Introducing DCS Frankie Sheehan and the problems with the ‘strong female character’

Olivia Kiernan introduces Frankie Sheehan and talks us through what it means to write a 'strong female character'

Posted on March 26, 2019 in Behind the Scenes
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Olivia Kiernan, author of twisty new thriller The Killer in Me (the second in the DCS Frankie Sheehan series that began with Too Close to Breathe) introduces her title character and investigates the what it means to write ‘a strong female character’

I’m always slightly conflicted referring to my character, DCS Frankie Sheehan, as one who fits the trope of a ‘strong female character’. When I sat down to write Frankie, she presented as tough certainly and I knew she had resources of strength within her that I was surely lacking but ultimately I felt she reflected many of the traits I see in the women I know.

When I wrote my first novel, Too Close to Breathe, Ireland’s first female garda commissioner had just been appointed so it really wasn’t a reach, in any way, to give Frankie a high-ranking role within the gardaí and make her successful with it. The themes in Too Close to Breathe centre around power and control, our perception of victim and predator and what type of person fits those roles so, when writing Frankie, I wanted her to come at that case as both detective and woman but otherwise I sensed, rather than cynically devised, that she was resilient, respected, even if not always liked, in her role. She moved somewhat beyond the idea that her position, her approach or her behaviour might be unusual for a woman. Which of course it’s not. I worked as a chiropractor for years. It’s a physically demanding job but still I don’t recall a day I approached my work as a ‘female’. I approached it as I was trained and this is how I expect Frankie comes at her work. She’s a determined, skilled and dedicated detective who has her weakness, as all of us do.

When working a case, the investigation comes first, she is no more plagued with thoughts around domesticity than her male colleagues. And there are times when it could be said her commitment to work goes further than theirs, that when others fall back, she steps forward; always willing to see a case through to the bitter end, even if it means compromising some part of herself, be that her ethics or her safety. It’s one of the reasons she gets along so well with Baz (her partner), she recognizes some of the same desires in him. She is undoubtedly the toughest person on her team and I don’t mean this in the physical sense but in that she refuses to give up. If anything being a woman in the dark world she works gives her an extra edge, another lens to look through when it comes to understanding a case. She will experience (and does) sexism and judgments around her gender. There are characters who expect her to prove herself before they’ll take her seriously but Frankie is someone who steps over that. If another person wants to underestimate her ability because of her gender then more fool them, she’s certainly not going to deviate from her path because of their ignorance.

In The Killer In Me we meet another strong female character in Commissioner Donna Hegarty. We soon see that gender doesn’t factor in Hegarty’s view either. There is no womanly kinship between her and Frankie in that way. There is, however, a silent reckoning going on when they first meet, an understanding that to get to where they are they’ve likely had to work harder than their male colleagues. With that feeling of professional respect they each recognize the threat in the other when it comes to getting what they want; Hegarty all about what she can achieve for herself, Frankie for the victims.

In the end, we all want to move away from some of the discourse around the ‘strong female protagonist’. Because it feels unfair that in order to be the hero the female character must possess traits that border on superhuman. That if you’ve written a ‘strong female character’ you’ve created some kind of mythical creature. I welcome the day when we can talk about our female characters as just ‘strong’ rather than speaking about that strength in relation to their gender or as if it was unusual. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet and in some ways we do need a way to announce them in fiction so for the moment I’d prefer to have Frankie stand out and be talked about as a ‘strong female character’ than not have the conversation at all.

We need to share stories where we can see women depicted in ways that showcase our strengths. Why do we love a strong female protagonist? Because they reflect the women we meet every day. I know several everyday heroes who happen to be female – why shouldn’t we see them in our novels.

The Killer in Me is out now.

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