We’ve seen a fantastic wave of female protagonists on television in recent years, and many of them carry a badge. The viewing public can’t seem to get enough of cop shows, so you can’t go wrong in writing your next pilot in this genre. And why not build your crime procedural around a tough woman with (or, more interestingly, without) a gun?
In television, character is queen, so make sure your hero is unique, with well-defined traits that not only entertain but consistently create conflict (what I like to call “misbehaviors”). It helps to push your protagonist’s personality to an extreme, rather than keeping them middle of the road, with a hodgepodge of conflicting personality quirks. It’s good for us to relate in some ways to our television heroes, but we don’t want to watch people just like us – we want to escape into another, higher stakes life. So if you pull from your own life, then just make sure to ratchet the dysfunction up a few notches to really exploit the drama. [WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THESE SHOWS!]
In designing your female protagonist, try to create a defining characteristic, in essence, a “logline” for this person. If our goal is to create appointment television, then we want to boost the all-important word of mouth factor – so make it quick and easy for someone to capture this character at the water cooler in just a few words. Let’s look at three examples of compelling female protagonists from crime procedurals: the new breed (Detective Sonya North from “The Bridge,” debuting on FX on July 10), the retired champion (Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson from “The Closer,”) and the beloved workhorse (Detective Olivia Benson from “Law & Order: SVU”).
THE BRIDGE “The Asperger’s Cop”
Diane Kruger plays Sonya North, a detective with the El Paso, Texas police department. When we first meet her, she seems jumpy, uptight, and not cut out for her job. Perhaps a rookie detective who should have stayed a traffic cop? But the more we watch her, we realize that she is, in fact, a good detective, but she’s horrible with people. We’ll eventually learn that she has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder which causes her to have some very awkward social interactions and makes her the most fascinating new character on television this year.
Sonya’s defining characteristic is that she does not know how to act like a “normal” person and interact with other people. She can’t create appropriate emotions. As she says at the end of an interview with a man who just lost his wife, “I’m sorry I did not show you empathy.” Warm, she’s not, and this makes her job harder when she needs to make personal connections to generate leads and confessions. But her condition provides some needed comedic relief in this dark murder mystery which launches with a woman found chopped in half. Check out Sonya’s approach to romance in a singles bar in episode two for some inspired comedy.
THE CLOSER “Sweet, Southern and Deadly”
In the pilot of “The Closer,” Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) has recently relocated to Los Angeles from Atlanta to join the LAPD. She’s petite and feminine, sticking out like a sore thumb at her first crime scene. She looks like a Southern Belle, but she quickly makes it clear to her male colleagues that she will not be treated like one. She steamrollers into her first murder case and makes mincemeat of anyone who crosses her path. Her subordinates resent her and immediately complain, and even her boss tells her to soften her approach, but she never wavers.
This is a woman who will never back down from a fight, and that’s probably why she’s still single. This is important because Brenda’s defining characteristic is that she is tough as nails at her job but a mess in her personal life. Like Sonya North in “The Bridge,” she sees no need for pleasantries…except when she can manufacture them to crack a case. Brenda is an expert at interrogation, even planning her outfit for an interview so she can “play” the suspect just right.
But like all compelling dramatic characters, she has a weakness, an Achilles Heel: sugar. You see, Brenda loves her sweets, and God help anyone who gets between her and a Ding Dong.
LAW & ORDER: SVU “The Cop on the Edge”
On the other side of the spectrum from Diane Kruger’s Sonya North, Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) has too much empathy for the victims of the heinous crimes she investigates. She takes her assignments too personally, which gets her into hot water with her superiors and invariably jeopardizes the case. Once she’s made an emotional connection with a victim, she’s incapable of playing by the rules, even after repeated warnings from her exhausted C.O. It recalls the old cliché of “the cop on the edge,” but this classic device has worked for over ten years on “Law & Order: SVU” because it adds a compelling Internal throughline to the obligatory External murder mystery. So we’re not just watching to find out who perpetrated the crime, but to see how Olivia will resolve her emotional dilemma. Somehow, no matter how many suspensions, she always ends up reinstated to the Special Victims Unit, and we may all sleep better at night because of it.
Ultimately, we love to see women in the traditionally male role of the homicide detective, but only if they bring something new to the table. With so many shows out there, your protagonist needs to have unique quirks and endearing characteristics that make us want to follow their personal trials for years to come. Even so, I defy you to figure out the true mystery of this genre, one that has baffled audiences for decades…
While chasing bad guys at a breakneck pace each week, how do these women have time to hit the salon for their daily full makeup and hair?
Good luck and happy writing,
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