Lee Child and Paul Doiron on strong, interesting, complex female characters

In a genre dominated by two-dimensional sexy sirens and damsels in distress, acclaimed thriller authors are creating realistic female characters that offer way more than sex appeal.

Paul Doiron & Lee Child
Thriller authors Paul Doiron and Lee Child speak about creating three dimensional female characters.

I like a good, smart thriller, one that forces me to forego all else, including sleep. But paper-thin female characters will stop me in my tracks and cause my boredom meter to skyrocket. As comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick said, “If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.”

In the world of male-authored thrillers, there are female characters who don’t hold my attention for long because, for starters, they often don’t rise above the old tropes of hookers, cheating wives, or objects of sexual desire for the male protagonist. Some female characters seem to be so enthralled with the male protagonist that they flip up their skirts after the first hello.

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Rather than rag on the authors who only have stock characters of sex workers or helpless victims for their women, I interviewed two male authors who excel at their craft with can’t-put-the-book-down thrillers and create female characters who ring true as human beings. Both authors write a series with a male protagonist, but there is something decidedly different about the protagonist’s view of the world, and women populate their fictional world in varied roles. In fact, I purposely selected male authors whose protagonists were male because we can see the women of their fictional world through the eyes of the main character.

First is Lee Child, the world-famous author of the Jack Reacher series, and next, Paul Doiron, the award-winning author of the Mike Bowditch series. The premises for the two series are substantially different. Reacher is a drifter and former MP in the Army, doesn’t own a car or a home, carries only a toothbrush, and is 6 foot, 5 inches tall with rather remarkable physical strength. If you want injustice to take a beating, he’s your man. Bowditch is younger and struggles with self-doubt in the surprisingly volatile world of Maine game wardens but will persist in the daunting environment of the New England woods until he gives the bad guys what’s coming to them. Both live in a man’s world.

Or do they?

Both characters do something extraordinary: They give us a view into the military and a testosterone-fueled Maine Game Service with an awareness of how these worlds work for women. It is difficult for people in power to observe those who struggle to obtain power, whether it is race, gender, or ethnicity. Yet both Child and Doiron have made a huge effort to showcase women beyond a container for men’s desires.

Lee Child’s newest novel in the series, Past Tense, features a female character who is young and uncharacteristically from a non-military background. Her analytical skills make her a thrilling parallel to Reacher. Fair warning: The plotting, pace, and high-stakes story are so engrossing I nearly had to take a sedative.

Paul Doiron’s most recent Bowditch novel, Stay Hidden, takes place on a remote island off the coast of Maine, where Bowditch encounters women with big muscles, moxie, and motive. As always, the environment of Maine comes alive in Doiron’s skillful writing.

I asked both authors to share how they render complex female characters on the page. Yet both authors seemed genuinely surprised when I honed in on their female characters. It was difficult for them to parse out why they did what they did because to them, it seemed only logical, realistic, and just plain good writing. They are both storytellers in the classic sense of the word, very much “let me tell you what thrilling, terrifying thing just happened,” but inclusiveness is so natural to them that it is no longer something that they consciously manufacture.