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.

How do you write about romantic relationships between your protagonist and women?

Lee Child: Some reviewers have said that Reacher is a “love them and leave them” guy. That is not at all true. He is attracted to smart women, with meaningful careers and full lives. It’s the women who leave Reacher because they know that he is an impossible mate. He is flawed in a tragic way; he fears loneliness yet is most comfortable alone. He loves women and has the highest regard for them, yet none of the women that he picks would choose to stay with him. He invariably gets a note on the pillow that says goodbye. He understands that he is the problem, not the women.

Paul Doiron: Mike Bowditch is only going to appeal to a certain kind of woman who finds beauty in the rough and tumble and invariably muddy world of the Maine woods. He has several long-term relationships with women, but they are women who are as unique as Bowditch. They are driven by their professions and passions, often in the world of science, and they are not willing to toss away their pursuits. Mike understands this, even if he wishes it weren’t so.

What advice do you have for writing female characters?

Lee Child: This is not going to sound remarkable, but we live in a world populated with a diverse lot of people. Look around you. Take a really good look at the people in your life, the women in your life, and that should give you an in-depth sampling of characters. Take note of what matters to women, and their hardships. Get beyond your personal schoolboy fantasies.

Paul Doiron: This is going to sound simplistic, but if I was teaching a workshop about this topic, I would say ask yourself if you are creating clichéd female characters. Are they as interesting as women you know or as the women your character would know? They need to show that they have agency in their lives. No one is interested in a character who is passive.

“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.” — Lee Child

Both authors write female characters who have motivations, desires, and drives that may or may not coincide with the desires of the protagonists. This is a reflection of reality that resonates with readers given the huge popularity of their books. Another characteristic of the women is that they are not always classically beautiful. In The Midnight Line, Reacher encounters Rose, whose face was shredded by an IED in Afghanistan. Rose struggles with all the traumas associated with active duty, in addition to facial disfigurement, and Reacher is attracted to her. Rose is not defined by beauty or her physical disability.

When Doiron writes about Tate in Stay Hidden, he describes a woman who cuts her own dirty-blond hair, has an unremarkable face, and yet when she smiles, “…you had the thrilling sensation of having witnessed something beautiful that few people were gifted with seeing.” Bowditch lights up with true desire when he finds the window into Dani’s personality.

So do these protagonists live in a man’s world or is something else going on here? If the authors had created only a man’s world, we wouldn’t have the powerful female characters who populate both series. And we wouldn’t have male heroes who have characteristics traditionally associated with both genders. Mike Bowditch has a high level of empathy, or the ability to imagine the feelings of others, often seen as a female characteristic. And “Reacher has a feminine sense of justice,” says Child. “Women sense when there is injustice. Men are more inclined to accept shades of gray and just say shit happens.”

The worldview of both authors is represented in their thrillers, a world view that is decidedly filled with female characters defined by strength, intelligence, and agency. Fellow male thriller authors, take note.



Jacqueline Sheehan is a New York Times best-selling author and a psychologist. Her novels include The Comet’s Tale, a novel about Sojourner Truth; Lost & Found; Now & Then; Picture This; The Center of the World; and The Tiger in the House. She writes NPR commentaries, travel articles, and essays for a variety of publications, including the New York Times column “Modern Love.” She edited the anthology Women Writing in Prison, and she teaches at international writing retreats. jacquelinesheehan.com