Indeed, he bled a bit, slapped a bandage on his bleeding leg, then popped up and began running on it. And yes, he kept talking the whole time. Bullets, bombs, knives, poison…they only served to slow this character down for a few seconds, then he went on his merry way, happily killing bad guys (and never missing a shot).
The action hero is an icon of the thriller genre, and millions of books have been sold with these people as leads. Jason Bourne, Mitch Rapp, Scot Harvath, and Jack Reacher come to mind, the creations of Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, and Lee Child, respectively. (As a disclaimer, though, the movie’s Bourne is considerably different than Ludlum first envisioned him.) I am an unabashed Lee Child fan, and Jack Reacher is a fascinating character on many levels, but let’s face it…the guy just doesn’t lose fights, even when he’s outnumbered six to one or so.
While it’s great fun to read about these guys, I have also found myself looking for thriller heroes who break out of this mold. I don’t want my protagonists these days to be quite so indestructible. Courageous, yes. Committed, yes. Smart and resourceful, of course. But when they get shot, they bleed. It even hurts, and God forbid, they may actually acknowledge that it hurts. It may slow them down, or even stop them…at least temporarily.
In Tom Clancy’s early works, I recall a part of Jack Ryan’s backstory that appealed to me: he was in a horrific helicopter accident while a student at the Naval Academy and spent a year in the hospital learning to walk again. A year! That changes a character, it gives them depth of perspective, a sense that they are a real person. Another thing about Ryan: the guy was married, had kids. An actual family, another relative rarity in thriller fiction.
That brings me to another aspect I have begun to enjoy in thrillers—a hero who is actually capable of relationships with others. They don’t have to all be romantic relationships, but he can relate to other people. Does he (or she) have demons? Of course—that is the richness of characterization. But I find the hero who is a total “lone wolf” and is single-mindedly committed to nothing but his job, his country, etc., to be one-dimensional.
So what I am looking for these days in a thriller character? Someone who is able to be hurt, someone who can relate to others, someone who sometimes has self-doubt, who doesn’t know what he or she is doing all the time, but is usually resourceful enough to figure it out.
One of the best characters around right now for this version of the thriller hero is Alex Berenson’s spy John Wells. Beginning a few years ago with The Faithful Spy, we saw a man who had been away from all he knew for many years while infiltrating Al Qaeda. But when he’s recalled to the U.S., he feels his homeland is a foreign country as well. He has a son, whom he doesn’t know, and he can’t figure out how to relate to him. He doubts himself every day, yet he takes on complex and inherently dangerous missions. At the end of The Faithful Spy, Wells has been severely wounded in foiling a terrorist attack in New York. He dreams of the woman he loves (who is his CIA handler), and opens his eyes to find her there with him. It is a breathtaking scene to close the book.
Likewise, there is Joel Goldman’s series featuring FBI agent Jack Davis, who suffers from a movement disorder that forces him into retirement. He lives daily with the death of a child as his backstory. As the series unfolds, he’ll experience the death of yet another, the end of a long marriage, the loss of his career. He thinks, he acts, he is tough and brilliant…but he also feels. The first two books in the series, Shakedown and The Dead Man, are excellent in their depth of character, as well as intriguing in the storyline and action—the mark of fine thrillers.
Harlan Coben is a master at this as well—his “suburban noir” standalone novels create exquisitely layered stories populated by real people with real people’s problems. Never mind that these everyday issues often mask a private tragedy from the past that puts everyone around the protagonist in danger.
Lest we forget the ladies, I also love reading and writing tough women. Michelle Gagnon’s series featuring FBI agent Kelly Jones presents us a complex woman who is tough as nails, who has been scarred both personally and professionally, and still gets the job done. She even tries to have a “normal” life, juggling an on-again, off-again romantic relationship in the process.
Thrillers are filled with memorable heroes who save the world repeatedly. (That’s their job, in some cases, and in others it falls to them, due to the proverbial circumstances beyond their control.) And my fondness for Jack Reacher notwithstanding, I also enjoy seeing them worry about things like spouses and kids, being able to pay the bills, dealing with health insurance. I want them to be afraid, whether of the situation around them or their own thoughts. Then, I want them to overcome it, stop the conspiracy or solve the crime, and go kick some bad guy butt.
B. Kent Anderson is the author of the thriller Cold Glory, to be released in October 2011, in which a history professor/single father and a piano-playing, female government researcher solve a 150-year-old Civil War conspiracy…and save the world—or at least the U.S. government—while kicking a few bad guys’ butts.