This is my genre; this is what I like to read and this is what I like to write.
Why do we read thrillers? The answer, certainly for me and likely for you, is we enjoy seeing the bad guys vanquished—bashed. And those of us who favour contemporary political thrillers particularly like bashing greedy bankers, duplicitous politicians, dodgy business executives, bent coppers, black ops goons and spooks that have gone over to the dark side—and all their lackeys, sycophants, fellow-travellers and those who choose to look the other way.
When I put one of my early scripts out to beta readers, one, after reading some of my work, kindly replied she liked the story but she ‘preferred whodunnits’. My story-telling is not about whodunnit, rather about what happens next. My readers know who the bad guys and the good guys are, but when I do my job well, they’ll have no idea what’s going to happen next and this keeps them entertained until the end—and hopefully entices them to buy my next book and the one after that, ad infinitum.
How is a great thriller created? First we need heroines or heroes whom we hope, and expect, will prevail in the end. They come in all sizes and shapes, as I suggest below in the last paragraph. To add tension, they must display vulnerability: a weakness, a tragic flaw that gets them into trouble—tied up, beaten, captured, sometimes tortured, stabbed, shot, their car run off the road in the dead of night, or otherwise abused. It would be a dull story, indeed, if the bad guys wreaked their havoc and mayhem on Page Sixteen and they were all destroyed by an invulnerable heroine or hero on Page Seventeen—The End.
Next we need a couple of faithful companions, a damsel in distress—or don in distress if the context demands—and probably a car chase or two. Faithful companions might include computer geeks who hack into innumerable secret government data bases; moles inside any of these agencies; techies who can provide exploding cigars, fake passports, car reg plates that fool CCTV systems and little black boxes that display codes needed to open secure doors, and fearless investigative reporters who tell the world about the dastardly deeds.
Damsels or dons in distress might or might not have rampant sex with our heroine or hero according to the story but at some point, they are captured and threatened with horrible abuse, and sometimes subject to a little of it but not too much. They are, however, saved in the nick of time. Whether the two get together at the end of the tale or one rides off into the sunset while the other stands sadly in the open doorway again depends on the story.
Car chases are optional but fun to write and fun to read. Here reality is often suspended or at least strained: clapped-out Minis outrun high-performance BMWs and Range Rovers; wings, bonnets and boots are left crumpled and dangling but neither tyres, radiators or gearboxes are damaged beyond their abilities to function; the driving skills of the pursued far outpace those of the pursuers; the pursued always seem to know street layouts much better than those pursuing, and although many market stalls and sidewalk cafés are destroyed, none of their attendants, cute little furry animals or people walking on nearby pavements are harmed.
In some authors’ works, dead bodies abound but in mine, I limit them to a few and seldom to the point they produce bad smells in the street. Spectacular fires and exploding buildings are not often seen. I prefer to make my antagonists’ downfalls more subtle; while they sometimes die, more often they lose their ill-gained fortunes, are ostracised from their comfortable positions in society and end up alone and destitute—deserted by friends and loved-ones, shunned by their former schoolmates and expelled from their clubs, lodges or political parties.
In my work I try to create believable characters behaving in believable ways with just enough literary license to help me tell a good story. I rely on the ‘Ian Mitchell Principle’. Professor Mitchell showed me how to read great literature and enjoy it. He asks: ‘If the situation is as described in the work, does the behaviour of the characters make sense?’ I hope, always, the behaviour of my characters makes sense—well maybe not quite during car chases but otherwise.
In my political thrillers I examine the behaviour of power players and their abilities to change the directions of organisations, large businesses and political parties, to suit their aims. Sometimes power corrupts them within my story and sometimes they are corrupted before the story began. Often initially incorrupt characters are caught up in events and end up behaving badly, offering the lame excuse: ‘I was just following orders.’ I ask readers to consider whether there are options to the way my antagonists behaved—might they have chosen different paths? My aim is to move my stories beyond cardboard characters and clichéd plots; to portray persons my readers can recognize: ‘Yep – looks just like a boss I had a few years ago. Shame she didn’t meet that sticky end!’
When you think about it, my thrillers are not much different, really, from classic westerns; moved eastward across the pond, horses eliminated in favour of Minis and Range Rovers, and updated with computers, facial-recognition technology and Glock 17s.
Whether our heroines and heroes are Aspberger’s syndrome–challenged profilers, barristers, computer geeks, crime writers, defrocked police detectives, equalisers, ex-military loners, genteel elderly ladies, government sanctioned black ops assassins, OCD-suffering forensic scientists, pathologists, police detectives on assignment, police detectives on extended leave because of bad behaviour, police detectives solving cases by disobeying direct orders and thereby being regularly denied promotion, police detectives threatened with divorce because they spend too much time at work, priests, private investigators, retired gung-ho generals or admirals, retired police detectives, solicitors, spies, spooks—currently employed, spooks—retired, surgeons, wannabe police detectives or lost souls trying to understand the meaning of life, the universe and everything, we love to see the good guys prevail in the end.