The Rise of the Female Protagonist by Jacquelyn Benson – guest post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Jacquelyn Benson to the blog. Jacquelyn’s debut novel, The Smoke Hunter was published by Headline on 3 November 2016.

Here Jacquelyn talks about female protagonists.

Why the ‘Rise of the Female Protagonist’ Has Me Giddy

I’ll admit it: I might have done a happy dance after watching the Rogue One trailer for the first time. And it wasn’t because of that glimpse of someone who may-or-may-not-have-been Darth Vadar. It was the revelation that this latest addition to the Star Wars franchise would also feature a strong, tough female protagonist.

There’s a lot of noise being made of late by the apparent rise in women playing central roles in top-tier action flicks. From The Force Awakens to The Hunger Games, female characters are being put in the center of the big-budget spotlight without being asked to pointlessly strip down to their underwear somewhere around minute 27.

I’ve always been an adventure buff. As a kid, I binged on the Indiana Jones trilogy and old James Bond flicks. While my classmates were searching for the dirty scenes in V.C. Andrews novels (which is all the more disturbing a notion now that I’m aware of what Flowers in the Attic was actually about), I was devouring Ken Follett, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.

Fast-paced, high-stakes stories have always had my heart, but in the 1980s and 1990s, ladies were admittedly rather thin on the ground in the stories that I was consuming, whether film or fiction. Those who did show up weren’t often the sort of heroines I could admire and identify with. Even Marion Ravenwood, who starts her time in Raiders of the Lost Ark off with a bang by drinking a Nepalese giant under the table, ends up wailing for help while getting carried off in a wicker basket.

I mean – come on.

Admittedly, there were a few truly badass females about, but if one didn’t happen to stumble across Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley until after college – like myself – there was no option but to make do with the guys.

The runaway success of the female-dominated flicks of recent years might just constitute a ray of hope. Already, speculation is rife that those big numbers at the box office are shifting viewpoints in the studios, where executives cite the failure of Electra when justifying their reticence to make action movies with women in the lead roles. (

There’s also the chance that the Hollywood trend might carry over into the world of fiction, where the thriller genre is undeniably dominated by male authors writing about male protagonists, and where women authors regularly opt to hide their names behind initials to disguise their gender from the casual book browser.

Which is honestly a bit odd, given that female readers of fiction outnumber men, and are far more likely to read a thriller (57%) than their male counterparts (39%).  (

My theory is that this tendency in fiction persists in spite of the statistics because of an ingrained assumption that, while female readers don’t mind identifying with a male protagonist, male readers are more resistant to following the journey of a female character.

But to cite an entirely non-scientific example: when dudes of my acquaintance were hollering at me to get out and see Fury Road, it wasn’t the character of Max they were raving about: it was Charlize Theron’s Furiosa.

Nor did The Force Awakens rack in over $2 billion to date by selling tickets exclusively to women. Men watched it in droves, then went back to see it again… and again.

Thus comes the wild revelation that really shouldn’t have surprised anybody: that  men also enjoy viewing or reading damned good stories about strong, smart women.

As a writer of thrillers featuring strong female protagonists myself, I obviously have good reason to want to see this idea take hold in the industry, but the desire goes beyond a hope that it might help me sell more books. It reflects back to those years as a kid, when I was following Jack Ryan through the bowels of the Red October or flying planes (but not landing them very well) with Dr. Jones. While I wouldn’t give up those heroes and the sense of adventure they inspired in me for anything, it might have been nice to have the chance to expand my horizons with a few badass protagonists of my own gender as well.

Today’s girls might just get that opportunity, and I can’t help but think that it will do them – and the men who join them for the journey – a world of good.

About the author:

Jacquelyn Benson’s debut novel, The Smoke Hunter, follows tough, smart archivist and suffragette Ellie Mallory on a wild journey through 19th century Central America as she races to find the key to unraveling an ancient mystery.   Find out more at

About the book:


“Chasing a threat born in smoke…

London, 1898. Archivist Eleanora Mallory discovers a map to a legendary city . But is it the key to unravelling an ancient mystery or a clever hoax?

Compelled to find out, Ellie journeys to Central America – with a merciless enemy hot on her heels.

In a race to uncover the map’s secret first, Ellie is forced to partner with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates, a man she’s not sure she can trust. Together, they venture into an uncharted wilderness alive with smoke and shadows, where an even greater danger awaits them.

For what lies there whispering to be unearthed has the power to bring the world to its knees.

Join Ellie and Adam as they battle rivers of scorpions, plummeting waterfalls and pre-historic death traps on the journey to uncovering a deadly secret that could shake the fate of the world.”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Greg Hill says:

    Great post, and I agree (and I can’t wait to read this book either). Sounds like a great adventure story! I’ve always had a thing for lost cities in jungles and all that. 🙂 I hope it does well and best of luck! As to your point, I didn’t realize women authors were hiding behind initials in the thriller genre, but I guess it makes sense. I remember the old story about Andre Norton (a sci fi writer) changing her name to Andre as young male readers were thought more likely to buy if the writer was male. Geez do some things not change or what?

    It’s funny, as a male reader I’ve never had a problem with female protagonists, but I agree that assumption is there. And that’s too bad because there’s great stuff out there- but we do need more. Thanks for sharing, and looking forward to reading the book. 🙂


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks very much. If I’m honest, when I choose a book I don’t look to see whether it’s written by a man or a woman or similarly if the protagonist is a woman or not. I pick a book that sounds good 🙂 It is a shame though that women authors feel the need to hide their gender but it’s been going on for hundreds of years. I do hope you enjoy the book when you read it 🙂


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