Creating Thrilling Female Protagonists (Lipstick Optional)

First off, thank you to The Stiletto Gang for inviting me to guest blog.

I just got back from Thrillerfest where I presented a workshop with fellow authors/friends, Erica Spindler and J.T. Ellison. Ours was titled: Creating Tough, Smart Female Protagonists (Lipstick Optional). As thriller authors, we have a cache of personal anecdotes to share about the double standards we and our female protagonists experience. For example: are female protagonists allowed to swear? How about cry? I’m fairly certain my series character, FBI Special Agent Maggie O’Dell would never be allowed as many one-night stands as Jack Reacher.

We were surprised to find that almost all of the attendees agreed, that in the thriller genre, the bar is set slightly higher for female protagonists than males. There seem to be unwritten expectations. In fact, the reactions and comments we received made us realize we had only scraped the surface of this hot topic.

The trick is to overcome the double standards and shatter that glass ceiling, but to do it without reducing your female character to yet another clichéd, stereotype. Make her tough and smart but don’t make her give up her femininity – lipstick optional.

I like to share the story about my second book tour when a bookseller (who I respect tremendously) took me aside and told me that I really needed to get Maggie’s drinking problem under control. At the time, I thought she was joking. Sure Maggie threw back a few Scotches in SPLIT SECOND but it was nothing compared to what my male counterparts were having their male protagonists consume. Because Maggie’s mother is a suicidal alcoholic I thought it made sense that alcoholism might be something Maggie struggled with. Another tightrope for her to be walking. But according to this bookseller – and for the record, she was right – readers aren’t comfortable seeing a female protagonist deal with her problems by throwing back hard liquor. So now Maggie still struggles with “the urge” while she sips Diet Pepsi.

DAMAGED (released today) is my eighth in the Maggie O’Dell series and my tenth novel. This time, I actually have two strong females: my series protagonist, Maggie O’Dell and Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Liz Bailey.

Both women are brave and compassionate in different ways and through their necessary partnership I’m able to show their true characters. For Maggie, who is slow to trust and stubbornly independent, she learns to drop her guard with the younger Liz Bailey, who wins Maggie’s trust and respect early on.

With Liz Bailey I’m able to show a generation of women who don’t complain about the double standards in their male-dominated fields. Instead, they simply fight the stereotypes by proving themselves. At 28, Liz has more Katrina rescues over New Orleans than her air crew pilot and co-pilot have together, yet she’s the newbie on their crew. And although Liz yearns for the day they’ll finally call her “their rescue swimmer” instead of “the rescue swimmer,” she doesn’t begrudge the slight. She simply proves her talents and skills and bravery. It’s exactly what Maggie O’Dell has been doing in the FBI.

At the same time, neither woman is a superhero. Both have flaws and vulnerabilities. That’s also an important part of making them real and believable. Maggie may not be throwing back Scotches any more but she has a very real fear of flying, something many people (myself included) can certainly relate to. One of my favorite chapters is when she realizes that in order to view the crime scene she’ll need to get inside a Coast Guard helicopter. And because Maggie is a tough, smart female protagonist, she gets inside the helicopter.

Again, thanks to The Stiletto Gang for this opportunity. I invite all of you to discover more about DAMAGED and me at my website or on facebook.

6 replies
  1. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Alex, it's great to have you with us today! And I love your discussion about female protags in thrillers and the double standards. Do you think a lot of the "she must be tougher than the guys" mentality has to do with the large male audience for thrillers? (I've been told that's why many female thriller authors have ambiguous names or use initials.) Reminds me of the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger! That definitely applies to female protags in thrillers, doesn't it? 😉


  2. Misa
    Misa says:

    Definitely great to have you at TSG, Alex. I think strong women in fiction are just like strong women in life. It's a fine line between strong and tough, and being a b*tch, yes? 😉 Your characters hit the mark, completely!

  3. Dea, Kia, Jake
    Dea, Kia, Jake says:

    Alex, thanks for joining us today! Glad that you could guest blog. Throwing back a couple of scotches? What's wrong with that? My main character is a fan of vodka martinis with olives–she considers them a cocktail plus hor d'oeuvre. Your post is interesting because it is tough to write women convincingly for both men and women readers. Sounds like you've done it brilliantly. Maggie

  4. joyh82
    joyh82 says:

    Love your books Alex, do you know if it will come out on audio cd or MP3? I love listening to suspense on audio. Have a great summer!

  5. Alex
    Alex says:

    Yes, a fine line. There is a huge female audience for thrillers and surprisingly the women are tougher on female protags than the men. Perhaps because of what they experience in their own lives?

    At the conference a woman shared with me that she drinks Jack on ice and her husband prefers martinis. Waiters/waitresses constantly put the Jack on ice in front of her husband and the martini in front of her. Small double standards that we don't even notice.

    DAMAGED is available in audio through Brilliance Audio.

  6. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Thanks Alex for blogging with us today! I loved DAMAGED. I hope the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer makes another appearance in future books. She rocks!!! In fact just give her a series of her own. This was the first of your books that I've read – now I need to go back to the beginning and read more about your FBI heroine.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

Comments are closed.