How to write a strong feminine lead
By Gordon Bickerstaff
Join Gordon Bickerstaff as he delves into what makes a strong feminine lead.
'Yes, I've had numerous threats—I'd be killed, but they don't bother me. What does affect me is when my family are threatened. That jumps me to a whole new level.'
Interview with Zoe Tampsin about her role as lead character in the Lambeth Group Series by Emily Hopewell
I'm a bit apprehensive. Zoe Tampsin is scary as she marches into this busy London hotel lounge, looking like Scarlet Johansson as The Black Widow, in black boots, black cargo pants, and a very dark blue leather jacket over a black t-shirt. She's taller than I expected. Her hair is short, jet black, she doesn't wear earrings, and I notice her nails are short. As she sits opposite me, and drops her bag at her feet, I'm wondering what weapons she's concealing.
'Nice to meet you. Thank you for your time,' I say, and it's probably obvious to her that I'm intimidated by her presence.
I reach for the tray on the coffee table between us, and pour coffee for her; black with no sugar. I've read the books. We are here to talk about tough, rough, female protagonists, and how they are portrayed in thriller books. I hand her the cup, and say, 'So, the seventh Lambeth Group thriller, Die Every Day, came out last year, and you are still a main character. Have you enjoyed every one?'
She shrugs. 'I haven't been in every one. I joined the series in the second book, Everything to Lose. The series started off as Gavin Shawlens Thrillers, but they rejected Zoe Tampsin Thrillers, so we agreed on Lambeth Group as a compromise.'
I raise an eyebrow. I can imagine how that discussion went. 'I'd like to start by asking about your relationship with the leading male character, Gavin Shawlens. How do you get on with him? It seems fractious most of the time.'
She frowns. 'Gavin may have degrees, and a PhD, and all that jazz, but when you boil it all down; in a crisis, he's as thick as two planks. No offense intended to natural wood.'
Her reply makes me grimace for a moment. 'I see. Some might say you are too bossy with Gavin. Are you?'
After a sip of coffee, she says, 'Is that how it seems? Okay; If I come over as bossy with Gavin, it's because he needs to be bossed in order to get him moving. The story would not develop if I let him move at his pace.'
I flick through my notes for a quote. 'In Everything to Lose, you warn Gavin that if he is insubordinate again, you'll kick his balls so hard, sperm will squirt out of his ears. Is that physically possible?'
She sips her coffee. 'You'll need to ask him that question,' she says, momentarily irritated.
I decide to push on. 'I was wondering what was in your mind when you thought about his sperm. Romance in the air, perhaps?'
She shakes her head. 'I was thinking they both have a one in a million chance of becoming a human being.'
We both smile. I recall that scene, and I know what she means. Her eyes send me a signal; she's not here to talk about Shawlens.
I start a new page on my notebook. 'Remind me of your role in the Lambeth Group series.'
She put the cup on the table, and sits back in her chair. 'In the 70s, there was a popular TV series called Doomwatch. A group of scientists and spooks, investigate high-end crime and terror threats from the science and technology sector. The Lambeth series takes its inspiration from Doomwatch. So, we are not traditional police crime or private investigators. Shawlens does the science bits. To be fair, he does have other uses. My background is military, and my role is to keep him safe while we discover what the pointy-heads are doing.'
I flick through my notes again. 'I'm interested to know where the thriller industry is going with female characters. Has the time come now for thriller writers to give more attention to female protagonists; is the reading public ready for a female James Bond?'
'Some writers limit female protagonists to girlfriends, sisters, mothers, wives or PA to the male. Their value to the story is limited to who they bed, or pander to. Rarely do such characters explore their own journey. In Lambeth books, my character always has agency, which means she is a plot driver. She deals with the flow of ups and downs, and makes mistakes, some forced; some not. Change is slow, but I believe we will see more female characters given agency in thrillers.'
'Must a main female protagonist always be broken and beautiful?'
With a shake of her head, she says, 'My eternity ring is broken and beautiful, so I don't wear it. Readers want protagonists to face conflict, overcome their fears, or weaknesses, and cope with their faults. My character has her share of problems, including divorce, and a daughter who put herself in peril.'
'Because you weren't there when she needed you most.'
Her brows furrow, and she throws a glance to the side.
'My character is not broken. I'm not perfect, who is? Our readers know where I've come from. They know I have family problems. It means, I have to grow and develop, and if you are involved in a book series, then you must grow. I believe a main female character should be unforgettable, assertive, determined, and captivating in her own way as she fights the fight, and at the same time deals with her own problems. That's my aim.'
'Some writers avoid the woman's back story, and cast her as born strong.'
'It's a mistake. A strong woman is created by the trauma she has come through. As a child, my dad dragged us around countless military bases, so I've weathered a few tornados. My brother and I had to find strength to avoid the inevitable aggravation and intimidation each time we moved to a new base. I became strong; I wasn't born strong.'
I nod my agreement. 'I can't remember which book, but you do recount in one of them that you had a difficult time with your mother. Did she shape your journey?'
'Moving from base to base was a hard life, and on my ninth birthday, I asked my mother if she loved me more than my brother, Michael. Without hesitation, she told me she loved my father more than anything in the world. Certainly put me in my place.'
'I do love your character, but there is a danger you might become stereotyped as a woman with no love, no flaws, strong-minded, continuously attractive, but unaware of your beauty, and at the same time, able to destroy the bad guys. It's not real is it?'
Her expression darkens, and those brows furrow again. I hasten to clarify that in no way shape or form, am I saying she is not attractive. Her expression relaxes, and I sigh inwardly.
'What I mean is; it's good that writers are moving away from predictable male-dependent females, but will they replace them with a type of female sex robot, or pseudo male who is not a real woman, if you know what I mean.'
'It won't happen in this series. I do have feelings. My character has experienced loss and tragedy, and her reactions always reveal a sensitive side. In Everything to Lose, Shawlens discovered that side when he found me weeping over the loss of a comrade who I could have saved.'
I hear emotion in her voice, and I show her a sympathetic expression. 'Your emotional scenes do balance off the rough, tough, stuff. But it must be hard when you're in the firing line, then they target your family.'
'Yes, I've had numerous attempts to kill me off, but they don't bother me. What does grip me is when my family are threatened. That jumps me to a whole new level.'
I smile. 'We've seen that in The Black Fox, and again in Die Every Day.'
I'm curious about her work ethic, and ask, 'Do you regret when an intense mission has a hard impact on your family? Should there be more down time in the stories?'
'I often wonder if there is a parallel universe version of me who is a normal parent. I wonder if she is happy. I'm not sure she would be any happier than me. My daughter, Amy, has had to make great changes, but she knows how important my work is to me, and the country. In the end, I am fighting to keep the country safe, so she can have a good life.'
'If I was an author asking for advice; how do I avoid turning a kick-ass female character into a pseudo male?'
She strokes her chin. 'Focus on where her power comes from, and why. In my case, that is my brother, Michael. Lambeth Group readers will know what I mean. Reveal her good and bad habits, and her failures, but she doesn't have to be broken. I believe my character is compelling because she overcomes challenges and adversity in her job, but in her own life, she is struggling with her problems. Remember, that beyond the action, the fights, and the drama, there are people with defining issues.'
I write furiously to get her advice down. 'To me, you are feminine. In creating a female kick-ass character; is it inevitable that male characteristics will subsume female characteristics? Can the female dimension exist in such a tough character?'
She nods. 'Yes, if a writer can first concentrate on developing the person, then the gender. My character would be less convincing if my first concern was my looks and body shape. Don't get me wrong, I care about my looks and my body; they have priority, after my work is done. I recommend you to read George R.R. Martin. He creates fascinating female characters.'
'His books certainly pass the Bechdel test.'
'It's a test to reflect on the female characters in a book. To pass the test, a story must have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than the leading male.'
A smirk breaks over her face. 'Shawlens is our central character, so there is always discussion about what he is doing, or the mess he has created. I do have female friends and colleagues, such as Toni Bornadetti and Karen Turnbell, to name a couple, and we do have conversations about what we are doing, which don't include Shawlens, so I guess, our stories pass the test.'
I'm sniggering as I recall a particular scene. 'They do. I remember the conversation in Tabula Rasa between you and Joss Fricke about her companion, Roger. Like you, every time I hear someone say; Roger that, I drop into a fit of laughter. Did you ever spend time with Roger?
She shows me a tight-lipped smile before she says, 'Loose lips, sink ships.'
We laugh out loud.
'You have become a compelling character in these Lambeth books. What have you brought to the character to make her great?'
'I make it clear what I want. I insist my character is given agency in the plot. I'm not slow to say what scares me, and I reveal the skills I'll use to move the story forward. Most important, when I am acted upon, readers know I give back as good as I get. My character knows her ability, and is confident of what she can do. I want a reader to know me like a close friend. Then, like with any friend, when I'm in trouble, they'll be backing me to do what I need to do.'
I'm curious to find out how she developed her character. 'What books do you read to help you get into the character? Have you read Ian Fleming?'
'Have you read Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne series?'
'What have you read?'
'I have red socks.'
I rush to cover my mouth. Shocked or embarrassed. I don't know.
She reaches to pat my wrist. 'Sorry, I saw that coming. Couldn't help myself. I like to read books about the aftermath of an apocalypse. I've just finished Richard Matheson's book, I Am Legend. I've met preppers who are stocked up with water, weapons, food, and all manner of survival tools.'
I notice that the dazzling smile is switching on and off as if to save electricity, so I swiftly ask my final question. 'What does the future hold for your character? I have to say; the end of Die Every Day felt like the end of the series.'
She shrugs. 'Who knows? One thing I've learned about authors is that they all have an innate perversion to convince you one thing is going to happen, then on the turn of a coin, make something totally different happen. More twisted people; I've never met! All I can say is; negotiations have just completed, and my contract has been renewed.'
'Music to my ears. Zoe Tampsin, thank you.' I reach to shake her hand.
While she's been talking, I've seen a side I didn't expect. She's a lot chattier than I expected; entertaining, distant, and friendly all at the same time. But in her eyes, I see a sharpness I'd expect from a determined, mid-life, woman. I'll file her under tricky, unpredictable, intelligent and fearless.
Die Every Day: For the rest of your life
(A Lambeth Group Thriller)
By Gordon Bickerstaff
A woman is murdered in a Glasgow city hotel room. Police have everything they need to charge a suspect. Caught at the scene, he confessed, and he's filled with guilt and remorse. With undeniable evidence; the police expect him to plead guilty.
Rumours suggest the man will plead not guilty and tell his story. If he faces trial, the truth will cause international outrage and the government will fall.
Faceless mandarins in corridors of power are determined he will remain silent.
Lambeth Group agent, Zoe Tampsin, is ordered to make him plead guilty. What she discovers will crush her soul and place her next in line to be murdered.
Who is pulling the strings? What secrets are they hiding?
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I was born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland. I studied biochemistry, and I've worked in several Scottish Universities where I did research on enzymes and taught biochemistry. After thirty years of teaching and research I retired my academic pen and took of a fiction pen.
I live in central Scotland with my wife and we enjoy reading, writing, and walking in the hills.
The Lambeth Group books are a series of the secret government investigations led by agent Zoe Tampsin. A strong female protagonist with courage, determination, and guile. She is assisted by specialist science consultant, Dr Gavin Shawlens.