Why dead women sell books

I know this topic has been discussed before, most recently in the thoughtful blog post by our own Louise Ure.  Last year, debate raged when one book reviewer decried the overwhelming number of female victims in crime novels, accusing authors and publishers of blatant exploitation of women’s suffering.  This provoked Val McDermid’s able response

No one has contested the fact that, yes, crime novels do have an overwhelming number of female victims.  Or that such novels are popular.  Or that book covers with women’s bodies (alive or dead) seem to attract readers.  Charges have been flying that we authors, male and female, are guilty of misogyny and should be ashamed of ourselves.  Women crime authors are singled out as traitors to our gender, and male authors are accused of being sexist pigs.

But no one has really stopped to ask the question: Why do these books sell so well? Why do so many fem-jep books make it onto bestseller lists?  Where are all the bestselling guy-jep books?  Since the majority of fiction readers are women, why do so many women buy books in which women figure as victims?

I confess, I’m one of those readers.  When I choose a thriller novel for vacation reading, if the killer is targeting big strong guys, I’m just not interested in the story.  But if the killer is hunting for women, I am much more likely to plunk down my cash for that book.  Does that make me a sorry excuse for a feminist?  

For years, I’ve pondered the popularity of these books, ever since a reader told me that she only reads serial killer books where the victims are women.  “What if the victims are male?” I asked her.  “Oh, I don’t care about those,” she said.  She’s not the only reader who’s told me this; again and again, I hear women readers tell me that they’re most attracted to stories in which women are threatened, women are victimized.  

That preference for fictional female victims carries over into my own writing. More than once, I have started work on a novel where the victim is male — only to realize the story isn’t working for me.  The first draft of VANISH, for instance, kicked off with a “dead” man who wakes up in a body bag and spends half the book fighting for his life.  I wrote about a third of that book, at which point my interest petered out and I got a massive case of writer’s block.  I just didn’t care what happened next.  I stopped writing for two weeks, went on a long drive, and suddenly had a flash of inspiration: why not make that man a woman?  A woman who’s fighting for her life, a woman who’s a victim?

The book instantly came alive for me because I could understand her fear, her desperation, and how the odds were stacked against her.  I could identify with her.  But only because she was a woman.

And that, I think, is what makes the female victim such a powerful element in a thriller novel. Women make up the bulk of the reading public, and these women don’t identify with the hero or the villain.  They identify with the victim.

It’s a phenomenon you see in children’s scary books as well.  Kids love to read books in which kids are in jeopardy, kids are potential victims.  But an adult in jeopardy? Eh, not so interesting to them.  Does their preference for kid-jep books make kids masochists?  Do the authors of such novels secretly hate kids? Or are both authors and readers tapping into a deep psychological vein that makes these stories so compelling?

I don’t think this psychology is true for adult male readers, whom I suspect are more likely to identify with the hero.  There certainly are a lot of James Bond-type novels out there, so I suspect that men prefer thrillers where men are battling other men.  

But for women and kids, the world can look like a scary place, and we’ve learned to pay attention to the things that can harm us.  Take a look at where the kids congregate at the aquarium: the shark tank.  Or in the zoo: at the snake house or the lions and tigers.  As a species, our survival depended on our knowing and understanding the creatures that can harm us, and that’s what kids at the zoo are doing.  Studying the creatures that can eat them.  Women readers who prefer books about female victims aren’t victim wannabes; we’re behaving like those kids in the zoo, confronting our fears. We are placing themselves in the role of victim, and mentally rehearsing what we would do to survive.  But that fantasy can’t happen if we’re unable to imagine ourselves in the victim’s role. 




29 thoughts on “Why dead women sell books

  1. Vicky

    Tess, I think you’re right. I know I read and enjoy those novels because I can identify with the victim, but I also want to see her use her intelligence and her courage to fight back. Seeing the woman prevail against all odds is quite empowering, if only in a novel.

  2. Debbie

    I’m not sure where I fit in when I consider my reading habits. Take Sydney Sheldon – read lots of his novels in the eighties and was impressed by the female protag. When I think back though at least one book involved that protag turning to a man for help.
    What about Lord of the Rings? Nearly all male cast, but then again, they are underdogs aren’t they?
    So back to Sheldon – in the above hinted at novel, I ended up feeling sympathy for the mafia…the mafia?
    My fav. book of all time – Villette. The female char. must overcome adversity and is persicuted but then again, we eventually find out that the male protag is a victem of sorts too.
    My favourite Disney animated flick: Beauty and the Beast – strong female char. who redeems weak male.
    Maybe it’s not that the characters are weak, but that their strength is unrealized at the beginning and develops to it’s full potential or the the female protag must realize the potential from within.
    Maybe it’s like Abraham and IIsacc. Maybe it’s the difference between knowing something through experience and just believing it to be true. And then wouldn’t Bond and other stock characters make sence from that perspective? Their just out their proving themselves. The difference now seems to be the writers approach but whether male or female, they are essentially on the same journey.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Thought-provoking, Tess. I wonder if this is a relatively new phenomenon? I’m thinking of older books, like Marathon Man, and Coma, wherein the one in danger was a man. And wasn’t Grisham’s first book The Partner? Seems to me his main character was male, and so was the one in jeopardy, although it’s been many years since I read that one.

    I’ve noticed very recently that I prefer music by women over almost all male singers/musicians. Something in the air, maybe.

  4. JT Ellison

    Fascinating post, Tess. This is going to be a fun conversation today.

    I know I identify with female and male victims equally, but the vast majority of my victims are female – and in droves. You’ve hit the nail on the head, it’s the there but for the grace of God go I mentality, and we exercise our primordial lizard brain trying to figure out ways to react. And in many cases, a thriller novel with a woman in jeopardy can teach us HOW to break away from a killer. Since not all of us have had martial arts training and fighting is hard, wits prevail. And those are the stories people love.

  5. Judy Wirzberger

    So what is the the most commonly sold combination?
    Female Vic, Male Perp, Male Protag?
    Female Vic, Female Perp, Female Protag (don’t think so);
    Female Vic, Male Perp, Female Protag (bet not but on the rise);
    Which makes me wonder if a grand majority of readers are still searching for the knight in shining armor even if it’s hidden by rust.
    We still say the good guy and the bad guy then maybe add parenthetically (in this case a gal).
    I’ll have to watch not so much what I read, but rather what I stop reading.

    I believe so much stems from the fairy tales we were told. The big bad was a guy, and the axman was a man, poor innocent Little Red Riding Hood. However, I’m still trying to figure out if baby bear was a baby girl or baby boy.

    Excellent post.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brilliant post, Tess. You’ve illuminated me this morning. This is a concept that has never occurred to me and the ramifications will stay with me for a long time. Food for thought as I crawl into the storyline for my third novel.

  7. tess gerritsen

    Perhaps what we’re really searching for is a David vs. Goliath story. And David could be a woman or it could be a child or a disenfranchised or understimated male (like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker).

    But when it’s Goliath vs. Goliath, (strong man vs strong man) it’s just not as interesting.

  8. Allison Davis

    Look at Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Carol O’Connell’s Mallory…the wounded woman coming back as the hero….VI Warshawski, now those are my kind of girls. Working on my protagonist a little more with these thoughts….

  9. Alafair Burke

    Add me to the ditto’s. Statistically, men are more likely to be the victims of violence, but that’s because they’re also more likely to be participants in violent activities gone wrong: bar brawls, drug deals, robberies, etc. Those stories don’t make for the kinds of novels I like to write or read. Women and children, unfortunately, are more likely to fall prey to the forms of violence whose commission — and perhaps more importantly, whose resolution — we find most compelling.

  10. Dudley Forster

    A very thought provoking post Tess. After reading this, the first thing that popped into my head was Chelsea Cain’s HEARTSICK. Gretchen Lowell caused my skin to crawl far more than, say Hannibal Lecter. There is something very unnerving about a female serial killer. Besides the extremely graphic violence, the vic was male who was held captive and tortured for ten days. I would like to believe that I have equal empathy for the victims, no matter the sex, but the thought of laying there absolutely helpless made me furious. My reaction was not that I wanted the vic to escape and flee, but a surprisingly visceral hope the vic would escape and beat the shit out of her. Maybe I really was identifying with the vic.

    I agree that most men probably identify with the hero and at times I like the whole men battling men thing. My reading list is sprinkled with books by authors like Cussler. But I am not sure that men care strongly that the hero be a man. Most of the thrillers I read have women protags. Okay, sure I am an unscientific sample of one.

    Now I am going to be processing these ideas all day.

  11. tess gerritsen

    Dudley, HEARTSICK was certainly an exception, a man-bites-dog flip of the usual thriller, with a female perp and a male victim. I know it did very well, perhaps because it was so unusual, but I don’t know if those same readers went back for a second round of the same theme.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Fascinating post, Tess. I was told recently that a very famous thriller writer had laid down the first rule which was, "Have the woman rescued by the hero."

    My response? "Aw, rats… I’ll get my coat."

  13. Jake Nantz

    Tess – excellent post as always. I think part of the reason I personally don’t like the guy-jep books is how often the guy can do ridiculously unrealistic things to get himself out of it. Fem-jep they usually have to use cunning and smarts, mixed with a little luck. Guy-jep? Point him to the nearest branch of Q inc. and he’ll go off Roger Moore-style with a thousand "get-even" gadgets. It’s ludicrous. Probably why so many people are enjoying the new Bond films as much as the early Sean Connery ones (okay, we know why many of the ladies are enjoying them, but besides that)…Daniel Craig’s Bond isn’t some cheeky gadget-dork like Moore, or so uber-calm that he never gets angry at anything, like Pierce Brosnan. He’s like Connery was: a badass with a gun and a quick temper.

    But I could be wrong, it’s happened once before.

  14. Kagey

    In a very tangential thought — I usually listen to female singers because I can sing along (they are usually closer to my range), I usually like female main characters, but I still read YA because I can still identify with kids.
    In a fem-jep situation, if she’s in trouble because she’s just been STUPID, I stop caring, very fast. Fictionally, I’m all for cleaning out the gene pool. No compassion!
    And I will care about anyone who is doing something important when they are killed/attacked — the whistle blower in the middle of exposing something horrible, for example.
    In line with the "women taking over everything" idea — check out the cover article for The Atlantic July/August — "The End of Men". I don’t buy everything in this article, but it makes lots of interesting points.

  15. rv

    I think there’s a fine line between tapping into a deep psychological vein and merely pandering to curent cultural fears. The reader who reads only about female victims of male serial killers is someone who needs to be challenged, not continually coddled and reaffirmed in her narrow-mindedness. This is the basic problem of commercial fiction — the desire to sell to readers who seek the same formula over and over again, who don’t want to do the intellectual work of seeing the world differently. That’s why, if we look back on the annals of popular fiction, we see a history littered with the crudest, fear-based stereotypes: black men who rape white women, Jews who try to pervert Christians, foreigners who want to contaminate America (Japanese, Communists, Russians, Arabs, fill in the current enemy), homosexuals who are all pedophiles, etc. There’s an inherent danger in catering to these fears, by playing on people’s nightmares, by making people identify as victims. Will these victimization tales sell? Yes, because people are fearful. Are these tactics ethical and progressive? No. It’s all too easy to write another fem-jep novel that pushes all the same buttons; but easy shouldn’t be the only consideration.

    The children’s book genre is actually a great example of gender stereotyping because, as conventional wisdom goes, boy will read only about boys, while girls will read about both girls and boys. Should we allow boys to simply walk away from doing the work necessary to see the world from a girl’s POV? What are the social consequences as these boys grow up?

  16. Laura

    I’d have to say that I agree – I prefer books where the woman is the victim. However I also prefer the protaganist to be a woman, or at least an equal male/female partnership. Strong female characters are what makes or breaks a book for me.
    I like to be able to identify with the detective or the medical examiner or the forensic anthropologist – I like to play couch detective… sit down and read while being able to imagine myself being as smart as Temperence Brennan, as coolly clever as Maura Isles, as gutsy as Jane Rizzoli or as confident Ellie Hatcher.
    As always, great post Tess!

  17. lil Gluckstern

    I really like this post, and the comments. It used to be that women read "Cinderella" stories, being rescued by the prince. Today I think that women are looking to be heroes in their own right, to save themselves, as it were. The help of a strong sensitive male is great, but I think women became tired of feeling weak and dependent. Sadly, I also believe that there is still some wish fulfillment here. Not all women (or men) experience themselves as heroic, even though they may work very hard at their lives. Nor is there always justice. Our reading may act to satisfy the need to be triumphant over something. And that is great. Personally, I like both male and female protagonists, if the character is well developed. Thanks for making us think.
    (I like Rizzoli and Isles).

  18. Gar Haywood


    I can completely understand why a predominantly female readership would prefer to read about female victims of violent crime — it makes the suspense more personal. And I have very little problem with authors, male or female, tapping into that trend. We’re all out here trying to make a living, after all.

    What I find objectionable is the LEVEL of violence so many female victims of thriller fiction are being subjected to now. Too many authors today are amping up the debauchery quotient of their serial killings in an effort to build their brand, rather than rely on the quality of their writing, or the distinctiveness of their characters, to draw readers in. They make the excuse that the violence is all off-screen, but I’m sorry — vivisection by blowtorch (I’m making this up), off-screen or not, is still a pretty horrific seed to plant in a reader’s head.

    Surely it’s still possible to write a smart, thrilling, scary-as-hell novel about a psycho preying on women without having to invent a murder method that would make the Marquis de Sade chuck his Wheaties. Isn’t it?

    Or have we actually reached the point where cutting someone’s throat from ear to ear with a kitchen knife just doesn’t cut the fear factor anymore?

  19. Susan Shea

    I agree with Gar’s objection to the blowtorch level of violence (and I’d almost be ready to bet someone’s written that, Gar!) and the desensitization of readers – who are also going to movies and watching tv violence escalate. But I’m not comfortable about violence against women and children as juiced up entertainment. Reinforcing the notions of victimhood, of women’s and children’s expected ROLES as victims, makes me uneasy as a writer. I can identify with anyone who is circumstantially a victim (like Gar’s characters in Cemetery Road, for example, and the brilliantly written characters in "The Wire"). Something primal in me objects to the belief that it’s right and normal to get particular enjoyment from stories about the pain and suffering of women and children. Obviously, this is a serious topic for discussion, and an important one. Thanks, Tess!

  20. Susan

    There is/was a suspense series (guy’s last name started with an M) where the guy who wrote it was always the guy illustrated on the cover in some Rambo-like pose. My dad LOVED those books, and I’m assuming he put himself in that guy’s place (same with my thoughts about his love for the Bourne and Jack Ryan series). And then there were my brothers, who LOVED Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. And guess who plastered their walls? Yep. Arnie.

  21. Karon Baker

    Maybe also because most victims of crime – of the sort that popular authors write about, are women. Think of all the crimes of passion – its not very often that a man is stabbed to death after being raped and beaten is it? And, while it is right or wrong, women don’t seem to have the same "real-life" sympathy for a man who has been attacked by a woman, as they do vice versa. I mean be honest gals, if you hear that a man was slipped some rohypnol in his drink on a first date, taken back to the girl’s apartment and date raped, do you really feel anger and disgust or do you think "what’s he complaining about?". And before you lambast me – I didn’t say it was right to think that, just that if you’re honest, that’s the first thought that pops into your head. But I also agree with a lot of the authors of reponses here – women like to see how the victims in these novels get out of their dire situations ….. just in case!!

  22. David Brollier

    I found this interesting, although not necessarily all-encompassing as an answer. I would start out by saying there are so many female vics because that's what the authors (mostly female who can identify with and can charge the story with so much emotional turmoil) write about. A story isn't something that must have a female victim or must have a male victim. It's a story, a sequence of events that includes a number of characters who take the writer into places of their own making. If they find themselves dealing with female victims then it is because the characters they created brought them there.

    In my first novel, The 3rd Covenant, I have a number of victims, mostly male, but there are a number of insights into women and the different ways they handle things, different things, from Susan Adams, who, as a Christian, finds peace even when held hostage, Ellen, who is the Alpha female wanting to take over a group run by the Bishop, etc. The one female victim I focus on is traditionally not what we would call a victim. Yet, by the end of the book this dear lady is found as both the perp and the victim. In my 2 nd novel I focused on 1 victim, a 16 year old girl who is abducted and repeatedly raped. The suspense is in trying to get the male hero, aided by his female partner and others, to find her in time. I use the male/female hero team to get across a number of things and address emotions felt by both, beliefs felt by both. These are individuals with different stories to tell. I do so enjoy having them all in my works.

  23. Marcus

    In the real world, a missing woman attracts loads of attention, a man much less. In our culture a man is either a hero or a loser, and both are fairly expendable. Just watch a couple hours of TV sometime and count how many intelligent dignified male characters you see. Probably zero. Women fare better in that regard. Our reading habits are just a reflection of this fact.

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