After reading a great thriller, you put it down with a sigh and marvel at the mind of the protagonist, the character whose victories and defeats have held you in enthralled for the best part of a day or two.
You also wonder about the mind of the person who created such a character—how did the author do it? What thoughts led the author to create protagonists with such delicious traits, intriguing mannerisms, and indomitable wills?
In this edition of The Big Thrill, we have the rare privilege to peek into the minds of fabulous authors with their latest smash-hit books—and the protagonists we can’t get enough of. To each of them, we asked this question:
“Would you and your main character from your latest novel get along? If you spent a day together, what activity would it be on?“
Here are their wonderfully honest, very personal responses.
As soon as I meet Lily Kintner I’ll think, “Hmm, it’s as though I created her myself.” Then we’ll spend some time together, have a couple of cocktails, talk about literature, and it will turn out that she’s much smarter than me, much more at ease in her skin, far more complex.
She’ll lose interest in my company, but I will become obsessed and begin to pry into her life from afar, eventually discovering that she has left a wake of bodies behind her—accidental deaths, unsolved murders, suspicious disappearances. During the course of my research, it will somehow get back to Lily that I’m trying to discover her secrets.
And that’s why my last moment on earth will be looking up at Lily as I bleed out from some ghastly wound. She will look back at me the way someone might consider a dying insect on the ground—a little bit of sympathy, but mostly just a morbid interest. Then she will walk away, and before I take my last breath, I’ll think how strange it is that I’ve been murdered by my own creation, all because I agreed to spend a day with her.
Peter Swanson is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of eight previous novels, including his latest, THE KIND WORTH KILLING. His books have been translated into 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, The Guardian (UK), The Strand Magazine, and Yankee magazine. He lives outside of Boston, where he is at work on his next novel.
I’d probably meet Lyndsey Duncan, the protagonist of RED LONDON, at one of the restaurants in McLean, Virginia, where CIA people go for drinks or dinner. She’d give me a polite but no-nonsense smile as she slips into her seat and orders a glass of house red.
It’s not easy extracting information from a spy and Lyndsey is particularly good at thinking on her feet. She wouldn’t want me to ask how the career’s going, as she has serious doubts, but I don’t think she’d welcome questions about her love life, either—particularly if there’s any chemistry with her Russian asset, Dmitri Tarasenko. But then, like any good case officer she’d probably deflect all my probes, and on reflection later, I’d see that I’d learned nothing though it felt, at the time, like she was being forthcoming.
Alma Katsu is an award-winning author whose books have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, and appeared on numerous Best Books lists including Amazon, Apple, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble. RED LONDON is the second book in her Lyndsey Duncan spy series. Red Widow, the first, was nominated for Best Hardcover by International Thriller Writers.
Author: E. A. Aymar
Book: NO HOME FOR KILLERS
Character: Emily Peña
No Home for Killers shifts between two character POVs – one is a burnt-out social worker who sees the good in people, and the other is a ruthless secret vigilante. So, OBVIOUSLY, let’s go with the vigilante.
It’s hard to imagine Emily Peña (the vigilante known as Three Strikes in No Home for Killers) finding me that interesting. She’s cool and carefree and cheerfully psychopathic, and I’m just some middle-aged dude who’s really into Christmas decorations. She’d talk about the nuances of Filipino stick fighting and how she’s considering dying her hair silver or something, and I’d want to talk about how much I liked the last season of Succession. We’d probably settle on a day of lounging on the couch and watching TV, but wouldn’t find a show to agree on, and then I’d be overcome by worries that she didn’t think I’m cool and I’d spiral into making awkward jokes that don’t land. Very distressing.
Anthony Award-nominated E.A. Aymar’s most recent thriller, NO HOME FOR KILLERS, received praise from the New York Times, Kirkus, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and was an instant Amazon Bestseller. His previous thriller, THEY’RE GONE, was published to rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus (starred), and named one of the best books of 2020 by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He runs the DC Noir at the Bar series, was born in Panama and now lives and writes in, and generally about, the DC/MD/VA triangle.
This is such a diabolical question. Because the instant response is so obvious –of course my main character and I would get along. But…would we?
If I’d met Alyssa Macallen before the book, in a swanky country club, or at the gym, or shopping in some upscale store, I would probably instantly categorize her as a super-privileged, unsympathetic, world-ignoring…well, simply someone who was not in my philosophical orbit.
But part of the theme of THE HOUSE GUEST is pretense. Façades. And how who we really are may be hidden beneath a carefully-created exterior. Also that first impressions can be powerful–for better or for worse. And, even more important in psychological suspense, that certain people can use those first impressions, too. On purpose. To get what they want.
If I actually sat and talked to Alyssa, over a glass of wine (as this vulnerable woman is wont to do), I might have learned a lot about her.
I might learn that she is compassionate, and concerned with justice, And trying to do the best she can. I would learn that even though she had a hardscrabble upbringing, that in law school she fell madly in love with someone, and he just happened to be very wealthy. And powerful. And made her life very comfortable.
Except. She’s asked him, for instance, ‘how much is a gallon of milk?’ And his answer surprised her, and concerned her. He never asks why there are always fresh flowers in their home, or how the toilet paper roll gets filled, or that the fluffy bathroom towels are rolled, gorgeously, and tied in a ribbon. It’s just… how it’s always been for affluent Bill. But even after eight years of marriage, security and love are still new to Alyssa.
So what if I’d met her, let’s say, as we do in Chapter 1, right after Bill has walked out? He’s dumped her, unceremoniously, and, without explanation, pulled the rug out from under her. He’s left her alone, uncertain, and bereft. And terrified. What if she told me she knows her soon to be ex-husband is sneaking into their house when he’s not supposed to? And, actually, maybe trying to ruin her? Would I like her then? Or be a bit more sympathetic? Would we get along? I would certainly be curious, that’s all I can say. Maybe she’d remind me that people are not always what they seem on the outside. And that would be a good and valuable lesson. Especially when I realize what’s about to happen to her.
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the USA Today bestselling author of 14 psychological thrillers, winning the genre’s most prestigious awards: five Agathas, five Anthonys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She’s also investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, winning 37 EMMYs. National book reviewers call her “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her newest is the page-turning standalone THE HOUSE GUEST – a story of psychological manipulation exploring the dark heart of marriage and friendship—it’s Gaslight meets Thelma & Louise! Publishers Weekly says, “Ryan is a master of suspense!” and the Library Journal starred review calls it “Binge-worthy.”
Who is one of the most memorable characters in the crime novels and thrillers you’ve read? Why? Which crime authors would you like to hear from as they speak about spending a day with their protagonists?
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