Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Non-traditional Protagonists #amwriting #amreading #mystery #writingcommunity


We’re all familiar with mysteries, right? In the many flavors of the mystery genre (and there are SOOO many), each sub-genre has typical protagonists.

How many sub-genres? Sheesh. I could do a whole series of posts on just the various mystery sub-genres. Just for fun, I did a quick (Ha!) search. Here’s a short list of links:

I’ll wait for a minute while you check them out.

Point being, for each sub-genre there are the traditional, or should I say expected protagonists. Cozies often have some craft or food involved, or clever pets, bookshops, or sewing circles. Police procedurals have a jaded cop, retired cop, or cop who was terminated for a mistake and is now a PI or consultant. Noir has the hard-boiled, hard drinking, hard smoking PI that Humphrey Bogart would play on screen. (Seriously. Have you ever read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler and not imagined Bogey as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe?)

Amateur sleuths and cozies go hand-in-hand. Entrepreneurs seem popular, and not just any small business owner, but a woman with a bakery, or a woman with a bookstore, or a woman with a fabric store, or a woman with a dog-sitting/cat-sitting/hamster-sitting business. A circle of women who knit/crochet/read books/play bridge. A priest who sees an unusual number of deaths in an English hamlet. Male PIs (with apologies to Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski). Male cops. There are more female cops these days, but still.

Traditional characters in traditional roles. Sure, you can create sort of non-traditional characters in these roles. A protagonist with a significant handicap: Lincoln Rhyme (quadriplegic), Pen Wilkenson (paraplegic). The detective/PI/cop of color/LGBQT/underrepresented ethnicity.

There’s something comforting about picking up a book with a cat and a ball of yarn on the front and reading about the knitting circle’s latest mystery, but what’s the fun in that? I’m thinking non-traditional occupations, like female aircraft mechanic or female auto mechanic.

This week we had our monthly Sisters in Crime chapter meeting, during which we spotlight an author, published or not, who reads a bit from their work. This month our author read part of her story. Her POV character is a woman who inherited an auto repair shop. Her best employee is a female auto mechanic. Reminded me of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson.

So. Cool. I talked to the author a bit about non-traditional protagonists. Her question: why don’t we see more of them?

*raises hand* I know! I know!

Because publishers aren’t sure readers will relate to them.

Seriously. That’s what they said when my agent was shopping my manuscript. Great story, not sure about the female aircraft mechanic. Now, if she was a flight attendant …

So, the moral of the story? Do it. Create a character who is not like the others in their chosen occupation. This works best, of course, if the author knows the character’s non-traditional occupation well, which is the case no matter what you write. Not only does it give readers insight into an occupation they may not be familiar with, it assures them that “breaking the mold” is okay, and works.

I’ll be in San Diego next month for the 2020 Left Coast Crime convention: Murder’s a Beach. So excited! If you are going to be there, let me know. Maybe we can say ‘Hi’ in person! If you are looking for an awesome writers’ conference, check out the UW Writers’ Institute. You won’t be disappointed (unless you’re looking for me, because I won’t be there this year).

Until then, keep writing! Just think, we’re almost halfway through February already 😮

Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, seven chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

19 thoughts on “Non-traditional Protagonists #amwriting #amreading #mystery #writingcommunity

  1. I like learning about occupations that are unusual, so protagonists that don’t fit the mold are a-okay with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very happy to hear you’ll get a chance to go to LCC, Julie! That’s terrific! And you’re right about the wide variety of crime fiction sub-genres, and the types of protagonists that typically go with them. So long as it falls out naturally from the story, and isn’t contrived, I’m all for a protagonist who’s a little different. I think it can add richness to a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love to read a book with a nontraditional character. I have to say publishers are wrong that readers don’t want this. I love a female pilot! Have a fantastic time in San Diego, Julie! Should be beautiful at the beach;)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like books that DON’T subscribe to the tropes, Julie. They’re so refreshing. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not really a fan on most romances – they’re just too predictable. So keep looking for the unique protagonist. It’s fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are refreshing! And you are so right about romances; and there are other books that have gotten predictable, like the Stephanie Plum books. For the longest time, you could count on Steph’s vehicle being destroyed, and of course the comic relief of lula.

      Have a great week, Diana!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Julie, I had to do a double-check to make sure I hadn’t misread the sentence: “Because publishers aren’t sure readers will relate to them.”. Seriously?! I love reading books with unusual characters, non-stereotyped … that’s what makes them so interesting, alive! You did right to push for your book! Have a great time at the convention, and so wish I could be there! San Diego must be amazing … and a chance to talk all about books!😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. I was surprised, too. I thought they would welcome a unique protagonist. And yes, that’s what makes them interesting! I’m looking forward to the convention. I’ll get to talk to William Kent Kreuger (I hope!) and I’ll be rooming with another awesome author. And San Diego vs MN in March? Looking forward to better weather (I hope!)

      Have a great week, Annika!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Unusual protagonists are great for sucking readers into books, but publishers have always played things safe. That’s what makes indie books and small presses so great. That’s not to say I don’t like “safe and familiar” characters too, but I also like to mix it up now and then, reading about a character who is completely different.
    Have fun at your convention. I’m sure you’ll have a blast!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting take on that. I’d have to agree and it’s one of the reasons Indies are becoming so popular. We do push limits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we do! And it’s a good thing, if you ask me, because who wants to read about the same sorts of characters all the time? It’s more fun to read about (and talk to if you meet someone) someone who has an unexpected or unusual career or talent.

      Have a wonderful week, Jacqui!


  8. Awh, Zoey, you look so cozy! I just want to rub your belly!
    Interesting insight about the non-trad protags. A little sad, but I’m sure that mold will break little by little as time goes on.
    Counting down the days until March 15!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I like any character that’s unusual, buta protagonist who runs against the grain is even better. 🙂


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