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:
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.