Thrillers, Part 2 of 4: Heroes

HeroHeroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.

A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.

Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.

I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.

What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.

Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.

Strike Me, Lightning! Dexter, Dreaming, and Jeff Lindsey

So who wrote Tarzan?

You don’t know?

I’ll give you a hint. He’s the same writer who wrote A Princess of Mars.

You know, John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tharks. Yeah, you know! Disney and the director of Wall-E did a movie called John Carter, which was awesome, no matter what people may say. People. Sheesh.

So many of you know about Tarzan, if not everyone. Fewer know about Barsoom. And fewer probably know the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s the author who brought Tarzan to life. And really, he’s one of the reason why I became a writer.

Okay, next question.

Who wrote Darkly Dreaming Dexter?

You don’t know?

I bet you know about the hit TV show which season after season thrilled a generation. Until the last five minutes of the finale which totally killed the spirit of the wholes series. But I digress. For those of you who don’t know, Darkly Dreaming Dexter is about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers. Genius, I know. I told the author, Jeff Lindsey, I kind of hated him for coming up with such a great idea. I got to meet him and hear him speak. Great guy. He referred to himself as the avatar of self-doubt. I'm totally stealing that.

He also talked about how everyone knows Tarzan, but no one knows ERB. And everyone knows Dexter, but no one knows Jeff Lindsey. Good and bad, that.

But as Jeff Linsdey talked about the history of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which of course had tons of rejection and had tons of “suggested” re-writes, he mentioned something that struck me.

He said the writing game isn’t about talent, and it’s not really about luck, and it’s not about networking, or any of that. He said he didn’t want to seem too precious, but he thought writers were like people under a pristine blue sky waiting to get hit by lightning.

Not sure what he meant by seeming too precious. I thought it was a great analogy.

I might have the best, the tallest, the most magnificent lightning rod in all of creation. I might be wearing steel underwear. I might have done all of my research on the best place to sit in the field of writers to improve my chance of being hit by lightning. But the fact remains—the sky is blue. A storm is not in the forecast. It’s not research, talent, or luck that’s going to get my testicles zapped.

So what is it? Why do I venture out into the field and sit under a blue sky waiting to get struck by lightning?

Because I am pulled there. Well, I’m half-pulled by my vocation, my sacred duty to write stories, and I’m half-pushed by a deep desire to succeed.

Regardless, I’m choosing to walk daily into the field and sit down, open my laptop, and write books. Lots of books. I want to be in that field. I love writing books and hanging out with authors.

Why? Because when I write, I am doing what I was made to do. Not everyone likes reading and writing. Some people adore NASCAR. That is their sacred calling. I don’t get it, but not everyone is going to get me. Which is fine.

In third grade, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs and it changed my life. Reading about John Carter meeting Dejah Thoris on an alien world electrified me (Ha, funny, get it?).

My entire life, I have wanted to be a writer. My entire life.

Why would I walk away now? Because it’s too hard? Because I’ve failed? Because I’ve been ignored?

Dudes and dudettes, the hero is supposed to fail and struggle before they succeed. I’m in the right place at the right time engaged in the right activity. I’m doing what needs to be done.

Jodi Thomas, another wonderful author, talked about those who succeed in writing are the ones who can endure the most. Which means I will succeed. Might take a bit, and success might not look like I think, but the lightning will strike me.

And if it doesn’t?

Goddammit, I’ll make my own lightning.