Tough Female Characters

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So I just had an interesting conversation with a Facebook friend who is a voracious thriller reader about using a woman as the main protagonist in the genre. He’s been around the block a time or two and has read tons of both traditionally and indie published thrillers, so I generally listen to what he has to say. He’d just been introduced to Leine Basso, the protagonist in my second series, and mentioned in passing that Leine was what he deemed a “tough broad,” and, although the protagonist’s domain in traditional thrillers has typically been a men’s-only club, he thoroughly enjoyed reading about a woman who was as tough and accomplished as any male character.

And that got me thinking.

I write strong female characters because I can’t/couldn’t find that kind of protagonist in the books I like to read. Yes, I’ve read action-adventure novels with strong female protagonists written by both male and female writers, but of those I’ve read I come away with two main complaints: either the character is some guy’s wet dream (sorry, couldn’t think of a more appropriate description) where, for all intents and purposes, she’s a man in a woman’s body and has the emotional depth of a robot (no offense to any AI fans out there), or she’s tough as nails and self-sufficient until a good-looking man comes along. Then she turns into starry-eyed goo, or worse, lets the guy take over the fighting/sleuthing/whatever. To date, I haven’t read many novels that have a strong female action-adventure protag who kicks people’s asses without apology but also acts like a real human being, with all the inherent flaws. And don’t get me started on the air-brushed babes who can run in heels without falling and who are never without their lipstick. Ugh. Who can identify with that?

Obviously, not me😀 .  (Seriously. You do not want to see me try to run in heels. Or maybe you do–it’s pretty hilarious…the things I do for research.)

Maybe I just haven’t read the right authors. And I’m not talking about brainy female characters who use their smarts to solve a mystery but don’t know how to fight or shoot or kill someone with a piano wire, although those definitely have merit.

My question to you is this: have you read an action thriller with a main female protagonist who doesn’t come off as a man in women’s clothing (which could be a fun genre–Transvestite action-thriller?), or who melts at the sight of a good-looking guy? I’d love to read it.

About dvberkom

Bestselling author of the Kate Jones and Leine Basso thrillers. View all posts by dvberkom

44 responses to “Tough Female Characters

  • Yvonne Hertzberger

    I like where you’re going with this. Although I do not normally read action thrillers (I prefer more character based fiction) I do think it’s time we see female protagonists who are all their male counterparts are. And that means they don’t give up their ‘selves’ for a relationship. I’d love to see it play out that relationships remain possible where both sides give and take and both remain strong and independent.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Marilynn Larew

    I try to write that kind of character – Lee Carruthers – in THE SPIDER CATCHERS. Don’t you just love the gal who has to be rescued by a guy all the time? Lee always rescues herself, and, in the upcoming DEAD IN DUBAI, rescues her partner. She hasn’t really kicked any asses yet, although I’m sure she would if one offered.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Charles Ray

    Youve got me thinking. Maybe I’ll write one. As someone who was raised by a ‘tough-as-nails’ grandmother, I identify with the tough female character.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Elisabeth Zguta

    I know a tough woman protagonist – Erin Solomon… she doesn’t apologize for her behavior or ask permission for anything😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      Good choice, Elisabeth! Erin’s an awesome character. She’s an amateur sleuth, for those who don’t know the series, and so far has 4 mysteries (out of a planned 5) to her name. Definitely worth a read.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Polly Iyer

    Interesting question. I can’t say that I can remember reading any, other than yours and Madame Larew’s. I’m thinking Lara Croft types. Carrie on Homeland is close to what you’re describing, and though she’s a bit of a nutcase, she’s tough and daring. There are some female FBI agents and cops in books who are pretty kickass, but due to the confines of their profession, they can’t turn into Joe Pike and keep their jobs. I also think it’s very tricky to write a female character like that. I’ve never tried to write one. My females are all independent, but I wouldn’t call them kickass.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Polly Iyer

    Whether or not you accept the double standard, it’s there. I hate that, but it’s true. We’ve come a long way, but there’s a fine line between a woman who’s a ball buster and one who does the job she needs to do and still remains, I hate to say feminine, but I’ll say female. Cross that line, and your character becomes unrealistic or comes off as a female superhero. Now if she’s an ex-jock, a competitor of some kind, that makes her more real and believable. I guess it depends whether you’re writing a tongue in cheek series like Jack Reacher or Joe Pike (come on, no one is that good, but readers accept them and love them), or you’re writing a Lucas Davenport, Dave Robicheaux character who’s taken seriously. Both are great, just different. Reacher and Pike have backgrounds. I would expect a female Joe Pike to have one too. Does that sound logical?

    Liked by 1 person

  • dvberkom

    I would say Leine Basso falls into a gray area between the Reacher/Davenport characters. She’s got a background (former assassin) and she’s realistic–one of my early readers (and former Chicago cop) would kick my a$$ if I crossed the reality line. I’ve been told by readers that Leine is all female, but tough. I think the whole trick is to show the character being vulnerable (male or female). But not too much–I really hate it when a character gets too weepy. Probably because I hate when I do it😀

    Like

  • Polly Iyer

    I’ve read some Kate Jones and was just going to buy Serial Date, but, yippee, I’d already bought it. I could use me a little tough female protag. Looking forward to her. Just have two books I’ve committed to first. Need more time.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Marilynn Larew

    There has to be woman inside the tough exterior, or you have nothing but a charicature, as in Wonder Woman. Tough enough to get the job done but still be vulnerable.She may, perhaps must, be flip about her response to having been in danger, but she has to have a response.

    For a series character, relationships are more difficult. True partners are as difficult to write as they are to live.

    Will somebody tell me about Erin Solomon please?

    Liked by 1 person

  • Marilynn Larew

    The comment about vulnerability being both male and female is a good one. Would the vulnerability show itself similarly in a man and in a woman? Or would it be different? The human body’s response to an adrenaline rush (and its decline) must be similar regardless of gender, don’t you think? Is there societal training that would make the responses different?

    I know a retired CIA agent who’s probably tough enough for most people. He told me about his hands beginning to shake while he was describing something that had happened to him several years previously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      All good questions, Marilynn. I think a character’s response would be a product of their training as well as their temperament. For instance, Leine was trained as an assassin, so would have a completely different response to someone pointing a gun at her than, say, Kate Jones, who wasn’t. And muscle memory is a powerful thing–just remembering a traumatic incident can be enough to trigger an autonomic response.

      Like

  • Courtney Kronk

    J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas would seem to fit your criteria perfectly. I’ve recently also discovered Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong, who is a kick-a Texas Ranger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      I’ve heard good things about JD Robb’s/Nora’s In Death books, but haven’t read them yet. I might have to give one a shot. I haven’t heard of Caitlin Strong, but just looked up the series and will keep those in mind, too. Thanks for the suggestions, Courtney!

      Like

  • Suzanne Adair

    Polly Iyer wrote: “…there’s a fine line between a woman who’s a ball buster and one who does the job she needs to do and still remains, I hate to say feminine, but I’ll say female. Cross that line, and your character becomes unrealistic or comes off as a female superhero.”

    YES. Too many authors go for the overkill “ball-buster” female character, not understanding the subtlety of the woman character who does what she has to do.

    If courage is the ability to do what needs to be done in the presence of fear, women throughout history have been mighty courageous without being superheroes. During wartime, a woman didn’t have to disguise herself as a man and fight as a soldier on the front line to be tough or brave. We have so many accounts of women who stayed behind after their men went to war and ran the farm or family business. So these women were doing “men’s work” in addition to “women’s work.” These were some tough ladies! I honor that idea of courageous, tough women in my crime fiction series set during the American Revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      Absolutely agree, Suzanne. Women are incredibly strong and resilient. No argument there🙂 I just want to see more action-based thrillers with women as leads, where they’re capable of doing everything a male thriller character does without it devolving into one of the two tropes I mentioned above in the post. The way I think, a female assassin might/could have a different view of taking life than a man, but will still do what she has to do–which is what I’ve tried to accomplish with Leine’s character.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  • cleefrost

    Excellent post! While I didn’t set out to write in a specific theme, this is exactly where I landed. I love reading history. I kept finding these amazing women who had been maginalized by history, and each one became a Muse for me. I now have a lengthy list of novels and short stories to write, each one featuring women of extraordinary fortitude who did things that we don’t associate often with women in history: leading a fleet of pirate ships, being the only queen listed on the Sumerian King List, and so on.

    I dig for authors who do this all the time: Karen Kondazian’s The Whip comes to mind–about Charley Parkhurst, who lived as a man while working as a stagecoach driver in the 1800s. This is a topic I’m passionate about, and I’m so happy I came across this post–there are some good recommendations here that I look forward to following up on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      Very cool, Cleefrost🙂 Passion for a subject makes writing it so much more interesting. Thanks for the the recommendations–and do let me know when you write the pirate book! I’ve done a lot of research on Anne Bonny.,,one of my favorite characters in history!

      Like

  • Shen.Hart

    J.F Penn writes fantastic strong female protagonists with her two thriller series. I personally prefer the London Mystery series, but both feature strong, deep, well-written and interesting women protagonists.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Marilynn Larew

    This has been the greatest discussion I’ve taken part in in a long while. Now I’m going over the comments and record the book suggestions and put them on my wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Garren

    In the mid-1950s, When I was educated in, and started practicing mechanical engineering for, heavy industrial applications (dirty applications, such as mining an metals), the field was dominated almost entirely by the male gender. Prior to WWII, The role of women in society was what the Germans referred to, in the 19th century, as The four K’s i.e., – Kinder, Küche, Kirche, and Kleider: Children, Kitchen, Church, and Clothing. Since WWII this has changed; it was found that women with the incentive, given the same education and experience, were just as good and capable in the engineering fields. I know this from direct experience.

    To be a good, and successful engineer takes a lot of imagination and planning. The same for authorship, but in the case of the thriller/mystery genre, I think the task is far more daunting. Not only do you have to come up with a credible plot to grab the readers interest, but you need to develop a credible protagonist, story characters, and story flow, to maintain that interest; from my reading experience, I think women are just as good at this as men. To add to the difficulty, I think the reading public is very fickle.

    When I go to Amazon for the next read on my Kindle (and the list is daunting), I don’t classify my decision as to whether the author, protagonist, or characters are male of female. I look for the greatest number of reviewers, giving the highest rating. At 99 cents, i can afford to dump a lot of them if they don’t grab my interest right off.

    Lately, my interest has turned to “Boxed Sets” (believe it or not still for 99 cents). I understand the incentive here is to introduce the reader to, perhaps, not well known authors, at a reasonable cost. One boxed set that I read (Hot Box: 8 Sizzling Thrillers) was so good that I would have given a 6-start rating, if available; took me almost a month to read thru the whole box. The incentive certainly accomplished its purpose: i.e., I’m going to check out other publications referenced by the authors of the set. Incidentally, I haven’t looked as to whether these authors are male or female; most were just good stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      Great observations, Garren. I’ve heard more and more readers say they don’t care whether a book is written by a man or a woman or whether the main character is one or the other–they just want to be sucked into a good story. That’s my criteria in a nutshell: does the story/character grab my attention? If not, then yep, there’s always the next book. And boxed sets are certainly a low-risk way of discovering an author.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

    • Polly Iyer

      I did check the Hot Box – 8 Sizzling Thrillers, and it’s 5/3 male. However, of the three females, two use initials. Why? My guess is because when they were starting out, they didn’t want agents/editors to know they were women. I don’t know if that’s why you use D.V., Daphne, but I know lots of women writers who chose initials for that reason. That tells us something about the field of thriller writing. I thought of it myself because I write thrillers and Polly is such an old-fashion name. Sometimes I wish I had.

      Like

      • dvberkom

        Actually, I didn’t really think about gender when I chose my name. I’ve never tried to hide my real name (or my gender), either. I did, however, always have to spell my name (first & last) ALL the time, so wanted to pick something simple to remember and spell😀 I do understand why some women choose initials, though. It’s a tough racket.

        Like

  • Jim Taylor (Scotland)

    Enjoyed “No Good Deed” by Manda Scott DV and heard Hen’s Teeth is also good but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  • Lise McClendon

    Catching up on this great discussion! Lots of new-to-me series to check out. I’m always up for a little kick-ass.🙂

    I was wondering if readers take “kiss-ass” all that literally. Do women protags have to be blackbelts, have to beat people up to qualify? I like characters who act bravely in the face of danger whether or not that means physical violence. They may be protecting their own families, just like men, or out catching bad guys. Outsmarting criminals may be the ultimate “kick-ass…”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • dvberkom

      I agree, Lise. But my main idea was to find those characters/series that had kick-ass women who were similar to traditional male thriller characters. No, she doesn’t HAVE to literally kick ass, but I personally love to see it happen on page and on screen. Call me twisted😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • Tom Savage

    I sold mysteries for 20 years at the late Murder Ink in NYC, and I can only name one stand-alone novel and one series that fit your description. The stand-alone is SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg. The series is the Jane Whitefield books by Thomas Perry–beginning with VANISHING ACT, and there are 4 or 5 others. Now I must try your Leine Basso books. I like strong, capable female characters who don’t wimp out or fall back on their sexuality to get things done, and there aren’t enough of them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • dvberkom

      I remember watching the movie made from Smilla’s Sense of Snow with Julia Ormond. Will have to check out the book. And you’re the second person in as many days to recommend the Jane Whitefield books. They definitely sound right up my alley.

      I hope you enjoy Leine. She’s a fun character to write. Thanks for stopping by🙂

      Like

  • reillylives

    My latest Holmes book delves into the rich, unsung history of the female bare knuckle boxers of the Victorian Age. The female fighter, Eby Stokes, has generated a lot of interest as she and Holmes investigate the sudden disappearance of her husband (and boxing partner) and the character will appear again not only with Holmes (in December) but in solo adventures as well.

    http://www.amazon.com/Sherlock-Holmes-Blood-Bone-Fight-ebook/dp/B00QMRHHK6

    Reviews:

    http://www.yorktonthisweek.com/entertainment/local-a-e/book-review-blood-to-the-bone-1.1757210

    http://www.ihearofsherlock.com/2015/01/fight-card-blood-to-bone-review.html#.VNqK8C7lszU

    Like

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