October 2 – 8: “Are some careers more suitable for characters in thrillers than others?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Are some careers more suitable for characters in thrillers than others? That’s the question facing ITW Members Andrew Mayne, Bob Bickford, J. J. Hensley, John Mangan, Neil S. Plakcy, Linda Stasi and Gordon Brown this week. Scroll down to the “comments” to follow what is sure to be a thrilling discussion!

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J.J. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He the author of the crime novels BOLT ACTION REMEDY, RESOLVE, MEASURE TWICE, CHALK’S OUTLINE, and several short stories. RESOLVE was a Thriller Award Finalist in 2014.

 

 

When he was little, Bob Bickford haunted the library. He hunted for good stories, got lost in pages, and daydreamed about becoming a writer. When he got older, real life got in the way. The dream was filed under ‘impossible things’, and nearly forgotten. After years spent in various corners of the United States and Canada, he dusted off his imagination and became a writer-by-night. He hunts for good stories once again, and he still haunts the library.

 

Lt. Col (R) John Mangan is a decorated combat rescue pilot, novelist and coffeehouse poet. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, was an instructor at the Survival Escape Resistance & Evasion (SERE) school, and was an HH-60G, Pave Hawk instructor pilot. He has deployed to the Middle East eight times and has commanded the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His actions in combat have been documented in the books Not a Good Day to Die, None Braver, and Zero Six Bravo. He has flown combat missions with PJs, SEALs, Delta, Rangers, and the SAS. John has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor twice, The Air Medal twelve times, and the 2009 Cheney Award.

 

Neil S. Plakcy has written or edited over three dozen novels and short stories in mystery, romance and erotica. To research the Angus Green series, he participated in the FBI’s sixteen-week citizen’s academy, practiced at a shooting range, and visited numerous gay bars in Fort Lauderdale. (Seriously, it was research.) He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, and has been a construction manager, a computer game producer, and a web developer – all experiences he uses in his fiction.

 

Gordon Brown lives in Scotland. He has delivered pizzas in Toronto, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival, floated a high-tech company on the stock market and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final. Today, Gordon also runs a creativity training business called Brain Juice and is a DJ on local radio. Gordon helped found Bloody Scotland—Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival—and has been writing since his teens. He has five crime and thriller novels to his name.

 

Linda Stasi, the popular and well-read columnist for the New York Daily News, and previously for the New York Post, has also been an on-camera TV co-host with Mark Simone for the past 18 years on NY 1 – Spectrum’s “What a Week!” She was named “One of the Fifty Most Powerful Women in NYC” and has won numerous awards. She is a two-time winner of Best Column by the Newswomen’s Club of NY, Best Humor Columnist, and named Woman of the Year by the Boys Town of Italy for her charitable work such as driving a tractor-trailer in an 18-truck convoy from NYC to the gulf states with hurricane relief supplies.

 

Andrew Mayne is the star of A&E’s Don’t Trust Andrew Mayne, and he’s performed his unique brand of illusion on five continents, his YouTube videos have millions of views and he’s cultivated thousands of fans for his magic, books and podcasts calling themselves ‘Mayniacs’. Beyond magic, Andrew Mayne is also the author of five bestselling mystery and thriller books. His recent thriller, Angel Killer, the story of a female FBI agent with a background magic, was the fifth best selling independent novel in the United Kingdom in 2012. His podcast, Weird Things is also one of the top science and nature podcasts on iTunes.

 

 

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27 Comments
  1. Thanks for having me as part of this roundtable discussion. I find this question to be an interesting one, as I think any career is “suitable” for characters in a thriller. However, having a protagonist who is not in law enforcement presents certain challenges. When the main characters carry a badge, they have legitimate access to vital information, weapons, and there is an expectation the actors have expertise in training in certain areas. When your protagonist isn’t affiliated with law enforcement then not only do you have to be inventive with how they obtain various resources, but then you may have to decide what role law enforcement will play in the book.

    Quite often, writers portray police as incompetent, apathetic, or corrupt as a way to give the main character a reason to investigate or to keep the character on the run. It’s completely understandable. Since I have a bit of a background in law enforcement, I try to avoid those characterizations, but doing so makes it easy to write yourself into a corner.

  2. I think anyone in an unusual situation can be central to a thriller. An architect who works from home could suddenly realize her client’s source of funding is a bit suspect… A kindergartner teacher notices that a child is missing and nobody cares… A cashier gets passed a counterfeit bill and the police blame her…

    However, when it comes to procedurals, where a character keeps finding themselves in these situations and you want the reason to be something other than having the worst luck in the world, I think you want an occupation or pursuit that believably lends to these kinds of situations. In my Jessica Blackwood stories, Jessica works for the FBI and naturally finds herself in the middle of unsolved crimes. With Theo Cray and The Naturalist series, Theo, a scientist, isn’t a criminal investigator at the start of the series, but realizes that he has a penchant for finding crimes that nobody else is aware of and ends up sought after by both government agencies and individuals for his expertise.

    Beyond the situation or occupation that leads to a character being in a thriller, having a particular knowledge set that allows for them to solve their conflicts in an unusual way is also important for me. My theoretical architect would end up trying to resolve her conflict by using what makes her special as an architect. The same goes for the cashier. I want to know how that person resolves the conflict and not just some random person.

    1. I think Andrew makes a great point. When a character can use a special talent or skill set (architect, banker, etc.) to investigate a crime then it makes the character more compelling. And who doesn’t love learning something he/she may not know while reading a mystery or thriller?

      1. I spend a lot of time on the phone with my brother (an FBI agent) and my father (retired ATF who was a Sky Marshal, National Response Team and did Secret Service details) getting information from them. Both were police officers as well with so many useful things for me to absorb.

  3. Any career that allows a story to walk in the door first thing in the morning works well, but the ones that insist on involvement work best. All sorts of people go to work and run into stories—bartenders, psychotherapists, waiters, hotel doormen, pastors—but their participation is constrained by the job definition. A priest shouldn’t get into a gunfight. On the other hand, policemen and government agents see stories and are expected to get involved, but the nature of those stories is likewise limited. A federal agent won’t likely be asked to investigate a broken heart.

    The best careers are those where stories walk in as soon as the “open” sign is turned on, but the types of stories and the ability to follow them isn’t limited by the job OR by the protagonist’s skill set.

    Lee Child’s Reacher is a good example—a nomad who might run into anything at all in a Greyhound station, but has a military background to rely on. Randy Wayne White’s own Doc Ford was a lot more fun when he was just a marine biologist with troublesome friends, than when he was revealed as a super-secret government agent. John D. Macdonald might have done it best, with Travis McGee, the boat bum who was good at finding stolen things, with no background that we ever knew about to support it. He had no badge or license or training; just the knack.

    It might be why the lone private detective and the small town Western sheriff have endured so well. They have jobs that invite in trouble, but they seldom have any background support or resources that make dealing with it easy. We root for them.

    1. How far do you think authors should expect readers to take their suspension of disbelief when it comes to non-law enforcement characters repeatedly running into trouble? For instance: Jack Reacher ALWAYS finds trouble, but the books are so well written nobody minds that a drifter keeps ending up entangled in mysteries.

  4. I agree with what’s been said so far — that those with a career in law enforcement are the best candidates for a thriller.

    In order for a non-LEO character to be believable, he or she has to have some skill at either eluding, tracking or neutralizing the villain. You can certainly have a suburban mom as the heroine of a thriller retrieving her kidnapped child– but she has to have something in her background to draw on.

    For example, let’s say that to defend herself against bullies as a kid, she studied martial arts, giving her some background in self-defense. Or she’s a runner, she knows the area like the back of her hand, etc.

    In my golden retriever mysteries, my hero is a somewhat reformed computer hacker, who uses his online skills to investigate.

  5. Post on behalf on author Linda Stasi

    The simple answer is no. You don’t have to be an international spy, big city cop or even an investigative reporter to be the protagonist or any character in thriller. Now I’m not talking about the bad guy—that person is always present.
    I’m talking about the protagonist here.
    I believe anyone from anywhere can find him/herself embroiled in terror—and anyone from anywhere can figure out how to fight it: The young mom being stalked, the smart IT grad with a jealous co-worker, the accountant who finds that the giant corporation she works for is involved in international arms trading, the store clerk whose identity is stolen, discovers that crimes are being committed in his/her name—all these everyday people can become great characters in a thriller despite not having the professional training to fight such nightmares.
    In fact, it’s often the people least prepared to fight the unknown terrorist or stalker that will make the best of characters.
    Remember, we live in a world increasingly filled with everyday terror—from foreign, domestic and just plain crazy people. On the other hand, because of the Internet, we now have, at our disposal investigative tools that regular Joes never had before.
    So, no, you don’t have to be an international spy, big city cop or even an investigative reporter to be the protagonist or any character in a truly thrilling thriller.

    Linda Stasi,
    Columnist, New York Daily News
    Author: Book of Judas, The Sixth Station

    1. I absolutely agree with what Linda wrote, especially this:

      “In fact, it’s often the people least prepared to fight the unknown terrorist or stalker that will make the best of characters.”

      I think it just takes some work to make it feasible. When a baker ends up chasing down leads, it has to be believable and there has to be a reason the police are not taking the lead. Quite often we make the protagonist a suspect who can’t go to the police. I find it more enjoyable when the police are involved, but the protagonist (for whatever reason) has to work in parallel to those efforts.

  6. I might be a living example of Linda’s view that ‘I believe anyone from anywhere can find him/herself embroiled in terror…’ after all my main protagonist has a career that doesn’t play to the stereotypical world of crime. For reasons, that still make little sense to me, I chose an accountant. Not even a big-time accountant that might be involved in some international fraud or the CFO of some criminal infested multi-national. He’s simply an unassuming accountant who is, more often than not, in the wrong place at the wrong time – and, to be fair, he was originally destined for a single outing (it was the first book I ever had published). The fact that he’s made it into a second book is because I find it interesting, and hopefully so do the readers, to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations. AS J.J. points out you need to write well to achieve that suspension of disbelief that’s required to place an ‘ordinary’ member of the public into dangerous scenarios time after time. That can be a challenge.
    I’m part of a collective of four authors who have been touring for the last eighteen months. Inevitably our audiences ask about character and we point out that crime novels (I write crime and thriller – although the distinction is often blurred in my head) have as broad a church of any genre we know with no end to the diversity of backgrounds and careers of the protagonists.
    Saying that it’s clear to see why a police based procedural makes more sense with a police officer at the heart. Or why an ex-army special ops soldier, as a lone wolf, works. As Andrew says the reader wants to know how the character resolves the situation – but within the bounds of the character’s abilities. I can’t make my accountant a kick ass martial arts guru – it closes too many doors for me. It’s far more interesting trying to get him to dig his way out of trouble when his world is normally ledgers and balance sheets.
    As a thought, it’s fun to flip this question and ask ‘What career would be most suitable before becoming a writer?’ I’ve just looked through the bios of everyone here and the answer to my own question would seem to be ‘any career.’

    1. Most physicians in practice encounter and deal with a wide range of human drama and emotions almost on a daily basis, and are well positioned to write thrillers although expertise in scientific writing doesn’t help to write a good thriller. Several physician authors have been quite successful including Cook, Palmer, Gerritsen, and Crichton. My specialty is infectious diseases and my focus is on writing ID – related thrillers. “Yellow Death” was the first and two more are in the works. Given the tremendous variety of dangerous microbes out there already, there is no lack of raw material to construct thrillers in my sub-genre.

      I do see it as difficult to write a thriller series with an ordinary citizen in a mundane occupation as protagonist. It’s doable as a one-shot wonder but I can’t see that type of protagonist coming up with a series of MacGuffins leading to trouble going from bad to worse and then coming out unscathed without major help or a skill set that doesn’t match up with their primary day job. My series protagonist is a CDC trained infectious disease specialist who is a tough smart medical detective. Her interest in public health leads her to investigate and follow up on various infectious diseases. As a result of her near death experience in the first novel, she has a gun and has learned to use it. Even then, she’ll have occasional accomplices to help out a bit in the next five novels I have planned.

      One of the ways to make things go from bad to worse in a thriller is to isolate the protagonist from standard back up support such as military firepower, police task force, team of CDC epidemiologists, etc. The protagonist then has to face the evil alone for the final battle. “Silence of the Lambs is a great example. Again, I just don’t see how an ordinary citizen could logically do that consistently in a series without special skills or ongoing accomplices. Even the Lone Ranger ( a trained Texas Ranger) had Tonto!

  7. I will say I’ve come across some books in which a person with a normal career (corporate attorney, bus driver, etc.) and has a normal background ends up in a dangerous situation and all the sudden displays the skills one would find in a Special Forces soldier or in a tactical law enforcement unit. I think it’s wise to avoid giving those attributes to someone outside of that lane. We can only expect readers to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. 🙂

    1. I usually avoid this because of what I call the ‘handbrake’ moment. That point in a novel where the reader stops, looks up and says ‘What?’ – and puts the book down to never pick it up again. In truth all the characters in novels often achieve the extraordinary or, as thrillers, the book would be dull.
      On suspending disbelief, years ago I went to the cinema with my mother to see Jurassic Park – after it I asked her what she thought. she paused, gave it some consideration, and said – ‘That bit where the velociraptor opened the door in the complex. That’s not believable.’ In other words using frog DNA and mosquito blood from millions of years ago is ok – but not dinosaurs opening doors.

  8. To anyone: What kind of research have you had to conduct for one of your protagonists? For instance, have you had a character who worked as a mechanic, so you had to interview or read about mechanics?

  9. I tend to write characters in professions and with skills I know about because I could never bring off a convincing military, spy or police expert. I just don’t have access to that information.

    I’ve had to look up a bit about shotguns for one bad guy and a .22 rifle for the current one. Because I set my stories in Australia and write about women in frightening domestic situations guns rarely get a mention.

    When I needed info about stab wounds I asked on my writer’s group loop. One kind lady responded and shocked me with her story about being stabbed multiple times by her now ex partner.

    And, as an aside, for one of my early romances I researched the effects mobile phones have on your brain–basically they microwave it, apparently.

    1. At a crime writers lunch in Glasgow, snow thick on the ground, a gritting truck (salting truck in the US – I think) – went by. One of the writers wondered if you placed a body in the back would the spreading mechanism cut up the corpse and spread it over the the road. Another writer picked up her cell and called a friend who worked in the local council, who in turn called some in the roads/highway department. The message she got back was that it wasn’t possible, as the mechanism was not strong enough. However it did make me wonder if ever, sometime in the future, a body was found in one of the trucks that someone deep in the local authority would stand up and say ‘Eh, we had a call about just such a thing a few weeks ago.’

  10. As previously stated, a protagonist’s career can provide either rare skill sets, or unfortunate circumstances (the accountant/architect). What seems to have been overlooked is how the career will affect a reader’s attachment to your protagonist. Exotic secret agents can be imbued with near supernatural powers and have military grade resources at their disposal, but can a reader really relate to that person? The author’s challenge then is to make the exotic agent relatable, relevant and likable. Conversely, by making your protagonist an everyday Joe you make it that much easier for a reader to relate to their struggles and hence become invested in them.

    Mr Bickford said that a priest shouldn’t get into a gun fight. I agree, but think that the statement needs to be expanded: A priest can get caught up in a gun fight, but he shouldn’t solve it with a gun of his own. Having created this situation, the author’s then faces the difficult challenge of inventing a believable non-shooting solution.

    Ultimately, I think that the career choice will be determined by what kind of world the author intends for their protagonist to inhabit as it will dramatically affect dialogue, environment, conflict resolution methods and the cast of supporting characters.

    1. I like the point about making the character’s skill set something the reader may be able to relate to. I know I’ve read some novels involving computer hacking and high finance and those aspects need to be spelled out for me since those are not my fields of expertise. Conversely, I have to be careful in my own writing not to assume the reader will understand law enforcement terminology and acronyms.

  11. It’s interesting because i have been the target of stalkers, (I’m visible because I’m a newspaper columnist). The last stalker was an ex-marine who became an accountant — as is Gordon’s character. My stalker might have chosen a profession that is normally considered meek and mild, but when he decided to start stalking me, it was as terrifying as if he’d been a professional spy. Another time I was stalked by a man with diplomatic immunity. Now THAT was a tough one. I wasn’t a newspaper columnist at the time–just a freelance writer with a child. But I found a way to defeat him even though the cops could do nothing to help me.

    1. That sounds horrific. Yet the truth is that often what happens out there, in the real world, is far more extraordinary than fiction. I’ve often said that if I wrote about some of things that have happened in reality, some readers would dismiss it as too far fetched.

  12. I have, especially for short stories, used careers as a shortcut to position the narrative e.g. corrupt city trader but then dismissed their back story – in the same way that I know my friends jobs but they never really come into the conversation (unless they’ve had a crap day or something monumental has happened). I wonder how far you could push this. Astronaut, Chief Happiness Officer, Antarctic Explorer – and then just ignore it. I might try that and see what reaction it gets.

  13. Write what you know has been my guiding light as an investigative journalist and author. So take this real life situation: An 84-year old nun arrested and jailed in a high security federal MEN’s prison in Brooklyn, NY (the 60 female prisoners were kept in one room without access to natural light 24/7. Her crime?) Breaking into a nuclear facility to show how vulnerable our nuclear facilities are. How much more of a non-typical thriller character could there be than an aged nun? But it’s true, Sister Megan Rice broke into a nuclear facility at age 81, and waited to be arrested with little fanfare because the government was ashamed of its lack of security. If an octogenarian nun could break into a nuclear facility in Nevada, how hard would it be for a terrorist or foreign agent? i got into the jail where she was housed by using an old married name (my real name was rejected because of my journalistic background), and wrote her story. It created such an outrage that she was released.

    1. When I did a prison reading I was amazed at how hard it was be to tell anyone’s background. When I did ask the variation in jobs was wide. In real life it would seem (obvious statement) that anyone can be a criminal – which says something about the question we are discussing.

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