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.

What influences how you write female characters?

Lee Child: The negative influences are easy to spot; the thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s, even ’70s, were a sort of Dark Age. The female characters were there to heighten the stakes. Some beautiful young girl was in danger. They were used as a plot device because they twisted their ankle and needed to be rescued. I spend a literal six months writing with my invented characters, so I’m going to make them as interesting as possible. All of them. They are going to be strong and interesting. So to me, it’s not that I’m doing something positive, rather, I’m just doing reportage. Women are just as strong and tough as men. If you’re going to have an honest portrayal of women, you have to recognize that.

Paul Doiron: I am influenced by the women in my life. My mother was a voracious reader and had keen insight about human behavior. Even though I studied at Yale and earned my MFA at Emerson, it was my wife, poet Kristen Lindquist, who introduced me to authors P.D. James, Louise Penny, and Tana French. These are authors with intelligence and psychological insights into human behavior, and those were qualities that I wanted to develop in my writing. Kristen is also my toughest reader, and that is valuable to me. I hope to internalize her feedback. She’s saved my bacon a few times. She also introduced me to birding. All of this has helped me to create female characters with as much agency as possible. Not the birding part, but all the rest.

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Which of your female characters is your favorite?

Lee Child: My favorite is Frances Neagley. And she is also the most popular among my readers. Because of the structure of the Reacher series, I am reluctant to bring back any of the other characters, because Reacher doesn’t dwell on what happened before; he is a totally in-the-moment guy. But Neagley is the exception and has appeared in five of the books. Frances Neagley has a certain mystery about her, and, like nearly all the other women in the series, she has a military background. She has never had a sexual relationship with Reacher, she is a former MP and currently runs a successful private security firm.

Paul Doiron: Without question, my favorite is Kathy Frost. She is Mike Bowditch’s mentor in the Maine Warden Service, one of his best friends and personal advisor. They have a full relationship that includes getting angry with each other, but they never give up on each other. This is probably a reflection on the relationships I had with women that were not sexual but were full of admiration professionally. These relationships have a lasting quality. They were friendships in the true meaning of the word.

Both of your protagonists live in what could be called a male-dominated world. How do the women fare in this environment?

Lee Child: Reacher was raised in a military family and was a major in the Military Police. Many of the women in the series also have or had careers in the military. This has certain implications for men and women. The military has been a social experiment for the past 50 years. Everything is based on rank. If women outrank you, that means men have to obey them. No questions asked. In Past Tense, Brenda, currently the chief of police in a town in New Hampshire, is a former MP officer who outranks Reacher. When she tells him not to return to her town in the midst of an investigation, he obeys her, even though he disagrees with her. He also understands that as the police chief, her first priority is to protect her town. There is an organic integrity that Reacher honors. But in this case, Reacher goes beyond the military structure since neither of them are currently in the service. He bows to her authority in the present day.

Paul Doiron: The world of Maine Game Wardens is heavily weighted toward men. In reality, of the 135 officers, only four or five are women and none have been promoted to sergeant. So the women who are game wardens face the kind of gender challenges that you can imagine when there is such a numbers disparity, and I bring that into the story to reflect reality. One character, Dani Tate, started out in the Maine Game Service, and she resigns to join the State Police, where women are in senior command positions. I use the discrimination that she felt as motivation for a subtle development in her character. Dani made the change because she saw the concrete opportunities for advancement. These are the sorts of decisions women make every day. In the Game Service, she builds a hard and defensive personality to counteract the onslaught of sexism, and Mike Bowditch can only see fleeting aspects of who she really is. When she makes a proactive career choice to become a state trooper, her personality begins to emerge.