One fine day, out of the blue, one of my critics threw me a doozy. He asked me what appeared to be an innocuous question and it was, wait for it, why did I choose a female protagonist?
The question flummoxed me.
For two reasons. The first, and quite possibly the most obvious one being that The Tech’s titular character is male. Not female. Not just any male at that. A man’s man. Tall, dark and handsome no less. Now, why would he ask me a question like that? I am sure that he had read the book. In fact, he gave me critical advice on each chapter, not always complimentary, but always constructive. The second reason was – the other protagonist, the one he had to have been referring, is a female – a strong one at that, and the head of the band of heroes in my first foray into fiction – but she was not intended to be the main protagonist!
So there. Then why the question?
That he perceived her as the main protagonist was intriguing. I have a confession to make. I hadn’t thought of my characters in that light. They were all important to me in their own individual way. No one as the lead. Or was one of them.
I went over the book in my head and realised that he was right. Unwittingly, titular character notwithstanding, the main protagonist of my book is Alexandra Cassidy. There was no getting around it. While perspectives shift and change throughout the book, the main perspective is that of our heroine. Her larger-than-life character literally leaps out of every page, while the Tech remains in the shadows. Indeed, the perspective at the beginning of the book, shifts from the ubiquitous general populace to our heroine. And there is no denying that she is strong. A strong female lead.
She leads the team with strength and astuteness, her instincts couple with perception allowing her to understand her team faster than most would. Physically, she does not conform to any stereotype, a danger that is always lurking around a writer’s corner. And yet, she is a mystery, an allure about her that is both seductive and dangerous. Even her boss is intimidated by her.
Another confession. I have no reasonable explanation how and why Alexandra Cassidy wormed her way past Michael Patterson into the lead. It just happened. The plot was developed. The story unfolded. Lo and behold. A female lead was born.
Here’s another confession – I am full of them today. My characters, quite naturally, are born of the people I have come across, fictional and real-life across the length and breadth of my experience. And quite naturally, both leads, male and female are inspired by bits of pieces of some of them – perhaps all of them. I have taken characteristics that I admired, and those that I mayn’t have admired but was struck by their idiosyncrasy anyway. I even inserted a characteristic that I envy because I lack it myself and put the all the assortment of bits and pieces together. Surprising? Perhaps not. Revealing? I seriously doubt it. And yet.
And yet, the characters are now as real in my head and on the pages of my book as though I have breakfast with them every day.
However, I digress.
Back to the question. Why chose a female protagonist? Let’s call it a more general question to the masses of authors our there. Let’s limit said masses to crime fiction writers, spanning generations, from Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple to Thomas Harris’s Clarice Starling. There are far too many successful such characters to enumerate here. Given the success, and wide acceptance by audiences across generations, the general question needs no explanation, save for individual authors to elaborate on their own motivations and inspirations.
“I am full of confessions today”
Back to my choices then. Was it a subconscious urge of mine, fuelled by appreciation for my favourite heroines that turned Alexandra Cassidy into the main protagonist? Or was it very conscious urge to balance the books, so as to speak, and create a yin to Michael’s yang? Or had I simply chosen an alter ego to my titular character?
It took some soul-searching, frenetic rustling through my notes, and a trip down memory lane that drew me to a very simple conclusion.
I had started out with the female protagonist, long before I had dreamt up of The Tech himself. My story, right from the beginning, was about a group of FBI mavericks, who were necessarily drawn together to battle the bad guys. It’s as simple as that.
The lead had to be female. It was not going to work any other way. There was no inception of an idea planted in my head by an evil Amazonian genius. Rather, it was a necessity and hence – genesis!
And why did it work? Because, thankfully, we now live in a world where strong female leads are widely accepted and can carry the weight of a story all by themselves.
But there also had to be balance.
Sure. There are those that fancy the all-man, gun-toting, testosterone-fuelled action-adventures. And then, there are those that like – I daren’t call them chick-flicks, because they aren’t – all-female protagonists. Fortunately, there is a market for practically anything. To each is own.
Perhaps, one day, in not-too-distant-a-future, I shall write either an all-male-protagonist and/or all-female-protagonist crime thriller. And maybe, just maybe, they may have a sidekick or two of the opposite sex.
Honestly, and might I remind you that I am full of confessions today, I am as gender-neutral as I am colour-blind – not physiologically, just philosophically. I truly believe that it does not matter if the protagonist is male or female. And not just today. From decades and decades ago when paperback crime thrillers first became popular. Ask Agatha Christie. Or Carolyn Keene. Or even further back – Wilkie Collins.
In searching through the history of female lead characters, be it crime thrillers or otherwise, I began to wonder if a pattern emerged – is it conceivable that there is a blueprint for a female lead? Certainly, there was none for a male lead, rife with intellectuals, musclemen and those in-between. Unsurprisingly, there was none within the female genre. Still, female leads appeared to be more intelligent, articulate, tough, at least on the inside if not both inside and outside, and most of all perseverant. They worked harder, not just smarter. I couldn’t say the same for their male counterparts.
As if … as if, even in print or on film, just as in real life, the fairer sex had to go the extra mile to gain the respect of the audiences.
And that is just grossly unfair.
Just once, I’d like to find the female version of Blake Edwards’s Jacques Clouseau, bumbling from one mystery to another. Another example is the creation of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry – Maxwell Smart. Can you think of even one such female lead? I dare you. Don’t you ache to create one? Why chose a female lead? Or any lead at all?
Whatever else you happen to yearn for as an author, one of them has to be to sell your magnum opus. Or magna opera, if you are fortunate to have penned more than one. The heart of the sell is not your writing style – that comes much later. It is not even your plot – after all, a few lines of a synopsis cannot possibly draw an audience as much as the central character. People, inevitably, are drawn by people. They search the synopsis for the central character, hero, heroine, or anti-hero or even anti-heroine.
Your central character has to be attractive, charismatic, absorbing, perhaps even irresistible.
Why, then, would an author rest their chances on a female protagonist? Does it even matter?
No. Go further back.
Nope. Not there yet. Take another step back.
Go to your grandparents or great-grandparents generation, when televisions became popular and the capitalist society that we now take for granted was born.
Advertisers knew, instinctively, that in order to sell anything to anyone, attention must be drawn. In those days, where equality was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, curvaceous women, albeit adequately dressed, sold anything and everything from washing machines to automobiles.
Today, we gleefully acknowledge that it takes both sexes, though they still need to be attractive, absorbing and all the rest.
Even annoying works. Take that crooner who advertised a price comparison website – while sales soared, he became one of the most hated men in the United Kingdom.
Or Peter Falk’s Columbo. Or Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. Both had me rooting for the murderer. Seriously! Guys and gals, I am sure you have your bests and worsts too. Or just tell me you feel the same way about those two … but even in my mind, there is that balance. I chose a male and female protagonist to demonstrate my disparagement. One of each gender.
And hence the balance in my first book.
On further introspection, I discovered that my influences, unsurprisingly, came from television, films, and books. I can and was tempted to list all the characters and persons that have influenced my choices of features, characteristics and attitudes. But I have run out of space. Perhaps another time. If you ask nicely. Or read the book and analyse Alexandra for yourself.
At the end of the day, there are far too many and the end result are characters, as I have stated before, that are very real to me.
And budding authors out there, your characters have to become real for you. You should see them in an instant. You should feel them. They should speak to you and you to them.
Indeed, I have conversations with my characters. And yes, they do reply. At least in my head.
Have fun. Enjoy the process. I know that I did.