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Can a girl in a coma and a struggling alcoholic still be ‘strong characters’? Hell yeah.

Holly Seddon is the British author of the psychological thriller Try Not To Breathe. She argues that her main characters might be damaged, but that doesn’t make them any less heroic. 

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Alex is sinking. Slowly but surely, she’s cut herself off from everything but her one true love – drink. Until she’s forced to write a piece about a coma ward, where she meets Amy.

Amy is lost. When she was fifteen, she was attacked and left for dead in a park not far from her house. Her attacker was never found. Since then, she has drifted in a lonely, timeless place. She’s as good as dead, but not even her doctors are sure how much she understands.

Alex and Amy grew up in the same suburbs, played the same music, flirted with the same boys. And as Alex begins to investigate the attack, she opens the door to the same danger that has left Amy in a coma.

No one in my debut novel sounds particularly heroic. There’s Alex, a barely functioning alcoholic, permanently skirting one stumble above rock bottom. She’s lost her husband, her job, her friends, her dignity and even her health. When we meet her, she’s showing no signs of getting any of them back.

And there’s Amy, locked in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years after being brutally attacked as a schoolgirl. A once-high profile crime for which no-one has ever been convicted.

They don’t have big muscles, fast cars, big guns or powerful jobs. But they are both kickass characters. They are both heroes.

Fragile but oftentimes fearless, journalist Alex sets herself rules to live by, boxing herself in to drinking by appointment every day. Doing this allows her to carve out some sober time to try to tackle a 15-year-old mystery of who attacked Amy. She is determined, for the first time in years, to see something through and her determination is unbreakable.

Amy is dormant, lying almost abandoned in a hospital ward while everyone she ever loved has slowly moved on. Her eyes are glazed, her arms are skinny, she can’t speak, she can’t touch. But her mind is still active, she’s still fiercely determined to live her life, and be herself.

Strong women — strong people — come in many flavours. There is a steely strength evident in seeking and achieving redemption, in righting wrongs or pushing your way out of a box that someone else has imposed on you.

It’s a good time for seeing and reading heroes with a more nuanced sense of strength. Jessica Jones, the eponymous hero of the Netflix show, lives on a gritty, vulnerable but steely spectrum.

Saga Norén from Norse show The Bridge, the leather trousered detective with a social communication disorder who is tougher, more focussed but often more instinctive than any of the men around her.

Or even, yeah I’ll jump on the bandwagon and bring in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even Princess (General) Leia. It’s not often that one of the toughest, most strategic and powerful characters in a blockbuster film is a 59-year-old woman. Not to even mention wonderful Rey, because everyone already has.

Without giving away any spoilers, in Try Not to Breathe, Alex tackles her challenges in her own way, confronting more than just Amy’s cold case and changing her life in the process.

Amy, poor broken Amy, is arguably steelier than Alex. Alex has had things to live for, and has previously made appalling choices anyway, whereas Amy did nothing wrong and has been left with nothing. But she’s fought for her own survival and confronted her own memories, mentally overcoming everything thrown at her.

I’m proud of the women in my book. Proud of them for being heroes of a new mould. Proud of them for being heroes that, I hope, are more like real people everywhere who make small steps each day to overcome their challenges, improve the lives of others and kick ass on their own terms.

Holly Seddon’s Try Not To Breathe is published by Corvus.

You can buy it here

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