Saturday, October 5, 2013
Do You Have To Like A Strong Woman Protagonist?
by Libby Fischer Hellman
There’s been a lot of discussion—well, there’s always a lot of discussion after Bouchercon—but in the circles I travel, some of the conversation has focused on female protagonists. The questions seem to be:
a. How kick-ass do women have to be and still maintain their credibility?
b. Are perky, sassy protagonists who don’t know a pistol from a revolver TSTL (too stupid to live)?
c. Ultimately, do we want our female protagonists to be saved by (of course) a dashing male cop, PI, CIA agent, or all of the above?
My answer to all the questions is—huh?
Actually, I’m reminded of the line in the song by Country Joe and the Fish all those years ago:
“And it’s one-two-three … what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.”
There was this movement in the 1960’s and beyond. They called it Women’s Liberation. Not to beat a dead horse, but it was a pretty powerful phenomenon. If you remember it, you’re probably too old. And if you heard about it from your mother, you may have rebelled against it simply because your mother held it dear (Hey, we all rebelled at some point or another).
But the bigger issue of that movement, Sheryl Sandberg and LEANING IN not withstanding, is that whatever a man could do, so could a woman. And that included writing crime fiction. Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton led the way. Since then, we’ve had hundreds of women writing crime fiction, and hundreds of female sleuths. You might even call the present the golden age of female sleuths.
So why argue about the type of sleuth we create? Isn’t it enough to have a host of characters we never had sixty years ago? Some sleuths will appeal to a certain corner of the reading public; others won’t. But isn’t there room for everyone? No matter what the sub-genre?
Ok. I’ll admit something. I’m not a big fan of cozies. I write dark. I can’t help myself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the craft and talent that goes into a Julie Hyzy or a Roberta Isleib novel. The protagonists of those novels are determined, focused, and sometimes seriously funny. And the Deborah Knotts, Rachel Goddards, and Gemma Jameses of our traditional mystery novelists are all strong, capable women.
Hopefully, mine are too. My PI Georgia Davis handles a Glock as easily as a knitting needle, and Frankie Pacelli, my latest protagonist in Havana Lost… well… (spoiler alert averted), evolves into a very different person than she was. Still, that seems to rankle some readers. Some reviewers have said they’re “disturbed” by Frankie Pacelli’s transformation from a vulnerable girl to a powerful woman.
My response? She had to change. When you lose the things you love most, it changes your life. One day the future looks clear and rosy, filled with possibility. The next day all hell lets loose and your dreams are destroyed. You see the world differently, and you act accordingly.
But that’s the way it goes. The women I write about react to their environment and what life throws at them, in many cases more fundamentally than men. They adapt. They try to make chicken salad out of chicken whatever. They might go to extremes to protect what they cherish, but, like other so-called “villains,” they are heroes in their own mind. So, for me, likeability isn’t the major issue. Survival is. How they deal with adversity.
In that sense Havana Lost is the noir version of my previous thriller, A Bitter Veil. Readers of Veil tend to love the fact that Anna is brave, courageous, and tolerant. A heroine. In Havana Lost, however, it's not so clear-cut.
That was no accident. The point of my so-called “Revolution Trilogy” (Set the Night on Fire, A Bitter Veil, and Havana Lost) is that extreme conflict turns some people into heroes, others into cowards. Revolution is not a tidy package. Revolutions are messy, chaotic, brutal.
But some of us are more resilient than others. Some bend, others break. Most muddle along, doing our best to cope with an unpredictable future. Bottom line: we don’t really know how we’ll react to disaster until it strikes. Would you stay strong or go under? How much pain, danger and loss would it take to drive you to acts of which you’re not proud?
So, in a way, I am pleased people are disturbed by Frankie’s evolution. In my view that’s what thriller writing is all about. The unpredictable is more thrilling than the predictable. Even if it means perhaps not liking a strong female character. That’s okay. We’ve worked for the privilege. We’ve earned it.
Thanks, Poe’s Daughters, for letting me vent. I hope you’ll give Havana Lost a look.
Libby Fischer Hellman is the author of several mystery/thriller series and standalone novels and is a past president of Sisters in Crime, an organization founded by Sara Paretsky tp promote equality for female crime fiction writers. Learn more about Libby and her work at www.libbyhellmann.com and www.facebook.com/authorlibbyfischerhellmann.