The intent can’t be faulted. In this age of rising gender equality, more women are becoming can-do protagonists in suspense novels. This traces the arc in society when—despite the misogyny of the present election—so many men are applauding the fairness of women becoming leaders. So why do I cringe at the portrayal of many action heroines when the story is written by a guy?

Part of the reason is these heroines are the most beautiful creatures to grace the planet. I believe such descriptions are meant in a good way. Television and film rightfully pick attractive specimens, of both sexes, because the audience finds wish fulfillment through them. Yet in a book the repeated referrals to how the heroine turns heads threatens to reflect more her guy admirers than the woman herself. She is an object of admiration. Again, the election has taught us a little about how women regard sexual objectification.

Another attribute that such heroines possess is the facility with either hand-to-hand combat or advanced weaponry. We know where this skill comes from. Male readers expect their heroes to bring it. Why would a dweeb think he could challenge foul-handed criminals, after all? The result in many cases is the typical male hero—only she’s a heroine. Second verse same as the first, almost.

So what is a male author to do? An action heroine as a novelistic advance does seem like an idea whose time has come. The wise course may be to think more like a woman. In women’s novels beauty is often regarded as a tactic, not an attribute. Extra care spent before a strategic occasion provides the right look (the way a guy would wear a suit). The arduous training of jujitsu or its equivalent might be gained after an assault, often sexual. She thinks, that’s never going to happen again.

You are, in effect, adding layers of texture that would benefit any lead character. Men and women think alike on many topics, so you don’t have to start talking to yourself in falsetto to get it right. You just need to let her burst through the muscle suit you’d put on a man.

Exercise: Picking a real-life model is a good idea for any character. Women are more social, more nuanced, in general. If you pick your sister, say, how would she react to situations that aren’t lethal? What if some creep stares at her? What if she needs to make a connection in a bar? Unexpected feminine reactions may provide the right balance for the Glock she carries.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
—Margaret Thatcher

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.