Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Hunter grew up in Evanston, Illinois as one of 10 children to Charles Francis Hunter, a Northwestern University speech professor, and Virginia Ricker Hunter, a writer of children's books. After graduating from Northwestern in 1968 with a degree in journalism, he spent two years in the United States Army as a ceremonial soldier in The Old Guard in Washington, D.C., and later wrote for a military paper, the Pentagon News.
He joined The Baltimore Sun in 1971, working at the copy desk of the newspaper's Sunday edition for a decade. He became its film critic in 1982, a post he held until moving to The Washington Post in the same function in 1997. According to Metacritic he generally grades films lower than the average critic (While working for the Baltimore Sun, it was a joke that if Stephen Hunter didn't like a film, you probably would). He was a frequent guest on The Tony Kornheiser Show for his movie reviews. In 1998 Hunter won the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award in the criticism category, and in 2003 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Hunter retired from the Post in 2008, but still contributes essays to the newspaper's Style section. After a divorce, he married current Baltimore Sun columnist Jean Marbella in 2005. He has two children.
While respected for his film criticism, Hunter is more widely known for his thriller novels. Of these, Point of Impact, Black Light and Time to Hunt form a trilogy featuring Vietnam veteran and sniper Bob "the Nailer" Swagger. (The 2007 film Shooter was based on Point of Impact.) Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming, and Havana form another trilogy centered on Bob Swagger's father, Earl. His novels are all violent, a theme on which he once commented, "My feelings about violence are very powerful. It seems to provoke my imagination in an odd way, because the only one who can create a new world is me."
Many of Hunter's novels take place within a single loosely-defined world; even those that do not star the same main characters often feature links to each other. The Bob Lee Swagger story Black Light builds on the events and characters of Dirty White Boys, and has a cameo appearance by one of the main characters from The Second Saladin. Time to Hunt, the third of the Bob Lee Swagger novels, includes a small role for Dick Puller, a main character in The Day Before Midnight. Black Light also contains a brief but crucial off-screen appearance of Frenchy Short, the CIA agent and Earl Swagger protege who appears in The Second Saladin, Hot Springs and Havana; Short's life is intertwined with those of both Bob Lee and Earl, and his history and character are gradually revealed over the course of these three books.
Hunter's novels are known for their intricate plotting, with great complexities that are, however, resolved by the story's end. At the same time, in each novel the exposition is always done from the point of view of one or several characters, in an intensely subjective (and sometimes lyrical) way peculiar to that character, and this very successfully humanizes what might otherwise seem an overly complicated plot. The combination of these two features is somewhat unusual in modern thriller writing, and may be responsible for some of the novels' popularity.
President Bill Clinton was famously pictured during the Monica Lewinsky affair holding a copy of Time to Hunt. It is wrongly assumed that this association affected Hunter's decision not to name Mena as the county seat of Polk County, Arkansas, in Pale Horse Coming, due to "a whole conspiracy culture based around suspicions that Bill Clinton used the Mena airport to ship cocaine into Arkansas." Hunter's first Bob Lee Swagger book "Point of Impact" (Bantam Books hardcover edition published March 1993) renamed the Polk county seat from Mena to Blue Eye, 2 1/2 years prior to the beginning of The Lewinsky affair, which started November 15, 1995.
Hunter has written three non-fiction books: A Critic's 13 Years on the Front Lines of Movie Mayhem (1995), a collection of essays from his time at The Sun; American Gunfight (2005), an examination of the November 1, 1950 assassination attempt on Harry S. Truman at Blair House in Washington, D.C.; and Now Playing at the Valencia (2005), a collection of pieces from The Washington Post. Hunter has also written a number of non-film-related articles for The Post, including one on Afghanistan: "Dressed To Kill...From Kabul to Kandahar, It's Not Who You Are That Matters, but What You Shoot". The 47th Samurai, continuing the story of Bob Lee Swagger, was published in September 2007. Night of Thunder, another Bob Lee Swagger installment, was released in 2008, and the newest Bob Lee Swagger novel, I, Sniper was released on December 29, 2009. I, Sniper is said to be a return to form for Hunter whose last two novels have been critically panned.