Female Protagonists in Crime Fiction: What You Need to Know

If you want to muscle your female protagonists into the traditionally male world of the police procedural or PI novel, here are a few things writers should consider.
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Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, famously described the heroic detective: A man who is neither mean nor tarnished. Who is unafraid and honorable. He is lonely, but well fit for the adventure of uncovering the truth. Above all, he is a good enough man in any world, and the best man in his own.

Chandler helped create the thrilling heyday of noir and hardboiled fiction where men (always men) took on corruption, fraud and violence, and often as not managed to clean up one small corner of the world. But for the women who lived on Chandler’s mean streets, the world remained dirty. They generally had two roles to play: that of a victim in need of help or the alluring femme fatale—a seductress whose intelligence was sexual rather than cerebral. There was no room for women who wanted to channel their smarts and passion into solving crime rather than stirring it up.

barbara nickless female protagonist
barbara nickless book cover female protagonist

This guest post is by Barbara Nickless. Nickless is an award-winning author whose short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies in the United States and the United Kingdom. An active member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she has given workshops and speeches at numerous writing conferences and book events. She lives with her family in Colorado. Blood on the Tracks, which won the Daphne du Maurier Award and was a runner-up for the Claymore Award, is her first novel.

But times changed, and female sleuths (female protagonists) like Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski burst upon the mystery scene with wit and flair, paving the way for other women. A far cry from The Maltese Falcon’s Miss Wonderly, they arrived with courage, grit, and their own unique form of genius. These days, women sleuths are enjoying a heyday of their own, taking center stage in books and film as spies, detectives, cops, and private eyes.

Many of these women have found a home in psychological thrillers—stories that are as much about emotional violence as the literal dead. In these domestic noir books (a term coined by author Julia Crouch), inner trauma mounts faster than the body count. The line between perpetrator and victim is often blurry, and much of the cruelty occurs between people well acquainted with each other. Given the success of Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, You Will Know Me and their ilk, few would argue that these female protagonists have proven themselves as tough as any man. Or at least unwilling to remain victims of male-driven injustices.

But if you’d prefer to leave the domestic scene and want to muscle your female investigators into the traditionally male world of the police procedural or PI novel, here are a few things to consider.

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Enjoy the Inherent Conflict with Female Protagonists.

Novels are fueled by struggle, and if you’re writing about a female investigator, the world can be a battlefield. Everything from petty insults to gaslighting. Drop a woman into a man’s world and watch the sparks fly.

In Paul Haggis’s 2007 crime drama, In the Valley of Elah, the blatant misogyny of the male cops toward Detective Emily Sanders is the fuel that drives her character arc. She starts out wanting nothing more than to do her job well enough to support herself and her young son. But as the screws tighten, her struggle to find justice for a dead man drives her into successfully taking on not only the snarky men in her department, but one of the biggest bastions of male superiority in the world—the U.S. military.

This kind of conflict is fueled by society’s expectations. There’s a constant message that women should subsume their ambition to the needs of others; that they aren’t emotionally suited to the rigors of detective work; and that their families will struggle if they pursue a challenging career. At the extreme end of these persistent myths, women battle misogyny as they fight alongside their fellow soldiers in Iraq or get metaphorically bloodied in the political arena. If writers are going to send their women onto Chandler’s mean streets, they should be aware of the threats that will come—not just from criminals, but more insidiously from coworkers and clients.

Remember, too, that when women shoot to kill or if they toe up to morally questionable acts, readers sometimes get queasy—women are supposed to be the nurturers, the caregivers, the emotional glue at home (and even at work). They should leave the dirty work to the guys. But as we allow our detectives more room to break the rules (or fulfill them, if that is their wish) the more our fiction provides a rich and varied texture of the human condition.

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Play it Down.

If this isn’t how you want to run, then Play It Down. Writers like Karin Slaughter and Theresa Schwegel employ female cops who are every bit as capable of taking on the mean streets as their male counterparts. They co-opt traits usually thought of as masculine—physical strength, logic and an occasional ruthlessness. In these novels, women solve crimes, arrest suspects, and wrap up their cases, just like the guys. They do so in part by refusing to be defined by their gender. These women are detectives, deputies and spies before they are anything else. Because they are uninterested in the opinions of others (husbands, boyfriends, bosses), they are as hard-hitting and successful as Harry Bosch or Sam Spade.

A quick scroll through the TV dial provides numerous examples. CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland isn’t saddled with a husband or children. She doesn’t fret about the conflict between home and career because there isn’t any conflict. It’s all about the job. The Killing’s Detective Sarah Linden is far more interested in finding a killer than finding happiness with her fiancé. And in the sly, creepy The Fall, Police Superintendent Stella Gibson upends all convention by utilizing her steely focus and brilliant mind while taking pleasure in her own sexuality. As a woman in a male-dominated world, she is keenly aware that she must guard against overt emotion—yet she still manages to promote compassion for the victims and show sympathy toward a junior female officer. It’s a lovely balance.

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Level the Playing Field by Making it Personal.

Chandler said about the detective, “I do not care much about his private life.” But Mathison and Linden aren’t male clones in pant suits. Their personal lives help make them who they are—Carrie’s struggle with bipolar disorder, Sarah’s horrific childhood. Modern readers want to know about the personal lives of their homicide cops and private eyes, and this is a gold mine for writers digging for conflict.

Unlike earlier crime fiction, where the detective went mostly unchanged from one case to the next, modern detectives have series-long arcs. Often, the investigator’s personal life is as difficult to navigate as the crime he or she is investigating. As a result, gender boundaries break down. Just as women are getting wise about how to make their way through male-dominated cultures, men find themselves dealing with issues of family that used to belong solely to women—they’re learning to balance babies along with the babes. In the office, it’s harder to discriminate against a woman’s ties to family when you’re a single father coping with wayward teenagers or pediatric visits.

Writers enjoy creating deep characters who fly in the face of stereotypes. So send your female detectives and female protagonists down these mean streets. Your sleuth might view the lay of the land differently from the men. She might be pregnant like Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, or the lone bread-winner and parent like Detective Sanders. Or maybe she’s completely uninterested in family, like Carrie Mathison. Almost certainly, she will be traumatized by her past, sexualized by the criminals, and ignored by her fellow cops.

But she will meet Chandler’s definition of a hero: She’s a good enough woman for any world. And the best woman in her own.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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