Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

Why write psychological crime? explains the category of psychological crime referred to in this post.

For female characters to engage in leading roles in our subgenre of psychological crime, it will undoubtedly mean that they are up for the odd murder or two, whether directly or through proxy. Statistically, women are far less likely than men to indulge in a good murder, but women do still murder in the real world and sometimes in all sorts of skilful, imaginative and horrific ways. Besides, considering only a tiny handful out of the overall male population actually commit any type of very violent crime, and the male personalities committing murder in our subgenre of crime tales arise mostly from the socio-economic class least likely to be incarcerated for any sort of offense, it is hardly stretching credibility then to envisage ‘talented’ women at least as capable of killing as most of these latter type of men.  Yes, of course higher socio-economic classes of women are the least likely of all to commit murder, or for that matter to be a victim of it, but this doesn’t mean that no talent or desire exists amongst this demographic pool to carry out the act. And let’s not beat about the bush here but wholeheartedly add that the fact that they are least likely to do so in real life only adds an extra thrilling and interesting layer to the story.

It must be stressed that absolutely no evidence exists to contradict the assertion that some women are able to perform at the highest levels of skill, intuition and creativity regarding the exciting activity of murder. Emotionally and psychologically, females are as capable and are often found to be as committed to the task as are men. It is only a lack of social and cultural conditioning that have hindered them at all up to the present date and therefore kept their contributions low in the overall statistical tables. But thank God that is all rapidly changing!  And yes… yes… I know what you’re thinking! Doesn’t the physical difference between the sexes factor into this at all? Yes, it does; of course, it does; though not as much as you might imagine. If the heart is in it then the hand is willing and a willing hand will transform itself into a more than capable hand. This is really the core of the matter. Muscle mass is not anywhere near as relevant as attitude. And one might even argue that muscle mass is a red herring. A sudden bullet in the heart, an unexpected slip of the knife between the ribs or the odd enthusiastic push off a cliff edge, all these gestures have a lot more to do with attitude than they do with muscle mass. Long gone are the days when a woman was expected to perform murder only through a subtle poison. With women’s horizons greatly broadened, their knowledge and skills base deepened and their growth in abundant resourcefulness and confidence a given, there is no longer any reason why this should not be reflected in much more active and powerful roles in our type of story, including more diverse and skilful ways of achieving the coup de grace. Surely no one in their right mind could disagree with this point, particularly as we now see governments (in the western world, at least), opening up frontline (killing) roles for women in the military, which means that those who are experts in the various fields of military professionalism are super confident of women accomplishing the arduous task of slaughter with as much talent, skill, enthusiasm and daring-do as our leading men.

Just as within the context of military life, so, too, in our area of concern, the potential for murder is all about context. Given the right set of circumstances, which includes personality type, motivation and opportunity, few of us would not be capable of rising to the challenge of carrying out such an act. The psychological crime story is a wonderful environment for all of us to explore and develop the darker side of our personality. So the author should have no problem convincing the reader that a woman can do any amount of murderous chores. Our characters are mostly ordinary people on the surface (like all of us, no doubt), so it is with the undercurrents of the personality that we concern ourselves the most. Here is where the author must strive to convince the reader that this ‘ordinary’ personality will really commit this act of murder. Have the emotional and psychological inner workings been explored and developed sufficiently to convince the reader of this? It shouldn’t matter how they appear physically (man or woman, big or small) or that they are a successful author and clinical psychologist or a corporate manager, or whatever; what matters is what is hidden in the heart. This is where the road to murder begins.  Of course, the physical side of the story is not without importance. You must certainly convince the reader that the crime can be realistically executed. But much of the tension, suspense and conflict in the story take place inside the depths of the personality.

This post isn’t some sort of macabre call for affirmative action in an attempt to push women up the corporate killing ladder and bring statistics for women’s murder convictions on a par with those of men, and all just so we can pat ourselves on the back and boast how we have done something against discrimination in this area. Women protagonists who take a much more lively and active role in pushing the plot forward will inevitably dirty their hands through their participation in the odd murder or two, as already stated in the first sentence. And this enables the author to create fresh and exciting dynamics in the relationships between characters and even within the storylines. Below are two examples of how this works, and, ironically, both examples use as their inspiration two very old storylines.

In the psychologist, the novel’s first half is inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, except the gender roles are reversed. Amanda, the protagonist of the story, plays Iago to her husband’s lover, Gabby, her antagonist, who plays Othello here.  Using another identity, Amanda befriends Gabby with the sole intention of destroying her relationship with her husband. But after learning that her husband wants to divorce her and take half of everything that she has worked hard for over the years of her career and use it to feather the nest of his new relationship, and also after discovering that Gabby’s psychiatric history (one of violence toward past lovers based on a condition of irrational jealousy), Amanda’s handling of Gabby takes on a much darker tone. Amanda, a clinical psychologist, knows how to manipulate Gabby’s psychiatric condition with professional ease, and she skilfully goads her into killing her husband. So the role of Desdemona falls to Alfie, the husband. Iago and Othello’s roles could only be played by women in this story as two men (straight men, anyway) would not become so intensely intimate with one another and certainly not so quickly in the way the two women do. The story is about the power struggle between the two women, which becomes increasingly complex as the story progresses, ending in another tragedy. Alfie, the man, plays a passive role in the plot, and a victim in the story itself. Not surprisingly, despite the traditional inspiration behind the story, the role reversals have thrown up completely fresh perspectives on character and storyline and none of it appears contrived which may not realistically have been the case if the novel had been written eighty (maybe even thirty or forty) years ago.

The Troubled Househusband is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Role reversals occur here up to a degree but still enough to throw up fresh dynamics in the relationship between the main characters. Danny, the househusband of the title, an ex-amateur boxer, is living the ideal middle-class life with his wife, Carol, and their three children. That is, until her personality undergoes a dramatic shift and she is soon busy undermining his role as a stay-at-home dad. Eventually, he discovers that workplace bullying is the cause of the change in her behaviour. She works as a senior and aspiring manager in the corporate world but the bullying is affecting her career and therefore the family’s future economy as she is the sole breadwinner. Determined to get her career back on track, she pressures Danny into helping her out with her work-based problems. As a consequence of him doing so, two people end up dead and another crippled.  Carol plays Lady Macbeth but also a little bit of Macbeth, as it is she who is both pushing him into action but also doing it for her own career’s sake.  Although Danny is called on to do the dirty work (so he is also playing Macbeth to an extent), it is Carol who forcefully moves the plot onward and it is Carol who is always ready to lend her moral and logistical support, and she even plans in detail their only deliberate attempt at murder. In many respects, Danny is the hapless pawn between Carol and her enemies; he moves reluctantly to the extremes she pushes him toward, and really only does so because she makes him feel completely undermined as a father, a husband, and a man, while also convincing him that their family is finally under threat and a refusal on his part to act on her plans would spell doom for them. Throughout the story, Danny sees himself as increasingly powerless within a morally decaying environment.  The role reversal for Danny, where he is playing a progressive role of househusband, but now is also being forced by real threats into playing a traditional role as family protector (by brutally attacking those who threaten his wife and so by implication his family life), gives us fresh perspectives on character and storyline that could never have occurred had Danny been the main breadwinner and Carol a stay at home mum.

The complete role-reversal in the first novel and the partial role reversal approach in the second story have certainly produced a much more interesting set of dynamics than a simple update of inspiration and plot direction from the old plays without any role reversal whatsoever. They are a good example of how promoting women in our ever-changing society to a more active role in the psychological crime novel can help create a whole fresh set of tensions, conflicts and dramatic angles.

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About jerrydunne

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