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Three Lessons From Writing A Thriller Heroine

19 December 2012

From author and regular visitor Seeley James:

Can a Man Write a Female Lead? Why not? Ms. Rowling wrote a boy’s story. The Wall Street Journal ran an article just last week about women writing under male pseudonyms when writing male characters. Why couldn’t I write a female protagonist in a thriller?

I love female leads in thrillers. I’d been working on one for years. I spent months honing a full novel featuring her. When I thought I was ready, I sent my first draft out to beta readers. Wow. What a learning experience! She received a great reception among men—but was universally panned by women.

. . . .

First, here are the lessons I had already learned during a brief stint writing short stories that appeared in writers groups and webzines:

  • Women read a lot into an author’s name & gender. Women were less critical when I submitted a story under a genderless or feminine pen name (Terry James, Jamie James, etc). And significantly less critical when I used a feminine name (Barb James, Julia James).
  • Men do not like reading a woman protagonist in the first person. They just can’t get inside a woman’s head. Must raise the homophobia flag or something.
  • Men and women have different expectations of female protagonists. They expect male protagonists to start kicking ass based on their assessment of the danger at hand. Women, apparently, are expected to think it over, talk about it, try to avoid the conflict, then throw an uppercut.

. . . .

2. ACTIONS: Women readers don’t like to read about violent women. One of the most violent men in literature today, Jack Reacher, has a fan base that is 65% women. Yet those same women would turn up their noses at a Jane Reacher if she were equally violent.

While there are terrific examples of violent-capable heroines in thrillers, they tend to be a great deal less violent than any male counterpart. Take my favorite heroine for example: Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Charlie resorts to violence only as a last resort and always with a sense of guilt that lasts for many pages after the action. Jack Reacher will run through a bunker killing everyone in sight without a second thought and women will eat it up. But a heroine is expected to be selective, sparing the worker bees. What do you think—Should a heroine kill everyone in a conspiracy or only the leader?

Link to the rest at BookTrib

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

23 Comments to “Three Lessons From Writing A Thriller Heroine”

  1. “Men do not like reading a woman protagonist in the first person. They just can’t get inside a woman’s head. Must raise the homophobia flag or something.”


    Utter carp. I would use stronger language, but I respect P.G. and the rest of you. Just imagine harder words, and then amplify them. This is just such TOSH!

    I love a decent butt-kicking, or any other sort of heroine. Much more of a preference for the type shown in, “Haywire,” by Gina Carano. Who looks as if she could really whack you off your feet, (and could,) she’s a proper Martial Artist.

    The recent TV series, “Nikita,” is ridiculous. A woman, no more than 80lbs dripping wet, might well form the will and with weapons could outdo a 250lb man, but hand to hand, not in a zillion years. Looks ridiculous, if attractive to the peculiar.

    Women can absolutely be as tough and ruthless as men can be. I’ve worked alongside two really serious women in the tactical firearms unit who were the equal of any man I’ve run with. I have no doubts about the mental toughness of women. They’re usually smarter, more analytical, and once the decision to action is taken, firmer in outlook.

    I LOVE strong women, let us have MORE.MORE.MORE!

    Fed up with Jane Eyre, lets have the real thing!


    • Yes, I was thinking that I could oddly think of several guy-popular authors with first person female protagonists.

      • Two of my books have first-person female protagonists and every woman who’s said anything seemed to think they were at least realistic enough that they didn’t distract from the story. If I can do it, it can’t be that hard. The only explanation is that people aren’t trying.

    • With due respect, you are not all men. You are you. (For what it’s worth, I share your opinion. But I am not all men, and we together are not all men. We are just us.)

      The author of the OP says he sends his work out to beta readers, and this is the feedback he gets. Perhaps he’s been unlucky and hit the only group of men in the world for whom this is true, or perhaps some men like it and some men don’t. The size of the “some” is the rub.

    • Oh how I love your comment.

  2. As a writer, I now feel challenged to write such a violent heroine.

  3. I’d hope that thoughtless killing would be a matter of characterization of callousness rather than gender.

  4. To follow the tangent implied:

    I want my action heroes, once they have determined that action is called for, to follow the maxim: “Kill them all. God will know his own.” I am fine with female heroes doing this. What I do not like is excess sentimentality in application. No, the guy who swept up at SS Headquarters does not have the same moral culpability as Himmler. I don’t care. If you’re in SS Headquarters doing ANYTHING useful (useful to the SS, that is) you are fair game.

    I am also becoming more and more repelled by <a href="http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WaifFu&quot;?waif-fu, whether its practitioners be ten-year-old ninjas or ninety-pound supermodels. At least give me a reason (e.g. A**-kicking Alice from the “Resident Evil” movies is infected with the T-virus, Honor Harrington is both from a high-g world and has been genetically modified.) If you try to convince me that WOMYN R STRONG TOO I will not read any more of your stuff. Yes, they are, and there are a lot of women who could kick my a** even without the help of the T-virus. But strong womyn will lose against strong men, every time, without some kind of equalizer. I don’t make the rules, I just report ’em.

    • WP seems to have eaten my link. Here it is:


    • “What I do not like is excess sentimentality in application”

      Bravo for saying that. I too am sick of all this “Oh my God, I’m killing all these Nazi zombies, that makes me evil as well.”

      The worst example I saw of this was Thomas Covenant. In the start, he rapes a young girl, but later on, when he has to fight demons, he’s all like “Oh my God, there is no difference between them and us, as we are both killers” etc etc. I was like, dude, they were demons coming to kill you. I didn’t see you feeling sorry when you raped that girl. I threw the book away at this point.

      I see this more and more. Marc, I will see your WaifFu and raise you Technical Pacifist:


      A technical pacifist is ok with beating people up, crippling them, killng the villains assitants, but when it comes to the main villain, he suddenly becomes a pacifist and says to the villain “Oh I wil let you live, otherwise there will be no difference between us.”

  5. Ohhhh…. ouch. Unfortunately a lot rang true here. Not to get into specifics lest I incriminate myself.

    Reading this also helped me figure out why I have so many problems with the Cussler/ co-author Remi Fargo heroine, especially compared to her husband Sam. Those books make me utterly insane (yet I read them. In hardback.).

    I’d say there’s some interesting potential for female characters to engage in “smarter” violence. Just from people-watching – especially watching how women tend to navigate and find their places in traditionally all-male military/ paramilitary communities.

  6. Seely, you probably hit that fine line between “boys with breasts” and “kick-a** heroine”. And depending on your audience, the line is constantly moving.

    Reading your points (yes, I read your whole article), sad to say a lot of my gender is far more sexist than men. If I point out a particle action or verbage, most men I know may deny it at first, but generally they’ll say, “I never thought of it that way.”

    OTOH, women will deny it until the end of the world (possibly Friday). “I can’t be sexist! I’m a woman!” It annoys me to no end, but it’s there. It exists.

    The weight-height thing is a prime example of Cosmo-style brain-washing. Your example of Claressa Shields is perfect. The woman has like 2% body fat, but she’s considered fat by other women at 165 lbs.

    Honestly though, you’re not getting this kind of criticism just because you’re guy. I get it too because *gasp* “women need alpha heroes to rescue them, not vice versa.

    • Yes. This. Argh.

    • OTOH, women will deny it until the end of the world (possibly Friday). “I can’t be sexist! I’m a woman!” It annoys me to no end, but it’s there. It exists.

      There is, alas, a pattern in these things. All too often, people are blind to their own worst faults because they think that membership in group X, by definition, makes them immune. This includes sexist women who think women can’t be sexist, liberty-hating ‘liberals’ who think liberals can’t be opposed to liberty, self-styled ‘skeptics’ who think that as long as they reject religion they can swallow any other stupidity whole, etc., etc.

      And racism — pfui! My mother is Costa Rican, and as far as I can tell, nearly pure Indian by blood (none of this ‘native American’ nonsense down there in her time) — and you should hear her talking about other people who have the temerity to be the same colour she is. One time somebody mistook her for a Pakistani; well, I can’t repeat the things she said about that. They would melt your monitor. But that doesn’t count, because ‘only white people are racist’. Yeah, right.

      • “But that doesn’t count, because ‘only white people are racist’. ”

        Those folks usually haven’t seen the strides the rest of the world have made in hating each other.

  7. NAME
    Does a gender neutral name help? I write as ML Buchman and I’m told by readers that it eased entry. My “maleness” as a romance author is often a surprise (even though I post my picture on web and book sites -where I think the beard is a definite gender-giveaway, though there is no picture in the books). I’ve only ever written one book in a male primary POV, all of the others have primary female POV and female heroine.

    My current series is military romantic suspense. These are women who kick-a** with helicopters, hence I get around some of the physical issues, though they are trained in hand-to-hand. I find the weight/size issue above somewhat specious, it’s a training/attitude issue. If she leverages surprise and superior training, then size falls away as an issue; not disappears, but falls away. I think one of the key factors here is brawls take time, fights tend to be very fast no matter what the movies say. A first blow, if decisive, is very hard to come back from no matter what your size.

    However, it was Mr. James point that PG didn’t excerpt from the full that I found telling: Kindness. Women do think differently. They do react differently. The first time I wrote a birth scene from a female POV, all the men in my critique group went sheet white and the women laughed their heads off. As a writer, you try and you fail and you learn, just like any hero.

    I think there’s a subtext that occurs between women that doesn’t occur between men. An example from a conversation I was having a few days ago: A woman will lie about herself or otherwise put herself down to make another woman, who is hurting, hurt a bit less. A guy will slap you on the back and buy you a beer, or just tell you to get it together.

    Whether flying a helicopter or leading a wine tasting or leading a country, a woman simply approaches the problems differently. The more I find of that voice from one book to the next, the more popular my writing is with women even after they find out I’m male. I think this is where the key lies for male writers of women’s voices.

    • Thanks for piping up, Matt! Just downloaded NIGHT IS MINE.

      The fact that you have to write romance under initials, or Joanne Rowling does the same for fantasy, illustrates how sexist our society still is.

      I write erotica under my middle name, which happens to be a Norwegian male name. Any story that’s considered a male fantasy sells like crazy in Europe because they think I’m a guy. *shakes head*

    • The first time I wrote a birth scene from a female POV, all the men in my critique group went sheet white and the women laughed their heads off.


      I have a birth scene in one of my books.

      I had to use the male PoV because, honestly… I had a c-section. I could probably write something pretty genuine about that, but regular style? I had to rely on externals.

      (I think it worked pretty well, actually, and my mom — who had four kids the usual way — didn’t carp, so at least I managed that…)

  8. There can be more genetic diversity between individuals within a species than between that species and another.

    And while there are certainly marked differences between males and females as a whole, there is also more variation among people of one sex than there is between the sexes. This is true of race as well.

    Sure, fiction has to be more believable than reality does, and acculturation adds a layer of traits to individuals….

    But the difference between a critique group and the rest of the world is too large to compute. Women of a certain class, of a certain age, of a certain geographical region, of various interest groups will all show patterns not true of the whole sex. Critique groups are particularly prone to mono-cultures, prejudices and herding behavior.

    For instance, if one member expresses an opinion on one story, that opinion tends to influence what all the group members will feel on all future stories. (And a new firm voice can make everybody change sides in a blink.)

    I’ve seen this happen even in loose online groups.

    It’s one of the reasons why I say that nobody should stay in the same critique group for more than a couple of years. (And if possible, try to change to a group which draws upon a different pool — change genres or something.)

    • I met my best friend (and current editor) in a writing class where she was getting ripped to shreds over the fact that her main character stayed in an abusive relationship. It was the women who were the meanest. When it was my turn, I let them know that, having been in an abusive relationship and working with a safe house for women, her story was the most accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship I’d ever read in fiction.

      The men in the class were willing to believe me and gave better critiques. The women, though? You’d have thought I’d just dropped a bag of dog crap on the front stage. To my knowledge, though, she’s the only person in the class (aside from me) who has published anything. In fact, that story is up on Amazon 🙂

    • Moo?

      And here I thought I was a mega-b**** for changing groups every year. *grin*

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