Villains in Fact and Fiction

The modern hero across from the modern villain.

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.

It’s always the same with you villains.

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.

Go ahead. Make my day.

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.

You’re gonna have to look a bit harder for today’s monsters.

“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.


  1. Jody Darden

    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.

  2. Denise Sachs

    I love books like this.

  3. Vicky Boackle

    sounds good.

  4. Loren Palmer

    all in 4 this 1

  5. Carl Ginger

    What a great title, I would like to read this one.

  6. Raymond Stone

    In it to WIN it! Thank You!

  7. Julie N

    I feel lucky

  8. Marcia Taylor

    I would love to read this novel.

  9. keith james

    Thanks as always for the chance.


    sounds like my kind of book

  11. Janice

    sounds like a good read. would love to win.

  12. Laura McDonald

    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!

  14. Irene Menge

    There must be great villains to have great heroes, no matter what the scope.


    Thanks for the opportunity!

  16. Thomas Gibson

    Thank you for this wonderful giveaway!

  17. Dawn K

    looks great

  18. Shauntea Crutcher

    I would really like to win.

  19. Linda Knowles

    I’d love to read this!

  20. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  21. Linda Peters

    would really love to have this, thanks

  22. Katie

    With Fargo and True Detective, it seems like the last few years were truly for the underdog/villain. Would love to win!

  23. Anastasia

    Sounds great! I’d love to give this a read 🙂

  24. jennifer sullivan

    would love it

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  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 🙂

  27. Sharon Haas

    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.

  28. Dave Cohn

    I’d be happy to win this.

  29. Tracy Lech

    Scary, who are the villains, who are the heroes? Look forward to finding out!

  30. Lori P

    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.

  31. Michael Carter

    Yes, please enter me.
    Thanks —

  32. Sally

    This sounds like a great read, plus a interesting mix of stories and characters.

  33. KL Stenger

    I would love to read the book

  34. Karl Stenger

    I would love the read the book.

  35. Marie-Louise Molloy

    This book is right up my alley! Would love a win!

  36. Anna Mills

    Nothing like a little reality…

  37. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  38. Heather Martin

    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.

  39. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Jon Land tells a great story! Yes!

  40. Rosemary Krejsa

    The story sounds very intriguing. I definitely want to read it.

  41. Allison Moyer

    Interesting article. I never really thought about how reality changes fiction. But, it’s true. Perhaps, the world needs heroes now more than ever.

  42. vicki wurgler

    sounds like a great thriller – thanks

  43. Daniel Morrell

    sounds like a fun one


    Love books like this.

  45. Lori Rutherford

    Looking forward to reading this book!

  46. susan beamon

    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.

  47. Justin Eger

    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?

  48. Karen Terry

    I hope this kind of genre last forever.

  49. bonnie murray

    love to read this one.

  50. elaine fisher

    need a little love interest … like Fleming gave the earlier Bond … for me personally
    though will make perfect gift … thanks

  51. Margit Curtright

    Interesting article.

  52. Michael Gonzales

    Never read Jon Land before, but am always open to try writers I have never read.

  53. Susan Smith

    Sounds like a great book.

  54. Debra Kidle

    Love thrillers, one of my fave genres.

  55. Laura DeLaRosa

    I’ve never read this author and would love to give him a try.

  56. tracey johnson

    Thank you for the chance to win a great book

  57. Susan Smoaks

    i would love to win this book!

  58. Edd

    I want to read the work of Jon Land.

  59. Ed Nemmers

    I want to read the work of Jon Land.

  60. Lisa Pecora

    I would love this!

  61. Kelley Tackett

    I just discovered Jon Land a few weeks ago. I’m looking forward to reading all of his books.

  62. Sand Lopez

    I would love to win this!

  63. Donna Timmerman

    Thanks for the opportunity to enter your contest. The books sounds like a great read. Thank you

  64. Mihaela Day

    I would love to read the book

  65. Karen Koziczkowski

    Love a good Who Done it anytime!

  66. Lawrence Mercer

    Make my Day with this book.

  67. connie black

    This looks like an awesome read. Thanks for the chance.

  68. Ellie Wright

    I would love to read this.

  69. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds great. Thanks for the giveaway.

  70. Tim H. Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  71. Heather Cowley

    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…

Comments are closed.

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