how difficult it is and how poorly done the characters can often be. Usually this means men writing women characters, rather than the other way around. Thriller Guy understands that in the thriller genre, which is authored predominantly by male writers, female characters are often not drawn with the depth of the lead characters. (And TG is being generous in implying that the male leads have much depth themselves.) Even the happy-go-lucky male sidekick has more work put into his characterization than the romantic interest, female team members or superior officers. The truth is, a lot of writing deficiencies get conveniently overlooked when bullets are flying and derring-do is being done.

(In the spirit of TG’s continuing effort to bring book-learning to his readers, allow him to offer a small explanation of the words derring-do in the para above. TG looked it up because he was suddenly afraid that it might be spelled the more logical way, daring-do rather than the way he thought it was spelled. But no… From “Derring-do is the standard spelling of the noun meaning daring deeds or heroic daring (used especially in reference to swashbuckling heroes). The phrase originated in a late 14th-century Geoffrey Chaucer poem, and it has taken many forms over the years—including durring don (in Chaucer, literally meaning daring to do), dorryng do, derring doe, and derrynge do. And given the term’s meaning and history, it is often understandably spelled daring-do. But as far as most English reference books are concerned, derring-do has been the correct spelling since Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe in 1819.)”

Back to our regularly scheduled entry…

Women characters. TG has said, many times, that the “romance” elements attempted by most thriller writers end up being not very romantic and mostly embarrassing. The savvier writers eschew romance completely. TG’s pronouncement is that romance almost never adds anything, and almost always detracts. Part of the problem is most thriller writers don’t understand how to write a romantic scene – they almost always go way overboard – and part of the problem is that their women characters are not very well drawn in the first place. Does TG have an answer for this problem? He suggests putting as much original thought into the female characters, and other secondary characters, as one is going to do with the main character. Write out small, or even large, detailed bios of all characters, not necessarily to put into the manuscript, but to give a solid background when writing about that particular character. (TG is aware how boring this sounds.) Just try harder. Work on it. It’s always fun to write when guns are drawn and shots fired, but sometimes characters have to sit down to dinner or talk while riding in a car. Scenes like this can add texture to a novel, something that many thrillers lack. But we haven’t even arrived at the real subject of this entry: strong female characters.

TG was surprised some weeks ago when following a link to arrive at an essay written in NewStatesman by Sophia McDougall titled I Hate Strong Female Characters. TG’s immediate response was, I thought we were supposed to write strong female characters. But on reading the article, TG has to admit that Ms McDougall has a valid point, and even though she was mostly talking about movies, TG feels the same thinking can be applied to novels and thriller writing in particular. You can go here to read the original article, (as of this moment this link is no longer working, perhaps they'll get it back up) or TG will put it in a nutshell for you.

Her thesis is this: Thriller writers (and moviemakers) are beginning to understand that they need to make female characters more interesting than they have been in the past. So what do they do? The usual response is to make them strong. Tough. Able to fight, shoot and kill as well as any male member of the team. McDougall says this is a mistake, an oversimplification. She uses Sherlock Homes’ characteristics to make her point. “He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius.” In other words, a fascinating character with many fascinating facets. And the usual female thriller heroine? She’s strong, and that’s about it. Maybe a few clichéd characteristics are thrown in – an abusive ex-husband, a failed marriage – but nothing of any serious interest or depth. TG admits there are few heroes or villains of any gender in the thriller field who are as complex as Sherlock, but it might be good for writers to keep the great Holmes in mind when creating their own characters. Hannibal Lechter comes to mind for complexity, but what does Clarice Starling offer other than a stubborn tenaciousness?

Think of movies in general; whenever the point must be quickly made that a woman is going to be no pushover, she cold-cocks some leering Neanderthal and the audience immediately gets the point and pigeonholes her: she’s strong! (Then they cheer.) But, as McDougall points out, at the end she almost always has to be rescued by the hero anyway.

So what’s the takeaway? Like TG said earlier, try harder. Make the same effort with all your characters. Look for nuances in your hero, the villain, the hero’s love interest and all the sidekicks of varying types. Some of you may be asking the question, “So, TG, have you read anything interesting lately where a male author has made the effort with a female character?” TG is glad you asked that question, having reviewed Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews last year and given the book a starred review. Other critics were quick to rush in and pile onto
TG’s coattails. Here’s a bit from the NYT’s review:

 Jason Matthews is a 33-year veteran of the C.I.A. who, according to the press release in front of me, “served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national-security intelligence.” Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut.
The novel pits an ambitious, hotheaded rookie spook, Nathaniel Nash, against a gorgeous Russian intelligence officer named Dominika Egorova. The plot, which swings convincingly between Moscow, Helsinki, Athens and Washington, begins with echoes of Fleming’s “From Russia With Love” — an attractive Soviet “sparrow” is used to compromise a randy Western spy — and ends with an extended homage to the denouement of le Carré’s “Smiley’s People.”

As you can see, the Times loved it. TG interviewed Matthews and found him a mild, self-effacing fellow who is genuinely interested in writing thrillers that are not just action oriented but built on interesting many-faceted characters. Unlike most of the “insiders” who write thrillers after stints in the CIA and other government agencies, Matthews has read in the field and understands the basics and the ground rules. And he is working on a follow up to Red Sparrow.

So here’s the thing. TG finds many thriller writers woefully unable to create interesting complicated characters. For nuance they give their heroes a dead wife to weep about, or maybe a dead kid. They make them drunks, or washed up. And the women characters? They make them strong, when they bother to give them anything besides beauty and large breasts. Maybe they give them self-defense skills. And that’s about it. Until thriller writers learn or work hard enough to create great characters, their genre (our genre) is always going to rest on the bottom of the pantheon, somewhere slightly above romance novels but beneath pretty much all the other genres as far as literary quality is concerned.

Yes, TG understands, thriller readers don’t care about literary quality, it’s all about the guns. But maybe it’s time, my brothers, to start aiming higher.

TG has decided to write his next blogs showing the Ten Shopworn, Clichéd, Overused Characteristics of Thriller Characters: Heroes, Villains Sidekicks, Romantic Interests. Then he will follow up with the Ten Tired Thriller Plots. Again, the takeaway? You can keep making the same mistakes, or you can learn and change your ways, it’s up to you.


  1. Looking forward to avoiding cliches that's for sure. I did some digging to find the article you mentioned above. I think it'll be a nice challenge to make a more interesting female character, my wife certainly won't let me do otherwise. :) Here is a working link:

  2. Having just finished an 87000 word thriller with a Strong Female Protagonist I think I might need to get my scalpel out...

    1. I'm sure your strong female character is strong in all the right ways. Excellent blog.

    2. Thanks for your kind words, Allen, been checking in here for a dose of wisdom for about six months.