Do Lead Characters Need to be Like-able in Crime Books?

The New Yorker published an article (May 16 2013) that in the title posed the question ‘would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’ (in case you haven’t read Lolita, the answer is no), and talked about reader’s resistance to unlikeable characters—especially female characters. Claire Messud was interviewed about her own female character (that she also did not want to be friends with) as well as other novelists who expected empathy for their characters but commented that if the author looks for identifiability it may represent their own insecurities and that a ‘flawless character is insufferable’.

Messud and Attwood testified to their experience over years as novelists as likeability of female characters being an issue—need for more ‘sugar and spice’. In light of how Australia tore down its female prime minister and Trump’s continued rants of locking up Hilary, it’s hard not to wonder if this is true.  I have no doubt it is in romance (though men have to be noble, and largely doctors (800) if the tweet I saw recently is true re how often they turn up, compared to poets (2)); in one of my husband’s books his editors (female) suggested that he make the unlikeable female character more likeable by having her do some vacuuming.

But surely its not true in crime? I mean, we aren’t meant to like the bad guy obviously (serial killer especially depicted as heinous)…but what about the protagonists?


Examine my own experience of lead crime series characters and their genders and like-ability—and hopefully stimulate you to think about this and send me your own versions of the below table. Be warned—it takes a while!


(non-researchers—please note that hypotheses are statements to be proven or disproven, not statements of the researchers beliefs)

That gender of author will be strongly correlated to gender of their main character.

The likeability of male characters is going to be higher than female characters.

The likeability will be less correlated to success of books for male characters than it will be for women characters (I admittedly don’t rate success here, but will include as general knowledge in discussion).


So I did my own test on crime series protagonists. I rated on three factors:

  1. Their moral/heroic compass,
  2. How like the common man they were (identifiability) and finally
  3. Would you like to have them to dinner.

I then split them up according to country (of where it is set, not always the case as to where the author lives), and gender of authors and main characters. I might be mostly working as an author these days, but the researcher academic is lingering not far beneath the surface…Of course I need you to all give me your own ratings for this to be valid, and in doing so not know the hypothesis (in which case don’t read the discussion below the tables!).

As it’s my opinion only, it will show my bias to kickass strong women and (sadly), classical heroic men, also with strong integrity, but I have given a range (in brackets) where I think there might be (or in Jack Reacher’s case, should be), a significant disagreement.

The books included had to be in a series (with an intent, if not actual, of more than two, some were more than 30), and if other than Australian (where I was much more generous), had to be well known/readily found on crime book shelves around the world. And I had to have read at least one—my ratings are a tad more robust in the books where I have read most or all (underlined authors). I excluded spy books, and Sophie Hannah and Tana French—even though they both write series, they follow different characters.

Zero is lowest (A. most immoral, B. either least like you or least like someone you WANT to identify with, and C. no dinner invitation going to happen)

Five is highest—A. moral, high integrity B. like most people re family/job OR someone you WANT to identify with and C. comfortable/fun at dinner

[For the * see discussion below]
















Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes (private eye)   5 2 3-5
Michael Robotham Joe O’loughlin (psychologist)


4 5 5
Peter Robinson Alan Banks (Cop) 4-5 3-4 3
Stuart McBride Logan McRae (Cop)   3-4 4 4
Adrian McKinty Sean Duffy, (cop) 4-5 4 5
Ian Rankin John Rebus, (cop) 3-4 3-4 3 (the whiskey bill would be too high)
Colin Dexter Inspector Endeavour Morse (cop) 4 4 2-3
Val McDermid Tony Hill (psychologist) 4-5 3-4 3-4
  Carol Jordan (cop) same series 3 2 2
Elizabeth George Thomas Lynley (cop) 5 3 (5) 5(3)
  Barbara Havers (cop) same series 3-4 3(4) 3(4)
PD James Adam Dalgleish (cop) 5 3 (5) 3 (5)
Lynda La Plante Tennison (cop)

Separate series

Its possible my ratings are heavily biased by Helen Mirren’s portrayal

5 5 5
  Anna Travers (cop) 4 4 4
  James Langton

Same series

3 3-4 3
Faith Martin Hillary Greene 5 5 but… 2 (sorry, she’s boring)
Agatha Christie Miss Marple

(general busybody…)

5 5 but… 3 (5 is someone gets murdered over dinner)
Hercule Poirot

(private eye)

5 1(5…he’s smart after all) (3)5
Nicci French Frieda Klein


2-3 2-3 (should be 5) 2




Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe (private eye) 4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Dashiell Hammitt Sam Spade

(private eye)

4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Jonathan Kellerman Alex Delaware


4-5 4-5 3
  Milo (cop)

Same series

3-4 3-4 3
Lee Child Jack Reacher (ex-Military cop) 0-5* 0-5* 2 (for god’s sake he doesn’t talk and he might kill someone)
James Patterson (yes, he’s done more, just picked the ones I’ve read) Alex Cross (cop) 5 4-5 4
Lindsay Boxer (cop) different series 5 4-5 4
Michael Connolly Harry Bosch (cop) 3-4 3-4 3-4
Stephen White Alan Gregory (psychologist) 5 5 5
  Sam Purdy (cop)

Same series

3-4 4-5 4
Sue Grafton Kinsey Milhone (private eye) 4-5 4-5 4-5
Linda Fairstein Alexander Cooper


4 4 4
Tess Gerristen Jane Rizzoli (cop) 5 5 3
Maura Isles (pathologist)

Same series

4 4 3
Patricia Cornwall (up until when she went to UK then occasional) Kay Scarpetta

(forensic pathologist)

5(beg of series) 4-5(beg of series) 4-5 (beg of series)
Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan 5 3 3 (er… wouldn’t be able to have wine)
Karin Slaughter Sara Linton (paediatrican/pathologist) 5 3 (sorry, this is because as a doctor I find the combination of roles wrong, otherwise 5) 3
Lena Adams(cop)

Same series

3 3 3
Jeffrey Tolliver (cop)

Same series

4-5 5 4-5
Will Trent (agent)

Same series

3 3 3
Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum

(private eye)

4-5 5 (women) 5
Louise Penny Armand Gamache 4-5 4-5 4-5






Steig Larsson Lisbeth Salander 0-5* 0-5* 2 (she isn’t a dinner party gal)
  Mikael Blomkvist


Same series

4-5 5 4
Jo Nesbo Harry Hole (cop) 4-5 3-4 3-4
Henning Mankell Kurt Wallander (cop) 4 3-4 3
Fred Vargas Commissaire Adamsberg (cop) 4-5 3-4

(he’s just so…French!)

Anne Holt Hanne Wilhelmsen


4-5 3-4 3-4
Camille Lackburg Patrick Hedstrom


4-5 4-5 4-5
 Erica Falck

(crime writer)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5





Peter Temple Jack Irish (private eye) 4-5 3-4 4
Garry Disher Hal Challis (cop) 4-5 3-4 4
Ellen Destry (cop)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5


Jane Harper Aaron Falk (cop) 4-5 4-5 3
Kerry Greenwood Miss Fisher 4-5 4-5 4-5
Corinna chapman (cook)

Different series

4-5 4-5 4-5
Emma Viskic Caleb Zelic

(private eye)

5 5 3-4
JM Green Stella Hardy

(social worker)

5 5 5
Sue Williams


Cass Tuplin (fish shop busybody) 4-5 5 5
Kathryn Ledson Erica Jewell

(IT worker/private eye)

4-5 4-5 (women) 5
Tara Moss Makedde Vanderwall (model/psychol) 5 3(5) 4-5
Kathryn Fox Anya Crichton (pathologist) 5 5 4
Katherine Howell Ella Macroni (cop) 4 4-5 3
Anne Buist Natalie King


3-5 2-3 (might want to 5) 5 for fun (2)



  1. There’s a lot of crime book series…
  2. Likeability was hard to measure. I included three measures to try and make sense of this but still struggled.
  3. The moral/ heroic picked up basically solidly good (and often boring), those that wavered who tended to be moody drunks (Rebus) or ones with strong moral codes, you just might not agree with them—Reacher and Salander. Both these characters are strongly moral—but to their own code, not the Law which let’s face it, outside fiction, we really do want people to stick to.
  4. Identifiability. Boring arose a bit here—or strong correlation if they were in anyway medical/psychologist (for me). I included here having families/ kids though that isn’t strong for me, age didn’t seem to matter too much—but admirable qualities did. The identifiability had me including those I’d like to identify, maybe, (eg Lynley, though I suspect the average British Lord is very dull, ex-Lord Jeffrey Archer the exception) and also gave me someone too ordinary character I didn’t want to dinner with (eg Hilary Greene).
  5. Dinner question: There were some people you just didn’t want to dinner (sullen, alcoholic, non talkers, poets and classical music people who I think would be boring…) and others I just want there for entertainment value. In who I want to dinner I am look for interesting people with social skills—and neither this, nor the other markers actually relate to how much I like the book. However boring characters—too gritty (men only), too stodgy, too main stream, too moody, too boring—also correlates with me not wanting them to dinner.
  6. The majority of authors, especially female American authors, stick to their own gender for their main character; interesting to note that this isn’t the case with two recent Australian award winners, Jane Harper and Emma Viskic. Its less true of the British female authors too, who often have two main characters, one of each gender. This may be a bias of sampling with respect to the Australian authors—as a relatively new author in Australia I know a lot of the new writers and their series (virtually all female bar the above exceptions), and haven’t included the equivalents from other countries because they aren’t published here!
  7. I am a little harder on the female characters physicality than the male, and if they are indecisive or morally bankrupt—but I am equally behind them if they are decisive and have a strong moral compass (even if I don’t agree with it). Lena is morally questionable and Will is weak (Slaughter)—I rate her worse. Carol Jordan is infuriating and then just frankly criminal (and I rate her lower than the weak Tony Hill). Poor Hilary Greene. I’m ashamed to say her worrying about her weight annoys me. I don’t care if she’s overweight—just either do something about it or shut up. Barbara Havers clothes sense makes me want to scream. I’m not as unsympathetic to my friends…(sigh).
  8. My favourite authors from this lot (ie if see their new book and take straight to the counter/click on my kindle if I can’t wait that long) are 5 male authors (two Americans, two Australians who set them in the British Isles and one Scandinavian), all with main male characters (and one with a female co-lead)—an ex-military cop, a cop, and two psychologists, and a journalist with…well whatever Lizbeth Salander is; and two female authors, both with joint leads, one of each gender.


I started off wanting to know if we more critical of female characters in crime books. To be Attwood’s ‘sugar and spice’ there is a tendency for women to be portrayed as softer/weaker/ less decisive. In thrillers, even if the protagonist, these women are the ‘victim’.

In a crime book we want some moral integrity—we need this to separate the good and the bad guys. Wishy washy doesn’t work for me. While I felt I was a bit more critical of the female leads, and overall seemed to be drawn more strongly to the male ones,  I want to look at this a little closer.

From the above table are five male authors and two female authors of whom I click and buy everything; they are all currently International best sellers (Child, Robotham, Larsson, McDermid, George) or have been (White) or are on the ascent if he isn’t there already (McKinty). What do they have in common, if anything, regarding this question of female protagonist likeability?

Robotham and White’s characters are both male psychologists, and as a psychiatrist I have a natural affinity for them—so they do well, even though they are male, on being ‘like me’. I don’t feel this about Nicci French’s Freida even though she’s a woman (though to date I have read them all)—the reason French doesn’t fit into my top group is because I don’t like the character—she’s morally weak and makes very dubious decisions from an unclear platform. I was very nearly at the same point with McDermid—as far as I’m concerned she finished the series in the nick of time and both male and female characters were driving me to distraction; Tony Hill was increasingly pathetic and Carol Jordan had me screaming with anger. You’ll note in in my ratings I’ve been harder on Carol.

Loughlin and Gregory as characters (Robotham and White) don’t tax me, and the stories are great.

The others writers don’t have characters of either gender that I identify strongly with on the face of it. But I wanted to with Salander and Reacher. The characters, in my mind done equally well, have gender forming the character, but that didn’t affect  my response which was the same; total escapism, the delight of having complete confidence in yourself (as you become them) and knowing you are right and better than the Law. Hell, I’m a vehement anti-gun person and somehow I can overlook Reacher is using them left right and centre.

With McKinty? Not sure if its plot (or the setting in the Troubles) or his writing, but he’s succeeded where a lot of other procedural male crime writers haven’t—I’m with Sean Duffy all the way. Just less gritty—it must be because he has daughters (so does Robotham)—not sure about any of the other though!

Which only leaves Elizabeth George. One character is a male toff I’d probably hate, but, well, he’s a gentleman…(didn’t feel this about Dalgleish who was too stuffy)…maybe its because she makes him suffer in his personal life and a one person cheerleader for the disaster that is Barbara Havers; and Barbra herself who George really has it in for. I nearly stopped reading when she did something morally and ethically a ‘would strike you off in an instant’ offence (about the Pakistani girl), and in the latest she’s off tapdancing for Christ sake. But she isn’t weak…just wrong. And even Isabelle Ardery another unlikeable character who is a drunk bad mother shows strength at the end. And that I am fairly sure why I keep clicking/walking out of the bookshop with her books.

In contrast to these top picks, when I looked at the character faults in the table overall, the only thing that stopped me reading a whole series was gritty male characters written by male authors; they score medium to high on moral/heroic, mostly okay on dinner invitations, but low on identifiability—including whether I wanted to identify. I have zero in common with Jack Reacher, but he gets 5 on heroic and a  5 on wanting to identify with him. I actively don’t aspire however to being overweight and having alcohol issues…

So perhaps rather than likeability per se, it’s about whether we identify or want to identify with the character. There are more women readers than men overall, but I suspect more male readers of those gritty male crime books percentage wise compared to women. It would be reversed in many of the other books, particularly with the Stephanie Plum/Erica Jewell type heroines which would be I think the mirror image of the gritty male protagonist.

Probably the safest bet is to write a likeable bloke with a few relationship problems and if they have a challenge not one that makes them too moody or difficult. Seemed to have worked for Robotham, White, Harper, Viskic, and McKinty. The characters around them can be more difficult.

And being a woman reader, when I read a female character, there are going to be more things I don’t want to identify with, that I gloss over with male characters—if they are a bad father, overweight, drink too much…it annoys me, but not as much.


I have better research skills than demonstrated here—but maybe the real reason to write this was to get you to think and tell me your ratings and what you conclude.A good topic for a PhD maybe!

I still think we are harder on female characters—but if the fabulously successful Larsson and Child can be pinups—when you take a great risk with your character, perhaps there are also great gains to be made. But even—or rather, especially in crime books—integrity and morality is critical. You may not want them to dinner, but they won’t bore you, and just maybe make you think.

And if the plot and writing is good enough, I’ll read on anyway.


About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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2 Responses to Do Lead Characters Need to be Like-able in Crime Books?

  1. marymtf says:

    I read Lolita once and found that that was enough. I couldn’t stomach the characters. I certainly wouldn’t have them over to dinner.
    My list of crime fiction series is pitifully short. Kerry Greenwod, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Sue Grafton. I’d have them over in a heartbeat. Their characters too. I like flawed characters and why not? You want to relate to them or you know someone who knows someone who is always on a diet or drinks too much. As long as they pull off a satisfying ending. I love a good story. I love to immerse myself in that world while I’m reading / re-reading. Not exactly crime fiction but I really liked the two female characters in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. I liked it that they refused to behave like victims. I could tell straight away that they would be interesting to know.
    I’m babbling, Anne. I really enjoyed your post.


  2. marymtf says:

    PS, Australia gave its female prime minister a much longer honeymoon than any of its male PMs, precisely because she was the first female in that top job. We all wanted her to succeed. But not only was she a dud, she played that ‘you’re picking on me because I’m a woman’ card till the bitter end. Gillard and Rudd (a male, who also got a good go) were the worst PMs in Australia’s history.


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