Your Hero Sucks

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I met Ed online awhile ago, and was excited when he announced that his thriller novel, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was going to be published by Black Opal Books. I’ve already got the book on my TBR list because if anyone knows me at all, they know I love a good thriller with some depth to it — especially depth that has to do with family relationships. And that’s exactly what Ed’s book sounds like. But Ed says his hero might suck, so read on to find out more of what he’s talking about. Maybe your hero sucks too? Somehow, I have a feeling this might not be the worst thing ever.

E.A. Aymar studied creative writing, earned a Masters degree in Literature and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and SinC. He and his wife live with a relatively benign animal menagerie just outside of Washington, D.C.

I have a problem with my hero, the protagonist of my debut thriller I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. He’s not very heroic. After his wife is murdered, he decides to seek revenge, and in doing so he places revenge over the importance of raising his daughter. This troubled me when I published the novel and, although the reviews have been largely cheerful, a few readers took issue with that aspect of his character. I understand their concern, even though it seems to me that any number of characters in literature and television choose duty (or perceived duty) over family. Still, though, I thought the critiques were valid, and considered them constructive – maybe the choice he made could have been presented differently, and that’s on me.

But it also touches another topic – heroes, and how they should be depicted. I wrote a thriller and, as a hopeful entrant to that genre, I had to take a long look at the typical hero of these books and what they tend to embody. The following excerpted review of the film Jack Reacher, based on Lee Child’s celebrated series, highlights some of the same issues I have with my genre’s typical protagonists. Note that I don’t share all of the author’s views; these are like my opinions, but on crack: 

Jack Reacher is the embodiment of a certain kind of narrow alpha fantasy. He is the best at all the things: the smartest detective, the best driver, the greatest fighter.… His mind works faster than anyone else’s; he sees patterns no one else sees. He is Batman without the silly costume. He is the entire A-Team rolled up in one, such that he can disappear like a ghost (though he somehow pulls his military pension each month), but will still walk into a room at the most dramatic moment, just after someone has said, “You don’t find this guy unless he wants to be found.

Naturally, being so exceptional isolates him in his noble loneliness…. In particular, he has no time for women, who only exist in his world as victims to save or to manfully mourn. For those who buy into the extremity of his excellence — for those whose suspension of disbelief rivals the suspension system of the Golden Gate Bridge — he’s a potent fantasy. But for everyone else, it can be tiring listening to subsidiary characters go on and on about him, or watching him stand three steps ahead of everyone else, waiting with annoyance for them to catch up.”

Like I said, I don’t agree with everything the author wrote, but she makes some good points. Genre writers rightfully bristle at the notion that their work isn’t comparable to literary fiction, especially with the assumption that plot twists and timing are more valued in thrillers than characterization and prose, but the archetype depicted above, when realized, doesn’t help. Still, though, it’s a bit of a quandary. We like James Bond movies, and find Bond fun, but the character depicted in the movie is decidedly not a complex person. And writing about a character without complexity is describing a corpse.

Happily, there are a number of writers in my field who create great protagonists: Meg Abbott, Chris F. Holm, Lawrence Block, Michael Sears, Lou Berney, Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and many more. And they don’t sacrifice prose or good storytelling to do it. If you want to learn how to write a good thriller or mystery, check out their work.

In the end, you want to make someone complex and believable without disappointing fans of your chosen genre. And you want to create someone compelling to you. The choices your character makes may trouble you, give you a sleepless night or two, and some readers or reviewers might find their actions disheartening. The trick is to keep the reader invested when that doubt surfaces, to keep them turning pages even faster when their devotion shakes. You know you won’t satisfy every reader, but that’s okay. You want to be a good writer. You want to create a good character. You want readers to believe.

ISWYD cover

Tom Starks has spent the three years since his wife’s murder struggling to single-handedly raise their daughter, Julie, while haunted by memories of his dead spouse. When he learns that the man accused of her murder, Chris Taylor, has been released from prison, Tom hires a pair of hit men to get his revenge. But when the hit men botch the assassination of Chris Taylor, Tom is inadvertently pulled into their violent world. 

And now those hit men are after him and his daughter.

Add I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead to your Goodreads shelf.

E.A. Aymar’s debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was just published by Black Opal Books. To learn more about I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and to watch the animated trailer, visit www.eaymar.com/novel

Purchase I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead on Amazon, B&N, or Black Opal Books.

Find E.A. on eaymar.comFacebook, and Twitter.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

6 comments

Michelle D. Argyle

Ed, thanks for this post and for guesting here on my blog! I love the subject you chose for today because it really makes me think about whether or not we are more marketable if we allow our characters to deviate from the expectations and add more depth, or if that creates too much difference for our readers and dooms the novel to failure — at least in sales numbers. My main character in Monarch is like yours in your debut. He kind of sucks. He makes huge mistakes, is very, very human, and not like your typical CIA spy at all. But that’s why I adore him, and why I loved writing that book. It was kind of the point of the book — to create a Bond-ish character, but give him infinitely more story and depth. I’ve found some readers love it. Many don’t, probably because it simply didn’t meet their typical thriller expectations.

You have some fantastic points here today. The real key is to not sacrifice your story or prose, and to keep your readers engaged. Tell a good story, create believable characters, and everything else is secondary.

Thanks for having me, Michelle! I think you’re exactly right – a novel without sympathetic characters doesn’t work, so the trick is to make them complex without alienating the reader. The best example of this I can think of is Humbert Humbert in Lolita (I didn’t include Nabokov above since I only touched on thrillers) – as readers, we don’t like him, but the story is engaging, and the protagonist comes off as an interesting but horribly-flawed human. I’m not sure how many writers could have pulled such a contradictory character off.

J. A. Bennett

I think as long as I can understand a character and feel what they’re feeling, I don’t care what else they may do. Great post!

Thanks so much! And I agree with you.

Those bad choices make the individual more realistic. It’s good for a hero to suck (just a little), as long as he learns something or grows into a better person those experiences. Wonderful post.

A character should be interesting above all. They’re not all meant to be role models! 🙂

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