June 9 – 15: “Are thriller writers biased? Or do some of us go too far in trying to beat down stereotypes?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Don Helin, Joan Hall Hovey, Cat Connor, Karen Keskinen, Graeme Shimmin, Tim Waggoner, Kathrin Lange, Amy Lignor and Rory Flynn discuss biases and stereotypes: “Are thriller writers biased? Or do some of us go too far in trying to beat down stereotypes?”


databyteCat Connor lives in Upper Hutt, New Zealand with her husband (Action Man) and their youngest two children (Squealer and Breezy). She is the author of The Byte Series published by Rebel ePublishers, USA. An FBI thriller series about the life of SSA Ellie Conway.

Cat hosts a fortnightly writing workshop at the Upper Hutt City Library. She’s coffee addict and a lover of red wine. Recently described as irresistible, infectious, and addictive. Cat believes music is essential. She knows where to hide the body and where you hid the body.


deep like riverShirley Jackson Award finalist Tim Waggoner has published over thirty novels and three short story collections of dark fiction. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.



The Charlatans Crown_Final Online(1)As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL are still her heroes. Beginning in the genre of historical romance with, “THE HEART OF A LEGEND,” Amy moved into the YA world where her first team from THE ANGEL CHRONICLES became a beloved hit. Moving into the action/adventure world with TALLENT & LOWERY, Amy has created a new, incredibly suspenseful, team that has once again exploded with readers everywhere. Born in Connecticut, Amy is now living in the bright sunshine of Roswell, NM, delving into her next adventure.

AKITM Cover V2Graeme Shimmin was born in Manchester, UK, and studied Physics at Durham University. His successful consultancy career enabled him to retire at 35 to an island off Donegal, Ireland and start writing. He has since returned to Manchester and completed an MA in Creative Writing. The inspiration for A Kill in the Morning his prizewinning first novel, came from Robert Harris’ alternate history novel, Fatherland, and his love of classic spy fiction.


SONY DSCIn addition to her highly acclaimed suspense novels, including Night Corridor, The Abduction of Mary Rose and Chill Waters, Joan Hall Hovey‘s articles and short stories have appeared in such diverse publications as The Toronto Star, Atlantic Advocate, Home Life Magazine, Mystery Scene, The New Brunswick Reader, Fredericton Gleaner, and Kings County Record. Her short story Dark Reunion was selected for the anthology investigating Women, Published by Simon & Pierre.

She is a tutor with Winghill School, a distance education school in Ottawa for aspiring writers. She is a member of the Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick, past regional Vice-President of Crime Writers of Canada, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.

Assault_CoverUsing his experience from the military, including eight years in the Pentagon, Don Helin published his first thriller, THY KINGDOM COME, in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN, has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don is an active member of International Thriller Writers, Military Writers Society of America, Pennwriters, a state-wide writers group in Pennsylvania, and a mentor with Mystery Writers of America. He makes his home in central Pennsylvania where he is hard at work on his next Zack Kelly thriller, DARK ANGEL.

Black CurrentKaren Keskinen was born in Salinas, California. She has also lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in Wellington, New Zealand. She now resides in Santa Barbara where she is a full-time writer. Keskinen is the author of BLOOD ORANGE and BLACK CURRENT.



40hoursKathrin Lange was born in 1969 and lives in Northern Germany. After passing the Abitur and training to be a publishing bookseller, she spent some time working at a theological bookshop. When her children were born, she founded her own media design company. From 2002 to 2004, she published the author’s magazine FEDERWELT, and since 2005 she has been writing novels. Her exciting thrillers are published by Blanvalet and Arena. Kathrin Lange is deeply committed to the promotion of reading. She also works as a novel writers’ coach, and in addition to the International Thriller Writers, she also is a member of the leading German crime-authors organisation SYNDIKAT.

Rory Flynnis the pen name of acclaimed novelist Stona Fitch, author of five previous novels, including Senseless, now an independent feature film and a graphic novel. In 2008, Stona founded the Concord Free Press, a independent publishing house that publishes and distributes original novels, asking only that readers make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need, then pass their book on. The CFP has inspired generosity throughout the world—and created a new approach to publishing that has earned praise from publishing visionaries and readers.


  1. I don’t believe thriller writers are biased. I believe they want to have their audience enjoy their books, but no writer should go into a project thinking that culture, race, etc., is what makes them either bad guy or hero. Dropping stereotypes have made some blossom, bringing a once limited genre into modern day times. Because of that, I hope it continues. The stereotypes do become stale. Titles that come out of nowhere to ‘shine’ with fans usually pull away from the old: the bully is no longer the mean, muscular moron standing in the hallway; the guy who knocks over the liquor store or commits a drive-by is not a certain color; and/or the guy running the gang is not automatically from a certain culture. Although certain locales call for certain things, creating a ‘fresh’ character that goes against stereotypes is a bonus for the reader. I don’t believe any writer should JUST take stereotypes into account as their main reason for writing the next book, but going against the grain is a fantastic thing to see. It took forever for a female detective to shine, yet now they’re everywhere, allowing that once stereotypical male role to be opened up to authors. Dropping the stereotypes also makes thrillers much harder to figure out which, to me, is a huge plus for the reader. I don’t believe thriller writers go TOO far to beat down stereotypes; the book, to me, will always be in the author’s mind, period; as long as the writer stays true to what their idea is, the book will be a great read. And if going ‘out of the box’ I say, go! Knowing your predator and prey from page one based on looks, culture, race, age, etc., is hum-drum. Passion is the first factor in writing. Without that, it doesn’t matter who’s killing who, where they’re from, or what they look like – the tale will become uninteresting fast.

    1. Hi All. I’m new. First indie novel published last year, The Renaissance of Aspirin. Interesting topic; are thriller writers biased or work too hard to suppress stereotypes. I think that when one writes fiction, certain literary license is taken in the creation of character. Especially secondary and supportive characters. They are often caricatures of what we see or experience from our prospectives. That’s okay, especially when we do it right. Insightful development of characters doesn’t always take in depth back-story, but consistency with cultural norms or known deviations make for great two dimensional characters. Experience and research are helpful. We get into trouble with stereotypes when we impose values alien to the character’s background when assigning role in a story.

  2. A while back I sat on a panel with a writer who considered himself to be especially sensitive to cultural and gender stereotypes. And yet, three times during the course of the discussion, he used the word PSYCHOs in referring to people with mental illness. As a writer who happens to have severe mental illness in her family, I was taken aback. But in fact, the gentleman had just never thought much about people struggling with mental illness. I’d like to think it was a teachable moment.

    Even so, I think it can be disingenuous to pretend we don’t all employ a degree of political correctness when we write. So let’s ask some deep questions here: when is political correctness a good thing? What are its limits?

    It has been said that one problem with literature today is that people are afraid to write outside their own cultural world. How does self-censorship play into this, do you think?

    1. In Germany we have an advice for young writers: “Write about the things, you are versed in”. This is because we think, they have so much to do with learning the rules of writing and with the researches they have to do even in their own cultural world. If they pass the borders of it, there might be too much to do… I wouldn’t call this self-censorship, but I often wonder if it is a good advice. I am a highly fan of the claim: “We do not write, because we know something. We write, because we have a question.” And this includes crossing the borders, doesn’t it?

  3. I struggled with this question, I really did.
    Are thriller writers biased? Do we go too far to beat down stereotypes?
    I don’t think so.
    9 of us are answering this question … 5 of us are women. This used to be a male dominated genre and now I know more women who write thrillers than men. Not only that but awesome believable female characters are everywhere. Maybe the evolution of the genre has pushed a few stereotypes over the cliff?
    So nice that we now have proper women characters, not cannon fodder or eyelash batting twits who need rescuing! Girls can do anything and it’s great that thriller writing reflects that.

    Stereotyping of characters isn’t something I’ve thought about. My characters evolve from a need within the story (or just turn up and stay, whether I think they should or not).
    Yes, my main character is female and she is an SSA with the FBI and heads a specialist team, who are all male. It’s just how it is, it wasn’t designed that way, it just is. Ellie also, isn’t as politically correct as she should be. Her mother suffered from severe mental illness (she’s not sure that she won’t end up the same way) and that colours how she behaves and thinks. She struggles with work/life balance and relationships (normal stuff).

    The bad guys in my books could be anyone – a forensic technician, marines, twins from Hoboken, a mail carrier, a doctor, your neighbour. The good guys are just as hard to pick sometimes. Just because someone is in a gang doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. (Good guys don’t always wear white.)

    Stereotyping isn’t something I consider when I’m writing. I’m telling a story about the people/characters I see in front of me and they are varied and fascinating just like real people. I don’t like being pigeon holed and I guess neither do my characters.

    1. Hi Cat. I’m Glenn. New writer. I mentioned my novel in an earlier post so I’m not sure if I should repeat it. I am in agreement with you on the shift of female character development and the roles they play in thrillers. I am a male, but I enjoy writing female roles. I’m a physician and I take care of female and male patients as well as work with female and male colleagues. When I wrote my novel, I bounced some ideas off of a follow writer of another generation. She happened to be an older African American, southern children’s novelist. When a lover of one of my main characters was killed, she thought it was unbelievable that the woman, who was also a physician, wasn’t “hysterical” or “in shock”. I explained that I have worked side by side with female professionals from doctors to nurses to police officers for over 30 years. When you’ve seen illness, injury and death personally a few times, it may be appalling, gross or even deeply disturbing, but I have never had to cradle one, shield their eyes or slap the sense into one like 1960s TV heroes did. Women I worked with respond to the urgency of the occasion, sometimes even more so when it is personal as a coping mechanism. I’m glad to see I’m not alone.

      1. Hi Glenn,

        Glad someone else is enjoying the shift in female character development and knows how strong women really are. We don’t fall apart easy and nor should our characters. 🙂

  4. Posted on behalf of author Joan Hall Hovey:

    Are thriller writers biased? Or do some of us go too far in trying to beat down stereotypes?

    If the question is are we biased in favor of our own genre, the answer is (mainly) yes. Certainly I adore thrillers and have since childhood. I have read and reread the books of many of my colleagues here. It’s the genre I write in, including my latest novel The Deepest Dark.

    The suspense thriller is a wide country, welcoming writers of differing styles and approaches from Ruth Rendell to John Sandford and Lee Child. From the late Patricia Highsmith to Tess Gerritsen and James Patterson. And so many more.

    The writer can go afar for his or her material, or stay close to home. I often draw on my own life for inspiration. For example, In Night Corridor I drew on childhood memories of visits to my aunt in a mental hospital, where she spent most of her adult life.
    The suspense genre satisfies my sensibilities. It allows me to be as creative as my imagination will allow, with few restrictions, other than knowing that I must grab the reader’s attention (starting with me) early on and not let go until the last page.

    This is a common knowledge among thriller writers, and their readers. And we always strive to bring something new to the work. Therein lies the challenge, and the excitement.

  5. Two things make me wonder about the question if we go too far in trying to beat down stereotypes.
    1: The leading weekly magazin of Germany DER SPIEGEL claims in its current issue that most crimefiction readers want clear clear circumstances in their books (and films). This is because people want a short breather while reading (and watching films) – before they go back to their life which is complicated.
    2: I recently discussed with two people from my audience about the question why Faris Iskander, the main character from „40 hours“, is muslim. To German readers this sometimes seems to be a problem.
    When I created Faris, I had a lot of trouble with exactly this question: How much things must he have, that are stereotypical – only for the reason that the readers are willing to follow him into the story?
    So in the first scene I made him stand at the window (clichee?), drink something that goes down his throat acridley (clichee!) and thinking about the woman who left him (clichee!!). You can imagine that I have been beaten for this!
    But in the next scene the reader learns, that the drink is coffee that burnt on the heatingplate for hours and that Faris does not drink alcohol, because he is Egyptian.
    So I used the stereotype to pull the reader into the story and then immediately broke them to irritate.
    If this works, I am finding out at the moment. Considering the reactions I get, it seems to … I would be very interested of what you think about this. Especially of course, I wonder, if readers are this limited like DER SPIEGEL claims …

  6. Thriller writers are biased towards being successful. Thrillers are a commercial genre and most writers want commercial success, so there are pressures on thriller writers to conform to stereotypes:

    • Agents and publishers see what has previously been successful and take on authors who promise to deliver something similar.

    • Genre work by necessity has to include ‘clichés’: the genre author has made a deal with the reader to deliver a certain type of novel. The reader of a murder mystery will not be happy if they don’t discover who did it, and the thriller reader will not be happy with a novel with no thrills.

    • So a thriller has to deliver a number of ‘obligatory scenes’ that make the work as a thriller: action scenes, tension, suspense, high stakes, a race against time, heavy odds.

    • There are also only so many characters that work in a thriller: readers want a sympathetic protagonist, and the number of characteristics that make a character sympathetic are limited.

    But there are also factors working against stereotypes:

    • A novel that relies entirely on the stereotypes of the thriller will be seen as clichéd, and will not stand out from the crowd.

    • A popular genre like the thriller can split into many sub-genres. Some of those, or example the ‘literary thriller’ allow the author to write in a less stereotypical manner.

    In the end, readers get the thrillers they deserve, because they deal out commercial success and failure to novels.

    1. You write about the deal between writer and reader, Graeme, and I absolutely agree with you, when you say, that readers want a certain sort of protagonist and antagonist. And also it is true that agents and publishers are searching for things similar to what has recently successful.
      But I also highly agree in this: We writers have to handle these two things in a responsibly way. We have to give the reader what he expects but go this little bit further so that he thinks: wow! This is new!
      Here in Germany the publishers recently destroyed the genre of historic novels by publishing one after the other the completely same story. This lead to exhausted readers who stopped to buy historic novels. Most writers had to change topics – and only a few are seeming to survive: those, who refused to write book nr. thousand about the poor, suppressed woman in Middle-ages.
      This makes me think: Yes, the reader wants certain stereotypes – those, which make him feel safe like standing on solid ground – but we writers have the urgent duty to go farther from this point.

      1. Kathrin, yes, there’s a saying that readers (and hence publishers) want ‘the same, but different’, most people don’t want the same old story for the millionth time,

        But the fundamental rules of dramatic work were understood by the Greeks (and probably earlier), for example Aristotle identified one of the fundamental paradoxes of storytelling: “the ending must be both inevitable and unexpected”. There aren’t many characters or plots that we can’t find in Greek drama.

        There’s a website called TVTropes that identifies every possible plot or character twist. Think of any outlandish or unusual plot mechanism or character trait, go to TVTropes and you will find it has been codified, given a name, and its deployment in hundreds of previous works has been identified.

        This is inevitable, because stories are about people, human nature does not change, and storytelling is as old as humanity. That means that there aren’t any new stories, only retellings of the old stories in new settings.

        Because of that, I don’t think what we really have a duty to come up with a new character or plot, which I suggest is impossible, we have a duty to entertain, which we can’t do if our characters and plots are boring. Making them not boring, when fundamentally there is nothing new under the sun, is where the skill of our art is – how do we make the old seem new?

        Like Aristotle’s injunction about endings, it is a paradox.

        1. Graeme, so, what is the conclusion for us writers to work with this paradoxon? Inventing the old newly! And on this behalf we can call us lucky that human nature is so diversified. My opinion.

          Thank you for TVtropes which I actually didn’t know by then. I am often working with the Polti Plots.

          As for Aristotle and Opitz and other “Regelpoetiken” (I don’t know the English word, i.e. “poetics with strong rules”): After Schiller et al. we have some special way of working with them here in Germany I think.

          1. I would draw an analogy with football. There are laws of football. For example if you pick the ball up then you are no longer playing football.

            Similarly in writing if your detective stops detecting and becomes a goatherd you are no longer writing a mystery.

            But in football, as well as the strict laws as enforced by the referee, there are tactics that are known to have been successful in the past. If the team lines up with ten strikers and no defenders then the laws of football don’t stop them, but they’re unlikely to be successful as a team.

            Similarly, if your mystery novel does not end with the perpetrator identified, then it is unlikely to be successful as a mystery novel.

            In football, the joy is in watching the skill of the players, playing within the laws of the game and using a formation and tactics that work.

            And my contention is that is the same in thriller writing.

            That doesn’t mean we have to be constrained in any meaningful way. Pele was not constrained by the rules of football, listening to his coach, or playing in a formation, those rules gave him the opportunity to express himself.

            A great football player or coach can make some tactical innovations of course and so can a great author, but most of us are just playing the game as well as we can.

  7. I’m delighted to join in on the conversation. My bias is to not make any of my characters a stereotype. I’m retired military and write military thrillers. People have a vision of a military officer. I work hard to adjust that vision.
    Characters are so critical to a successful thriller, actually any successful novel. I believe authors go to great length to make sure they have quality leading characters, but what about those secondary characters. You know, the walkons who join the story for a few minutes, then leave. The doorman, the bar tender, the messenger,. the cab driver.
    How about making them more interesting by making them really different. We all have a stereotype of a cabbie in New York City. Why not make her a poet and have her tell poems to her passengers. Or the doorman who could be an opera singer in his spare time. He can sing to all who enter the building.
    My point is that not only should we beat down stereotypes in our leading characters, but interesting econdary characters can make a much more realistic story.
    I look forward to the discussion this week.

    1. You write: “I’m retired military and write military thrillers. People have a vision of a military officer. I work hard to adjust that vision.”
      My question would be, Don: Do you think, that your publisher and readers enjoy these efforts?
      When I wrote my “Angelkiller”-Series, I attempted to ajust the wrong vision people have about the middle-ages witches. I always got reactions about the thriller-plot, but no-one ever seemed to be delighted in this special effort of mine. 🙁

      1. Hi Kathrin: Sorry to be slow in responding but I’ve been on the road.
        My story concerns a military team that works for the president’s national security advisor. My protagonist, Zack Kelly, is what you picture as a military officer. His sidekick is a short, female hispanic officer who is a classical pianist as well as holding a black belt. One of the other officers is a rough black helicopter pilot who led a gang in D.C. and had to come in the military or go to jail.
        What I’m trying to show is that military officers come in all shapes and sizes and all sorts of backgrounds. This helps beat the “Mr. Clean” stereotype.

        1. Hey Don. Now I am responding slowly because of a writing seminar I am leading at the moment. Sorry too.
          Interesting characters you write off esp. the hispanic officer. I hope you get enthusiastic reactions of your readers.

  8. No writer uses stereotypes on purpose, but we all have blind spots when it comes to this issue. The more we educate ourselves about different races, cultures, sexualities, professions, regions, countries, etc., the fewer blind spots we’ll have (hopefully). The best way to avoid stereotypes is to think of all your characters as individuals instead of types. As much as I love Star Trek in all its forms, it’s terrible when it comes to stereotypes. Vulcan is a planet filled with super-smart unemotional people, Klingons are an entire race of warriors . . . So when it comes to your characters, don’t assume all police officers are the same, nor all serial killers, terrorists, vampires, and so on.

    In terms of trying to go against stereotypes, it’s possible to go too far to the point where your characters aren’t realistic and may even seem ridiculous to readers. Don mentioned the stereotype of military people. If you went too far against the stereotype, you could create an unpatriotic character who hates authority and refuses to take orders. Why would such a person join the military in the first place?

    When it comes to reflecting diversity in your characters, one of the things I’m starting to see is that some readers and reviewers are applying diversity checklists to stories. If a certain group of people isn’t represented in your story, you’re guilty of erasure, of erasing people of this group from your world. I strongly believe that writers should reflect the world around them, and diversity is a major part of our world. But in DEEP LIKE THE RIVER, there are only a few characters, and they belong to the same family. There may be diversity of personality there, but no diversity in terms of race, cultural background, etc. I don’t believe writers should apply a quota system to their stories, as I think it makes for bad storytelling and, far worse, can be dehumanizing, reducing people to types. But in my own work, I try to include as much diversity as I can in all ways, providing that it fits the story and I can approach all of my characters with respect as individuals.

  9. Stereotypes are inherently limiting, since they result in characters that are not completely dimensional. They’re sketches, straw dogs, cut-outs, stand-ins. But stereotypical characters are instantly recognizable to readers, so they’re very tempting to use and hard to avoid.

    The problem with stereotypes is that while they’re recognizable, they’re not real. No one is purely good or bad. No one is completely true to his or her nature. We all veer from our internal script at least once an hour. (At least I do.) Our characters need to do the same in order to generate empathy among readers. Understanding a character at a glance (oh look, there’s the predatory professor again) doesn’t leave a lot of room for evolution or empathy.

    My own characters tend to be ambiguous. Cops who don’t always follow the rules (Third Rail). A businessman in trouble who may (or may not) deserve his punishment, being held by a shadowy extremist group (Senseless). Good-hearted musicians who steal (Give + Take). So while I may start with a more obviously good or bad character, they generally evolve into a more mixed state.

    Because we’re all mixed figures. On the page and in the world.

  10. I’m part of the human family – ipso facto – I am biased. Whenever I’m tempted to forget that fact, my family and friends are only to happy to remind me of it!

    For me, recognizing my biases is a necessary starting point. If I keep them in mind through out my work on a novel, I can use that knowledge to challenge myself to move deeper into the characters. My books have been called culturally diverse. That’s just another way of saying that I’m drawn to write about the people of my town, in all their diversity. Sometimes I may be tempted to flip a stereotype on its head; but that’s also giving way to biases, in a sense. The only answer is to go deeper and deeper into the characters. Let them take over and boss you around.

    In some ways it’s relatively easy to rectify biases when it comes to color, gender, sexual preference, or religion. But how about other biases, those concerning people with mental illness, people living on the streets, or even rich kids?

    It’s all about embracing generosity and eschewing fear, in the end.

  11. One of the other things that helps me steer away from stereothypes is to create a bio on each one of my primary characters. I learned this from James Frey and his book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, is excellent. What you end up doing is creating movtivations for each of your characters based on their background. Once the reader understands these motivations, they can see why each of your charactors respond differently. Also I keep the bios next to me as I draft a story to remind me why each character is different.

    1. I like to do biographical sheets for my characters too.

      One trick I picked up is to write on the sheet what the character’s “secret” is. Everyone has something they don’t like other people to know about them.

      The “secret” doesn’t have to be something earth shattering, and it might not even be revealed in the novel, but it helps you see the character as a real person.

    2. Yes, James Freys books are extremely helpful, aren’t they? And he is such a fantastic guy! I once happened to meet him in Berlin, and he helped me with the developping of Faris Iskander when I was close to lay down the topic completely!
      He also wrote a book about writing thrillers: “How to write a damn good thriller”. In my shelf it is always ready to hand.

  12. Don & Graeme,

    I whole-heartedly concur! I like to write character bios rapidly, without any self-censorship. That’s when the characters spring to life – and they nearly always hold surprises. Those hidden secrets are key. Sometimes they concern matters the characters are hiding from others; but often the secrets are things the characters are keeping from themselves.

    I think these secrets are especially central to thrillers. It’s in the hidden corners, after all, that mystery dwells. And to return to our central topic, perhaps stereotypes ARE important to thriller fiction – because it’s in the unmasking of the facade, the accepted, that noir thrives!

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