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Violence, Revenge and Vigilante Justice: Criminal Behaviour of Female Main Characters

By Holly Butterfield, Imogen Bristow and Gemma Mathers

Recent years have seen the rise of the strong female protagonist trope, which has become increasingly visible in the books we consume. Literary reporters locate this trend within a wider feminist context, spotlighting an increased desire for stories of female power amid adverse gender politics, such as the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases and America’s restriction of women’s reproductive rights. Within the smaller world of publishing, however, these stories reflect an exciting new wave of female storytelling and an end to decades of male cultural hegemony. It is wholly unsurprising that book buyers, most of whom are women, are purchasing books where female leads are the architects of their own stories. After all, why shouldn’t literature bolster women, even if wider society doesn’t? In fiction, titles such as Verity by Colleen Hoover, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid and Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses are immensely popular, offering compelling tales of female agency. 

It makes sense that this style of female protagonist lends itself to the mystery and thriller genres. Spanning across a multitude of tones, these books can range from light-hearted storytelling to something much more serious and sinister where women take on the leads as vigilantes of justice. The provocatively titled How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie brought attention to this type of story within the mystery and thriller genres, taking the unlikeable female character trope to the next level. Mackie turns what could be a sinister tale into a witty and infectious comedy about murdering one's family. Whereas the more recent How to Kill Men and Get Away With It and The Murder After the Night Before, both written by Katy Brent, take a dark, humorous approach, telling twisted tales of revenge. These acts of violence can often take the reader by surprise, taking the characters’ monologues and motives to deeper levels that is often not expected – especially alongside the rise of cosy tales within these genres.

So why does it work? What is it about exploring extreme violence in these situations that adds a new and exciting element to these stories? Well, for one thing, it’s refreshing getting the chance to see women on the page who are a little unhinged and unapologetic about it. It breaks stereotypes and allows these women to have their own form of justice, often when this would not be the case in our modern, real-life societies. It’s shocking precisely because it is unexpected and yet these stories show that women can be pushed to the breaking point in different ways. It can also just be fun! Books can often put their characters through hellish situations and protagonists especially may get dragged down into the world around them. 

Finally, these titles are provocative. They intend to spark a reaction among audiences, making an impression of the stories before you’ve turned the first page. These titles are sure to make people's heads turn when you’re reading in public – who wouldn’t see a book named How to Kill Your Family and not be a little bit concerned? So once you’ve drawn people in with these eye-catching titles, you’ve got to make sure that the stories pack the same punch. 

Of course, there are a multitude of genres that fit this style of character, fantasy being one of the biggest among them. Fantasy: where the rules are looser and it’s easier to excuse a character who will go a little nuts and commit crimes in the name of their quest. Take The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. Fang Runin is a downright brutal character, sometimes to an unlikeable degree due to the lengths she’s willing to go. But the beauty of fantasy as a genre is that there’s space for these extremes, for the character to run rampant, and usually the circumstances of the world they’re in allows for such brutality. Similarly, in Godkiller by Hannah Kaner, the main character Kissen makes a living by killing gods. In a genre with extensive world-building, tragically beautiful backstories and often war-torn landscapes, it’s easy for the main character to slip onto a violent path. 

On the historical fiction front, stories of witchcraft have surged. Perceived histories of witchcraft have been overhauled and overturned, reinventing narratives of misogyny and persecution into one of female reverence and power. Successful witch lit books include Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, Weyward by Emilia Hart and The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore, among others. These tales centre on women’s lack of control, often due to poverty or patriarchal oppression, and their subsequent use of magic to regain agency. Some books deny the existence of magic, instead creating endings in which male witchfinders are eradicated and justice is served. Either way, our thirst for triumphant retellings of women’s history is clear. 


Over the last few years – perhaps even the last decade – the surge of strong female protagonists shining in a new light is really encouraging. It’s fun to see authors unleashing their wild side on the page, letting their characters thrive in their unhinged, chaotic ways. Readers love to see it, and there’s always more room for strong female characters, criminals or not. Hopefully there are many more coming.


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