Blast from the past: About Strong Female Characters

I’m traveling today, and I’m also still in the staring-at-walls-and-seatbacks phase of brainstorming my next book, so I’m reposting another blog entry on writing. From May 2013:

About strong female characters.


A few weeks ago Publishers Weekly reviewed my upcoming novel The Shadow Tracer, saying: “Gardiner’s second stand-alone (after Ransom River) boasts another of the strong female characters she’s known for and enough pulse-pounding action to satisfy the most avid thriller fan.” This made me run outside and dance in a manner that would severely embarrass my children.

For a friend, however, the line about “strong female characters” grated. Ann Aubrey Hanson pointed out: “They never say that Lee Child writes strong male characters.”

True. Almost universally, thriller heroes in novels written by men are expected to be strong. Whereas some heroines might be strong and others, even when they’re main characters, might be fragile femmes.

Ann added: “I think it’s about the reviewer trying to indicate that you aren’t writing a ‘girl’s book’ and that you do the genre justice… but aren’t we past that by now?”

Maybe, maybe not.

It’s true that I try to inject strength into my characters — by the end of a novel, they’d better have picked up a banner and rushed into the teeth of battle, metaphorically at least. Besides, how many readers like to spend time reading about wilting flowers who cringe and require rescue? I don’t. To paraphrase my fellow crime author NJ Cooper: Who wants to spend 300 pages with wimps?

In any case, I am happy to have the women in my novels recognized for their strength. Because in my books, “strong” means that the heroine is:

  • Resourceful
  • Decisive
  • Smart
  • Creative
  • Loving — to the point that she’ll risk herself for friends and family

It does not mean:

  • She’s coldhearted
  • She packs a gun
  • She can kill a man fifty different ways with her bare hands
  • She hates the world for what it has done to her

I try to write about women who are realistic, flesh-and-blood, full-hearted human beings. And because I write thrillers, these women are going to be thrown in front of spinning propeller blades. (Again, metaphorically. Probably.) Last autumn at Bouchercon, somebody suggested that my heroines are all tough women. I said that in my mind, they aren’t; they’re ordinary women facing tough situations. They’re people who must rise to the challenge.

Digging deep. That’s what my heroines have to do. Just like folks in real life. If that makes them strong, I’ll take it.

2 responses to “Blast from the past: About Strong Female Characters

  1. I read an interesting article about Hollywood and the “man thing,” regarding the percentage of male directors, writers, producers, stars, etc., in Hollywood versus real-life statistics. TV is making some headway in the creation of strong female characters, but not so much in Hollywood. Oh, how I grind my teeth and howl in agony when a female character trips and falls while being chased, or cowers in a corner when threatened with danger! Rather, give me the gal who can run and jump and face her fears! Just give us INTERESTING female characters who face life realistically, and you’ll be giving us strong females, folks. Being female is NOT for the faint of heart!

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