December 7 – 13: “Are underdog characters as popular in international plots?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Everyone loves a good underdog story. Underdog characters are popular in American thrillers. This week, ITW Members Blair McDowell, Brendan P. Rielly, Toby Tate. A. J. Kerns and Steve P. Vincent discuss whether or not they are as popular in international plots?

 

 

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unbeatenAn Unbeaten Man is Brendan Rielly’s first thriller. Brendan is a member of ITW and Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and studied advanced fiction writing while attending law school. Brendan is chair of Jensen Baird’s litigation department and lives with his wife and three children in Westbrook, Maine, where he is the City Council President. Brendan is the middle of three generations of Maine authors with his father and son (as a high school senior) also published.

 

perf5.000x8.000.inddBlair McDowell spent several years as a university professor and author of six books still widely used in her field. She traveled extensively as a part of her work, studying in Hungary when it was still under the Russian boot, teaching in an Australian university, collaborating with co-authors in Iceland, researching in the South Pacific. And always she wrote.   When she retired, she turned to writing fiction. Her recently released fifth novel of romantic suspense, Where Lemons Bloom, is set on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and just two weeks before the attack she was in Paris working on her sixth, Fatal Charm. Blair is a firm believer in on-site research.

 

diableroToby Tate has been a writer since about the age of 12. Inexplicably drawn to all things dark and macabre, he began penning short stories and publishing his own movie monster magazine. An Air Force brat who never lived in one place more than five years, Toby joined the Navy soon after high school and ended up on the east coast of the U.S. He has since worked as a cab driver, a pizza delivery man, a phone solicitor, a shipyard technician, a government contractor, a retail music salesman, a bookseller, a cell phone salesman and a recording studio engineer. Owing to the inspiration of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, Toby became an author of what he likes to call “high-octane sci-fi, fantasy and horror” and has published several books.

 

nations dividedSteve P. Vincent lives with his wife in a pokey apartment in Melbourne, Australia, where he’s forced to write on the couch in front of an obnoxiously large television. When he’s not writing, Steve keeps food and flat whites on the table working for the man. He enjoys beer, whisky, sports and dreaming up ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to write about. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Political Science and History. His honours thesis was on the topic of global terrorism. He has travelled extensively through Europe, the United States and Asia.

 

africaArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. In March 2013 Diversion Books, Inc. published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract and in May 2014 the sequel, The African Contract.

 

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20 Comments
  1. At first glance this appeared to be an easy topic, but on reflection, it wasn’t. The homegrown characters in domestic thrillers are invariably semi-outcasts. Take the classic private eye: drinks too much, has a sketchy background, and his/hers love life is shaky. They have to combat villains and the corrupt establishment. However, with a code of honor, they slug on through and have a victory of sorts.
    Generally, and there are notable exceptions, international thriller heroes face evil in the form of terrorists or secret faceless organizations. Few of these protagonists come across or think of themselves as the beaten down underdog. They appear as loners who are self-assured, confident, resourceful, and clever. A similar cast of evil characters is their adversary, but on an international scale and our hero doesn’t have time to mope around thinking how life has treated them when the game is afoot.

  2. There are certainly “underdog heroes” created by international authors, who have made their way into the best-selling English language market.‎ Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one example. But I believe the underdog hero is relatively rare in European thrillers, detective stories, and mysteries. I frequently choose my books by their setting, my preference being European locales and my favorite genre, detective stories. In them I have found very few examples of the underdog hero.
    I do not distinguish in the following discussion between European born and American born writers as long as the writer lives or has lived in the locales about which they write.
    The entire oeuvre of Donna Leon, some nineteen books featuring Venetian detective Guido Brunetti, is full of dramatic tension and suspense. Her works sometimes involve characters from the seamier side of life, but I don’t believe any character in them could be classified as an “underdog”. (They are hugely popular in Europe and were turned into a German TV series.) David Hewson’s series set in Rome, features Nic Costa, a character with a decidedly dark side. At times these stores are filled with horror. Yet no important character in any of these literately written, brilliantly constructed, suspense-filled novels could be said to be an underdog. Other writers, Conor Fitzgerald, Alec Blume, M.L. Longworth and Jean-Luc Bannalac are all examples of contemporary European writers whose focus is on well-off middle class protagonists. Their detective stories involve ordinary people in France and Italy, not “underdogs”. And then there are the nineteen engaging books by Andrea Camilleri, in translation from the Italian, set in Sicily and featuring Detective Montalbano. Poverty, mystery and suspense, but no underdogs. His series has been turned into a popular TV series in Italian.
    My own romantic suspense stories are all set in places where I’ve lived and loved, the Caribbean, Delighting In Your Company, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, Romantic Road, and my new release, Where Lemons Bloom, the Amalfi Coast of Italy. None have underdog heroes.
    So no, the international writers whose works I read are not casting underdogs as heroes.
    Of course I realized we all read (and write) what we enjoy, and I’ll freely admit I did not much like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  3. Great to be with you all on the roundtable. I’m Australian, but I write thrillers set in the United States, so I’ve got a fairly good perspective I suppose. That said, I’m honestly not sure if there’s a statistical difference in the number of underdogs in American thrillers versus international ones. Australian novels in the genre certainly have their share, for example.

    To some degree, the underdog hero is almost inevitable if a plot is going to be interesting enough to sustain a novel. We need to throw fastballs at our heroes and have them overcome enormous odds if we’re to keep the reader hooked, meaning that even if our heroes are supremely talented and confident, they’re usually up against it.

    Underdog doesn’t mean incapable, though. The modern day San Antonio Spurs, while an awesome team, would still be underdogs against the Harlem Globetrotters. In a similar vein, I’d stack my protagonist – Jack Emery – up against most baddies, confident he’ll figure out a way to come out on top. He has so far, though he’s been dinged up a bit too.

    1. Hi Steve. I agree that underdog doesn’t mean incapable. Underdog heroes are certainly capable, but I think what makes them underdogs is not only the external odds they face, but their own internal limitations and challenges that they must overcome.

      1. Fair point, certainly, Brendan. Though I think some internal struggles are becoming a bit tired (the loner, the alcoholic…) they still give us a vulnerability to help round out a character. Or, in my case, ruthlessly exploit to inflict my protag with a whole lot more danger.

  4. Everyone loves an underdog, especially in international thrillers. For every James Bond, who is always super smooth, never a hair out of place, always with the best gadgets and weapons and with the courage (or chutzpah) to walk into the enemy’s lair and announce his presence (Bond, James Bond), there are a thousand damaged, beaten-up protagonists called upon to save the world.

    We want our heroes to struggle, to have made mistakes. We want to see them strain against their limitations and then burst through, if not in glory, then in grim satisfaction.

    Here are just a few of my favorite underdog heroes in no particular order There are many more. Add yours!

    1. Sophie Kohl in Olen Steinhauer’s The Cairo Affair. We meet her as she tells her husband that she had an affair. Moments later, he is shot dead. Now overcome that!
    2. Another Olen Steinhauer damaged protagonist: Milo Weaver, the sad sack, pill-popping agent in The Tourist trilogy.
    3. Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone: divorced, retired and just trying to run his bookstore in Copenhagen and, maybe, reconnect with his son, Gary.
    4. The combustible pairing of Judd Ryder and Eva Blake in The Book of Spies and The Assassins by Gayle Lynds.
    5. Could any protagonist be more damaged than the amnesiac Jason Bourne?
    6. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon just might be. A talented painter, the kind of talent that comes along once in a generation, but plagued with another talent: the ability to get a gun in firing position faster than most people can clap. One of the “boys” sent out by Israel to destroy Black September, the avenging angel, Gabriel, is so damaged by the killing he has done that he can no longer paint. He turns to restoring paintings, perhaps in an effort to restore himself, while he repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, attempts to retire from The Office.

    I had all of these, and more, in mind when I tried to craft my own damaged protagonist in An Unbeaten Man. Michael McKeon, a Bowdoin College microbiology professor, creates a microbe that consumes oil and can clean up any oil spill, but his career and life are ruined when The Global Group kidnaps his wife and adopted daughter, forcing him to weaponize the microbe and deploy it against Russia and Saudi Arabia to destroy their oil reserves and cripple their countries.

    Michael will do anything to save his wife and daughter because he already lost one family as a child. Alone and angry, Michael was a “street dog who liked to play in traffic” until he found himself at the Mission Possible Teen Center, where he met Hal, a Bowdon College professor, who would become his mentor and friend.

    As he races around the world, Michael is in hell because people die when he’s not looking and the devil likes to listen to his prayers.
    Damaged and haunted. Does it get any better than that?

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

  5. By the way, apologies to all who may be signing in. Don’t know why the Gravatar image isn’t showing up. Not that any of you need to stare at my mug when you sign on!

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  9. Sorry I’m late to the party!

    Like Frodo Baggins, the little hobbit who traveled across Middle Earth to toss a ring into Mount Doom, we’re forever rooting for the underdog, because most of the time we imagine that he, or she, is us.

    I tend to read a lot of thrillers since that is also my genre. One of my favorite protagonists is Alex Cross, the DC detective created by James Patterson. Is he an underdog? Well, he has a PhD in psychology and is pretty awesome at solving cases, well-respected by his peers, so maybe not so much. But there have been times when he has been forced to crawl through the muck and go it alone, so in those instances, then yes, he is the underdog, made that way by the circumstances at that particular time in his life.

    Another favorite is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. He’s former army, travels from place to place, never really changes character-wise, but always seems to find himself in distressing situations. I would definitely call him an underdog, although he always seems to come out on top.

    Both of these characters pretty much stay stateside, so what about international characters? One that comes to mind is Brad Thor’s creation, Scot Harvath, who is kind of the American version of James Bond—no nonsense, get the job done and get out. He’s forever going against the grain, against his superiors, against the “established” wisdom, and taking out the bad guys. He’s usually working somewhere in the Middle East. So again, even though Harvath is a trained CIA black-operative, he could be considered an underdog.

    So from what I’ve seen, underdogs are pretty evenly distributed across both national and international thrillerdom.

    In my upcoming horror/thriller, DIABLERO, I consider my characters underdogs, including the antagonist. The protagonists, a reporter and his estranged park-ranger wife, are battling supernatural forces that they can’t possibly overcome, yet they must, or the world is doomed. The antagonist himself is merely a vessel for this supernatural force and is at its mercy unless he can find a way to fight it.

    It’s like I said—we root for the underdog because most of the time the underdog is us. We want to see ourselves in his/her shoes overcoming the forces of evil and being the heroes. Or the villains. Either way, we’re in for a rollicking good time!

  10. In reading the discussions by the rest of you I’ve realized my interpretation of “underdog hero” has been a bit narrow. I think my principal character in Where Lemons Bloom,a man who spent 5 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, would qualify. An interesting thought. The underdog doesn’t have to come from the dregs of society. He/she can be anyone in an untenable position. Puts it in a new light for me. thanks.

  11. Hi Blair. I also struggled with how to define “underdog.” I think you’re right,that they don’t necessarily have to be completely marginalized, but they need to struggle against external odds and against internal limitations or challenges.

    1. Brendan– I went on my Kindle to find An Unbeaten Man–it sounds intriguing –but couldn’t find it. How do I get it? Your protagonist sounds like the quintessential underdog.
      Blair

      1. Hi Blair. It’s available on Amazon as well as at a lot of local bookstores. It’s in hardcover and not yet in e-book. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608935876/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0E1RQ3T5SKANPG3B6QSV&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

        Or on Amazon, you can search my name. Make sure you spell Rielly correctly.

        I’ve just ordered Where Lemons Bloom! We’ve visited Lake Como, but never been to the Amalfi Coast, although it’s a target destination for us. Can’t wait to visit it through your writing!

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