Character creation in crime writing: Tough but relatable


02 June 2023
Crime writer T. Orr Monro describes the process of creating a female CSI

When I set out to write about a female Crime Scene Investigator I knew I wanted to make her tough, but relatable to my readers, but what seemed like a straightforward task, I quickly came to realise was fraught with difficulty.

The traits demonstrating ‘toughness’ that I wanted to assign CSI Ally Dymond are typically seen as masculine, even in today’s society. This in itself wasn’t an issue. However, I have long noticed that when women exhibit what are considered masculine personality traits, society can be quite unforgiving, so much so that words effectively describing the same behaviour have positive connotations for men, but negative ones for women. For example, where men are described as assertive and determined, women are labeled bossy and difficult.

The truth is, as a society, we are often more comfortable with those qualities that we traditionally associate with the sexes. For women, that means attributes such as sweetness and gentleness, but, if I knew one thing, it was that CSI Ally Dymond was neither sweet nor gentle, which meant that if she displayed the ‘toughness’ I wanted her to have, some readers may find it hard to warm to her.

Realizing the size of the task I had on my hands, I delved into my own reading experiences which naturally lean towards crime novels with a strong female protagonist to pin down what exactly a ‘tough, but relatable’ female protagonist looks like.

When I first read Lynda La Plant’s Prime Suspect in the 1990s, the brilliant DCI Jane Tennison blew me away. Here was a woman in a senior policing role, leading major investigations. She appeared hard, unemotional and uncompromising, yet, I as the reader was with her all the way. 

Female detectives have been around since the 1860s when Andrew Forrester wrote Mrs. Gladden, in The Experiences of a Lady Detective, who incidentally was an expert in identifying bookmarks. Since then there have been numerous outstanding female detectives, such as Marion Todd’s series featuring DC Clare Mackay which I particularly enjoyed, all of whom exhibit those ‘tough’ qualities needed to thrive in a male-orientated environment.

The same is true of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, the creation of Patricia Cornwell. I read Post Mortem when it came out in 1990. It was the first time I’d come across a female lead who was highly respected and at the top of her game. A cool professional, she approached cases methodically and meticulously and was just as uncompromising as Tennison. I loved her fierce intelligence. Since then, female protagonists who technically work on the fringes of investigations have flourished. We have Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan who is a forensic anthropologist and more latterly Elly Griffith’s wonderful Dr Ruth Galloway, who is utterly confident in her knowledge and abilities.

What I came to realise is that, regardless of their role in an investigation, these female protagonists share similar qualities in terms of assertiveness, determination, intelligence and, in some cases, sheer bloody-mindedness.

However, the issue with a character only displaying ‘toughness’ is that they can appear to be rather one-dimensional and where female detectives are concerned, it can come across as straightforward gender reversal which then feels inauthentic which brings me on to the ‘relatable’ side to a strong female lead.

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When examining female sleuths, it becomes clear that, despite their apparently hardened exteriors, they all display some kind of vulnerability or ‘soft spot’. DCI Jane Tennision is hard-drinking, chain-smoking and blunt to the point of rudeness, but there are times, when she is away from her colleagues, that we see her self-doubt. Who hasn’t nipped into the ladies to take a deep breath and give themselves a pep talk? It’s in these moments, that we ‘get’ DCI Jane Tennison.

WIth Marion Todd’s DC Clare Mackay, a former armed response officer, it is DC Mackay’s past life that exposes her vulnerability. With Kay Scarpetta, it is her niece Lucy who she treats more like a daughter that brings out her softer side. Temperance Brennan is often caught up in mundane domesticity such as finding someone to look after her pets when she’s away. In the case of the self-assured Dr Ruth Galloway the reader has an insight into her insecurities around weight and her lack of dress sense that we can identify with and warm to.

When it comes to creating a strong female protagonist, bestowing them with attributes that we consider to be ‘tough’ to enable them to face whatever it is you intend to throw at them is only half the story. The other is to ensure you show a human side too.

Slaughterhouse Farm by T. Orr Monro is published by HQ (£14.99)


If you're interested in the creation of female characters in the crime genre, read Inga Vesper's thoughts on reinventing the noir genre from a women's persepctive.