Oct 3 2014 9:00am

Villains in Fact and Fiction

The world changed seismically for thrillers on 9/11.  All of a sudden, the dastardly plots and cunning villains that had been a staple of the genre dating back to Ian Fleming had been outdone by reality. Although both Thomas Harris and Tom Clancy had written books foreshadowing that fateful day, nothing could prepare for us the actual sight of watching the Twin Towers fall. Other factors surely contributed to the genre’s decline in popularity (that was reversed abruptly with the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003), but watching what had previously been confined to our imaginations in fiction unfold as fact certainly played a major role. 

Reality, after all, is a tough act to follow.

And now another set of villains of the type normally confined to our imaginations has surfaced in the form of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a terrorist army whose brutality knows absolutely no bounds and whose appetite for depravity is utterly startling. ISIS and their shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, encapsulate our worst fears while maintaining the kind of ironic hypocrisy more typical of fictional villains. Al-Baghdadi’s thugs proudly behead American journalists to punish the much-hated West, while al-Baghdadi himself preaches to the faithful wearing a Rolex watch.

So what’s a thriller writer to do? How do we match in fiction what has become the daily lead story in fact?

Several answers come to mind, starting with what genre stalwarts like Lisa Gardner and Harlan Coben have already been doing for years, namely moving the terror per se into a smaller arena. Indeed, their tales shift the monsters into our neighborhoods, sometimes even the house next door. Real terror in the minds of Gardner and Coben lies in having our everyday lives upended by circumstances beyond our control or not-so-forgotten secrets gleaned from the past. The actual stakes may be considerably smaller but the emotional stakes are potentially that much greater. Indeed, saving one’s family as opposed to the entire world, can be just as suspenseful, if not more so.

There’s a great line in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, when Bond looks up at the villain while lighting a cigarette, apparently unimpressed by Dr. No’s fiendish plan: “World domination,” Bond says. “Same old plan.” That was 1962 and fifty years later world domination or destruction remain staples of the genre. So another school of thought may hold that villains in fact actually lend resonance and credibility to the villains of fiction. World War II spawned a spate of Nazi villains that continues to some degree to this day. The Cold War replaced them with Russians and the paranoia that followed Watergate replaced these, for a time anyway, with villains culled from within our own government. Then 9/11 came along and gave us a whole new crop of villains in al-Qaeda and its various offshoots as seen in the books of Vince Flynn and Brad Thor, along with the television series 24.

Taken in that context, ISIS could be viewed as an extension of such a phenomenon, more of the same. And for thriller writers, the answer may be as simple as cathartic moments where fiction can achieve what reality can’t. When the very real Zodiac killer was terrorizing San Francisco, cars sported the bumper sticker “Dirty Harry, where are you when we need you?” Sales of Superman comic books soared during World War II when Superman was taking on Nazis. Fast forward to today and imagine Lee Child sending his indestructible Jack Reacher to take on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mano a mano.  Where’s Jack Bauer when we need him, right?

Great villains, you see, make great heroes. In that context the answer to the question what’s a writer to do is challenge ourselves to devise and develop heroes up to the task of confronting the kind of bad guys ISIS exemplifies. The film Taken was made special by a whole bunch of things, but most prominently a hero in Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills character who had the skill set to bring down an entire human trafficking ring.  Yes, it was to save his own daughter but what chance would he have had if he couldn’t kick ass on a Reacher-esque level?  So let’s tweak the mantra above to say that great villains call for great heroes, the point being that villains of fact on the scale of ISIS increase the responsibility of the thriller writer to provide a match for their capacity to wreak havoc and dispense unbearable violence. 

After all, who doesn’t smile when Reacher tosses such a villain out of a helicopter or when Brian Mills leaves the switch on to keep pumping electricity into Marco and walks away?  It becomes a matter of the capacity of heroes to match the depraved morals of the villains they must defeat without allowing that depravity to consume them too.  And in that respect the challenge becomes one that presents an opportunity to thriller writers by forcing us to confront our heroes with the Nietzschean dilemma of not becoming a monster in order to destroy one, which can only make our books better.

My point is villains of fact, the ISISs of the world, must make us look at ourselves and the responsibility we bear to our readers, differently.  Because we’re the ones those readers turn to in order to see the demons of their nightmares slain, whether those demons live next door or across the world.  We’re the ones who create the heroes who make them sleep easier and believe that the monsters can be slain.

“There used to be maps that said, ‘Here be dragons,’” Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, just such a monster, says in an episode of FX’s brilliant Fargo.  “Maps don’t say that anymore, but that doesn’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”

And as long as they are there, we’ll need heroes to slay them.  For thriller writers, that’s where fact and fiction meet.

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Jon Land is the critically acclaimed author of thirty novels, including the bestselling series featuring female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong: Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break and Strong Vengeance. In addition, he is the author of the nonfiction bestseller, Betrayal. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Jody Darden
1. jldarden
I love a good thriller, but have gotten away from the huge, global scale threat and the hero globetrotting the world to save us.
The idea of putting thrillers on a smaller scale, as mentioned above, appeals.
Carl Ginger
5. cgin56
What a great title, I would like to read this one.
6. Raymond Stone
In it to WIN it! Thank You!
Janice Santillo
11. themommazie
sounds like a good read. would love to win.
Laura McDonald
12. bonnieclyde
I watched the video trailer and am excited to hear about this addition to the series. It is very unusual for a man to write such a strong and realistic character but Mr. Land does it well. China really is something to think about, capable of wielding enormous economic power. It will be interesting to see how he maintains the two story threads in this one.
13. runner
Groovy Villains in Fact and Fiction!
Irene Menge
14. Goldenmane
There must be great villains to have great heroes, no matter what the scope.
Linda Peters
21. linnett
would really love to have this, thanks
22. kah1490
With Fargo and True Detective, it seems like the last few years were truly for the underdog/villain. Would love to win!
Chi Shannon
23. anastasiafall
Sounds great! I'd love to give this a read :)
26. Rumeur
Looks like a good book!! Harlan Coben , Lisa Gardner are both staples in my library :) the world certainly has changed & so must the stories being told in order to keep up with modern day society. Sounds like good book :)
Sharon Haas
27. kazul
I like to find a hero in a book but sometimes it's seldom the 'perfect' hero that most people seem to want - the one that is driven by a strong moral compass and would never fall under the spell of evil. Most heros end up being regular people wh
o made a last minute descion and did something heroic.
Tracy Lech
29. tracy.lech
Scary, who are the villains, who are the heroes? Look forward to finding out!
Lori Provenzano
30. Mountainesque
Incredibly ironic that gripping thrillers can help us sleep at night. If we couldn't at least imagine an end to the madness in the world future prospects would seem hopeless indeed.
Michael Carter
31. rubydog
Yes, please enter me.
Thanks --
Sally Winkleblech
32. sallyw
This sounds like a great read, plus a interesting mix of stories and characters.
33. KL Stenger
I would love to read the book
Marie-Louise Molloy
35. Wezzie
This book is right up my alley! Would love a win!
Heather Martin
38. CrystalMirror
These types of spies and heros work because, while bigger than life, they are human, with human flaws. Making them more personal to the reader (or watcher) even though they are playing on the global field.
Rosemary Krejsa
40. grandpa5
The story sounds very intriguing. I definitely want to read it.
Allison Moyer
41. The Loopy Librarian
Interesting article. I never really thought about how reality changes fiction. But, it's true. Perhaps, the world needs heroes now more than ever.
vicki wurgler
42. bison61
sounds like a great thriller - thanks
Love books like this.
Lori Rutherford
45. keirma
Looking forward to reading this book!
susan beamon
46. susanbeamon
I'm reminded of an old saying that I will probably mess up: Fairy tales don't tell us monster exist. We know they do. Fairy tales tell us that monsters can be defeated. Thrillers do the same thing for grown-ups.
Justin Eger
47. justineger
Thanks for writing this. I often find myself so focused on the hero that I forget to address the villain of the piece, and how they need to draw something out of the hero and represent more than just a physical challenge. Otherwise, what's the point, right?
Karen Terry
48. bblol65
I hope this kind of genre last forever.
elaine fisher
50. elfette
need a little love interest ... like Fleming gave the earlier Bond ... for me personally
though will make perfect gift ... thanks
Michael Gonzales
52. mchlmlgnz
Never read Jon Land before, but am always open to try writers I have never read.
Laura DeLaRosa
55. bluecat731
I've never read this author and would love to give him a try.
tracey johnson
56. tracey73110
Thank you for the chance to win a great book
58. Edd
I want to read the work of Jon Land.
Kelley Tackett
61. tackettfamilyky
I just discovered Jon Land a few weeks ago. I'm looking forward to reading all of his books.
Donna Timmerman
63. OCPacific
Thanks for the opportunity to enter your contest. The books sounds like a great read. Thank you
connie black
67. epblack
This looks like an awesome read. Thanks for the chance.
70. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
Heather Cowley
71. choochoo
My, how I hate that truth is scarier than fiction at times.
72. CherylMc
I love this.
73. Vickie H.
So up with the times in the content of things happening now. It would make a very interesting read, for sure...
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