May 13 – 19: “How does a writer go about avoiding stereotyped characters?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Wendy Walker, R. G. Belsky, Heather Gudenkauf, Christopher Golden and Ann Simas as they discuss how a writer goes about avoiding stereotyped characters. Is it possible to go to the other extreme? Find out by scrolling down to the “comments” section. You’ll want to read this!


Wendy Walker is a former family law attorney in Fairfield County, Connecticut who began writing while at home raising her three sons. She published two novels with St. Martin’s Press and edited multiple compilations for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series before writing her debut psychological thriller, All is Not Forgotten in 2016. Her second thriller, Emma In The Night, was released the following year. Her latest novel, The Night Before, will be published on May 14, 2019.


Christopher Golden is the New York Times bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of such novels as Ararat, Snowblind, Of Saints and Shadows, and Tin Men. With Mike Mignola, he is the co-creator of two cult favorite comic book series, Baltimore and Joe Golem: Occult Detective. His graphic novel trilogy collaboration with Charlaine Harris, Cemetery Girl, reached #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. In 2015 he founded the popular Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival. His work has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award, the Eisner Award, and multiple Shirley Jackson Awards. For the Bram Stoker Awards, Golden has been nominated eight times in eight different categories. His original novels have been published in more than fifteen languages in countries around the world. The Ben Walker series (Ararat, The Pandora Room) is currently in development as an international television series with Golden as Executive Producer and writer.


R. G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His latest thriller BELOW THE FOLD, releases on may 7th. Two of Belsky’s thrillers from the ‘90s – LOVERBOY and PLAYING DEAD – are also being re-released by HarperCollins in December and January 2018. His book BLONDE ICE (Atria- 2016), part of the Gil Malloy series – featuring a New York City newspaper reporter, was a Finalist for the David Award and a Silver Falchion nominee this past year. Belsky himself is a former managing editor at the Daily News and writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. He was metropolitan editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine; and most recently managing editor at


Heather Gudenkauf is the critically acclaimed author of several novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Weight of Silence. She lives in Iowa with her family.



Ann Simas lives in Oregon, but she is a Colorado girl at heart, having grown up in the Rocky Mountains. She has been an avid reader since childhood and penned her first fiction “book” in high school. She particularly likes to write mystery-thriller-suspense with a love story and paranormal or supernatural elements. She is the author of 26 novels, one short-story collection, and one novella. An award-winning watercolorist and a budding photographer, Ann enjoys needlework and gardening in her spare time. She is her family’s “genealogist” and has been blessed with the opportunity to conduct first-hand research in Italy for both her writing and her family tree. The genealogy research from decades-old documents in Italian, she says, has been a supreme but gratifying challenge.


  1. Hello Thriller Community!

    I love this topic, especially as I am about to launch my latest book, The Night Before, which tries to undo some character stereotyping without going too far. When I decided to write about a date gone wrong, with deception in Internet dating being at the forefront, I did NOT want to have a damsel in distress character or story. I wanted this to be the story of a man who lies online to get dates, but who – this time – might have chosen the wrong woman to lie to. I wanted HIM to be in peril because his lies may have set off his date. BUT – I did not want the date – Laura – to be a sociopath or just crazy for no good reason. I wanted her to have understandable and realistic issues with men and lying that readers would be able empathize with. For me, researching psychology and bringing in experts can really help in achieving this goal. There are so many complicated people in the world – and in ways we haven’t thought of yet. But therapists see them every day. So for me, research can often help achieve this goal! Anyone else?

  2. This is a tough question! My novels tend to be about regular, everyday people placed in challenging circumstances: a mother searching for her missing child, a social worker who finds herself on the other side of the legal system, a nurse deafened by an accident trying to get her life back on track, families trying to deal with bullying in the age of social media.

    While I want my readers to relate to my characters, I don’t want them to say, “I’ve seen this all before,” and lose interest. I want them to become invested and see their stories through to the end. As I write, I keep a notebook that I fill with portraits of each of my characters ~ what they look like, their histories, likes and dislikes, anything and everything I can think of that will bring them to life on the page.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to go to the other extreme when it comes to stereotyping characters – the more one of a kind the better.

    I would love to hear what other authors do to create their unique characters.

  3. The Oxford Dictionary defines stereotype as, “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

    That brings to mind the chain-smoking, alcoholic, divorced, grizzled, hard-living cop, who doesn’t change into a clean shirt but once a week and wears a food-stained tie.

    Or the chain-smoking, alcoholic, foul-mouthed, tougher-than-nails, slutty cop, who wears too-tight shirts that are unbuttoned two buttons too far.

    It would be easy to write these stereotypes, but just because someone taught a workshop/writing class or wrote a book/article that advised me to give my main characters flaws, did that really mean I had to stick with stereotypical flaws? No. Is it possible to take those characters too far in the other direction? Maybe.

    My characters may have flaws, but they don’t have Flaws. I don’t dwell on them and I don’t let them run my stories. However, I do let the action of the story reveal their flaws. That is not to say my characters don’t sometimes make bad decisions, or do things to annoy my other characters, but isn’t that what fiction is all about?

  4. Wendy ~ I can’t wait for your newest! It sounds fabulous. I love that you don’t have a damsel in distress. And Ann, I really like how you put it ~ “let the action of the story reveal their flaws.”

    To date, what has been your most challenging character to write?

    1. Heather, I don’t really find any of my characters are challenging to write, whether they’re on the good side or the bad side. I suppose when they’re bad, it’s more a matter of how far I let them go, and the challenge would be whether or not it might put the reader off if I go too far with bad behavior.

  5. This topic reminds me a bit of a conversation I once heard in a newsroom between a star columnist and an editor who’d made changes to his copy. “I took out the cliches,” the editor said. The columnist replied: “The cliches are there for a reason, leave them in!”

    I think “stereotyped characters” are there sometimes for a reason too. Because people like to read about the tough, grizzled cop; the alcoholic PI; the slick lawyer; the sexy client and all the rest. And, if you try too hard to stray from that tried and true formula, there’s always the danger that your characters will be worse than “stereotyped” – they’ll be….well, boring.

    Having said that, I always try to not stick to classic stereotypes in my books. My current thriller BELOW THE FOLD features a newswoman dealing with a child/family issue from her past. My previous series character was about a male reporter who once made up quotes on a story – and is still trying to survive that scandal. Maybe not totally original, but neither fit into the traditional “stereotyped” role.

    But just remember that some of our favorite characters ever – Philip Marlowe, Spenser etal – are pretty much stereotypes. So it isn’t ALWAYS a bad thing.

  6. Love these comments! Heather – thanks for the encouragement on my pub day. Yikes! What an exciting and terrifying time all at once!!!

    I agree with all of the above. Sometimes I think about a character with, let’s say, a dysfunctional childhood. She’s going to have certain issues – that’s just reality. And those issues, in the real world, would fall into a certain spectrum of behavior. Then I think, NO – don’t stereotype. But then I think, yeah, but that’s what she would be like! In my next book, for example, I have a young woman who suffered the loss of a sibling as a teenager and who feels responsible for the death. I had her drinking, smoking and sleeping with random men she picked up in bars. But – oops – now she’s unlikeable to a lot of people! I had a tough time reimagining her in a way that reflected her need to escape and punish herself, but not turn people off who don’t want to read about a woman doing those things. Tricky business!

  7. For me, the key to avoiding stereotypes is always to avoid making the thing that makes a character “different” also the most interesting thing about them. My first novel, Of Saints and Shadows, way back in 1994, was about Peter Octavian, a guy who was both a private detective and a vampire, but neither of those things was the most interesting thing about him. Nor was the fact that the novel’s female lead was bisexual the most interesting thing about her. It’s also important that we, as writers, expose ourselves to writing and other forms of entertainment that feature characters who don’t behave stereotypically. My recent novels The Pandora Room and Ararat have Ben Walker as one of their central characters, the ongoing character around whom this series of books is being built. But that doesn’t mean that Walker has the answer to everything or is always right. There are other “lead” characters in each of these books who share the spotlight with him, and whom Walker, as a character, does not eclipse. I also think, right out of the gate, it helps to have male and female characters who share the stage and agency and relevance in the plot, but who–gasp–do not want to sleep with one another.

  8. I like that – giving color to characters but not making it the focus. I think that sometimes we forget that no one thing defines a person, so the same holds true for characters.

  9. It might be interesting to hear if anyone can name some popular characters in recent thrillers who are NOT stereotypes. Jack Reacher and most of the other ones that come to mind immediately are – at least in part – some sort of stereotype of previous thriller/action characters. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Maybe Harry Bosch, who is sort of a stereotype of the tough homicide cop – but Bosch is unique in other ways. Or how about Amy Dunne from Gone Girl? She pretty much breaks the mold of your popular thriller heroine….

  10. There is a new book coming out in July – Temper, by Layne Fargo – which i blurbed and have been telling everyone about. It has one stereotypical male archetype, but the women are completely unique. I think using the one stereotyped character allows us to really focus on how the other two are reacting to him. We know what he will likely do, so the surprises focus on the women. It’s very well done!

  11. Love hearing about books with unique characters – can’t wait to check these all out! A few thrillers that I’ve read as of late that feature some great leads are UNTIL THE DAY I DIE by Emily Carpenter and HUNTING ANNABELLE by Wendy Heard. Refreshing characters.

  12. I did enjoy Hunting Annabelle. I will have to get Emily’s book! I also just got a copy of Before She Was Found – which I hope to dive into soon 🙂

    I have two thoughts – what do you all think about this year’s big books – The Silent Patient and Where the Crawdads Sing? The first brought back the unreliable narrator in full force. The fun of that book was in the twist that stemmed from the unreliability. It was very Gone Girl – ish. No real likable characters but still compelling. And Crawdads – the book wraps up with one clear villain and everyone else let off the hook for their bad behavior. That was my take anyway. Do you think readers are in the mood for clear lines – good or bad, no shades of gray? Markets always swing a bit and this is just something I have noticed. Anyone else???

    1. The thing I’ve noticed that really bothers me is that it’s okay to be bad, and I mean REALLY bad, and get away with it. Is doing the wrong thing for the right reason really acceptable justification for glorifying ill deeds? I worry about people being okay with this. It’s like everything else–it becomes the norm over time, which could influence our society in a negative way. Words have power.

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