The other day I started reading another Jack Reacher novel. This one is Echo Burning, the fifth in the series, which will deliver its 23rd full-length novel later this year. Of the 22 currently in the series, I have read seven. I’ve also seen both of the movies that have been adapted from the series.
Readers familiar with the series will notice right away that I didn’t say “Lee Child novel,” even though Child is the author. His protagonist is Jack Reacher, a hulking ex-Army officer who served as a military policeman before being pushed into early retirement. For the last 20 years or so, Reacher has been drifting around the country, finding himself in all manner of jams. He manages to extricate himself from them every time, but not without a close call or two or three along the way. Ask any reader of crime fiction or thrillers–these books could qualify in both genres–who is familiar with the series and they’ll identify it more quickly with Reacher than with Child. And that’s because, to Child’s credit, his creation has stood the test of time.
Reacher is one of those iconic characters of literature that stays with his creator’s readers. Modern novels, that is to say those published since the mid-20th century, almost always rely on compelling characters to carry the narrative. You could have the most thrilling concept in the world—ranging from a robbery to a kidnaping to an invasion to a nuclear exchange—but if you don’t have someone, or maybe more than just one someone, to carry the action, it loses some luster. Maybe a lot of luster. That’s because readers have to care about not just what is happening, but to whom it is happening. No reader can identify with a gun or a car or a ship or an airplane, but everyone can identify with a human being who’s involved with those inanimate objects, maybe using them, maybe being targeted by them.
As for Reacher, most men can’t really identify with him and certainly no woman truly can. The average height and weight of an American adult male is 5-10 and 180. Most men who weigh 250 are considered overweight and surely not built like Reacher is. Maybe if he’s an NFL linebacker or tight end, but not the average Joe watching those guys play on Sundays or spending time in his hammock with the latest Reacher novel.
Character is king.
Child makes this unequivocal statement in the updated foreword to his first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, published in 1997. Up until then, Lee Child was known by his real name, James D. Grant, a 42-year-old Brit who had earned a law degree but was making his living in television, working in the off-camera, technical aspect of the industry. When his job was downsized away, he turned to writing. Killing Floor takes place in 1996, with Reacher, just a few months after leaving the Army and starting his aimless drifting around the country, being arrested while sitting at a diner in a small Georgia town. He’s accused of murdering a man at a warehouse just outside of town. It doesn’t take him too long to prove his innocence, and then he joins the local detectives in helping solve the case. The murder victim, it turns out, is actually someone Reacher knows quite well. It just happened to be a coincidence that the two men were in the same town at the same time. I’m not normally a believer in the inclusion of coincidences as main plot points of a novel, but it works here, as it does in several of the novels in the series. Reacher’s familiary with the victim ratchets up the stakes nicely, and pretty soon it turns out that the impact of the murder goes way beyond the city limits.
The novel reaped many awards and prompted Grant, who by then was using his pen name, to move to New York, where he still lives with his American-born wife. It’s a good thing he’s relocated here, because Reacher is one of those quintessential American characters. In fact, he’s two of them: the soldier, and the drifter. And you might say, three: he was a military policeman, so he’s also a cop, or an ex-cop, in this case.
One of the keys to making a character resonate is to make sure he has flaws. Reacher is not perfect, by any means. He makes mistakes, sometimes coming to the wrong conclusions as he pursues a case. He is unable to maintain any sort of personal relationship, especially of the romantic kind. He hates to be tied down. In the third novel in the series, Tripline, he has everything a man might want handed to him, virtually without cost: a beautiful home, a profession, a new luxury car, even a beautiful woman who loves him. All he has to do is make the commitment. (Spoiler alert!) But by the time the next novel comes out, he has given all that up and returned to the road.
Thriller novel series are carried by the main character. It was about ten years before Child dreamed up Reacher that another iconic character of modern fiction was born. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman living in Maryland when he wrote The Hunt for Red October, introducing us to a young ex-Marine named Jack Ryan, who was working quietly for the CIA as an analyst when he deduced that the captain of a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, reported to have gone rogue, actually wanted to defect to the U.S. The novel was published in 1984 and came to life on the movie screen six years later.
Other page-to-screen adaptations of vintage thrillers have had much more mixed results than those resulting from the creations of Child and Clancy. The late Vince Flynn wrote a series of top-notch thrillers featuring CIA counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp, beginning with Transfer of Power in 1999. The last in the series actually written by Flynn, ironically titled The Last Man, was published in 2012, just a few months before Flynn’s untimely death from prostate cancer. If I recall correctly, the scene in the book where Rapp first appears includes a line that I have always thought was so good, I wish I would’ve written it: “I’m the guy they call when the shit hits the fan.” The series has been continued by another fine writer, Kyle Mills; his latest, Red War, the 17th in the Rapp series, comes out next month, and I’m looking forward to meeting Mills at a book signing scheduled for River Falls late in September.
Flynn was working on movie and TV deals to bring Rapp to life on screen, and those efforts finally culminated with the release of American Assassin in 2017, four years after Flynn’s passing. The movie is based on the book of the same name, which came out in 2010 and was the 11th in the series but actually shows Rapp at the beginning of his career. A young man tormented by the death of his fiancee at the hands of terrorists, Rapp comes to the attention of the CIA and is recruited into a secret unit of special operators. The young actor chosen to play Rapp was Dylan O’Brien, and Michael Keaton plays his trainer, ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley.
American Assassin didn’t burn up the box office, so it’s unlikely we’ll see Rapp on screen again any time soon. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. The movie and TV market has been packed with military- and espionage-themed shows in recent years, making it harder for any particular work to break out. Jack Ryan, though, has stood the test of time for more than 30 years. Although Clancy died in 2013, his work, like Flynn’s, has been carried forward by new writers. A pair of Ryan-themed books comes out every year, one of them focusing on Ryan himself, who has now become President of the United States, and the other on his son, Jack Jr., who works for a (you guessed it) top-secret anti-terror outfit called The Campus.
Another writer I’ve met and whose work I’ve enjoyed is Brad Thor. His main character is yet another special operator, this one named Scot Harvath. There are more than a few similarities between Thor’s Harvath and Flynn’s Rapp, and perhaps that’s the reason why we haven’t yet seen Harvath on the screen, although Thor says work has begun on a movie version of his debut thriller, The Lions of Lucerne. His latest entry in the Harvath series, the 17th, is Spymaster, which debuted this summer.
The novel has sold well but I noticed that some of the reviews posted on the book’s Amazon page were less than stellar, and noted Thor’s recent outspoken criticism of President Trump. In fact, Thor announced several months ago that if no other credible Republican emerges to challenge Trump for the party’s 2020 nomination, he would do it himself. When an author ventures into politics, especially in these hyper-partisan times, that can be dangerous, as he risks alienating a significant portion of his readership. I’ve noticed that Thor’s Twitter feed has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, and in fact he canceled his Spymaster book tour, citing a family emergency. Hopefully everything is okay with him. One thing’s for sure, Thor is a hard worker, cranking out a book a year, and I can tell you that’s not easy. Here’s a year-old write-up on Thor that talks about his writing process: Inside the World of Brad Thor.
In the article, Thor cites as one of his influences the writer David Morrell, whom I also know. Morrell is best-known for creating another iconic character of American fiction, John Rambo. He first appeared in Morrell’s 1972 debut novel, First Blood. The movie version, starring Sylvester Stallone, was a huge hit ten years later and has spawned four sequels. The next one, Rambo V, comes out next year.
What about female protagonists? Surely there are some out there who can challenge their male counterparts, at least in popularity. Well, that’s a tougher nut to crack. Thor wrote a well-done novel about an all-female unit of special operators, The Athena Project, in which Harvath has a cameo appearance, and Thor told me he hopes to have that book made into a film someday. It’s harder to write a female character in this genre, though, even though women have been proving themselves in the real-life military and intelligence services for years. There’s a movie coming out next month that features a kick-ass female lead, and I’m looking forward to seeing it:
Peppermint is the story of Riley North, who witnesses her husband and young daughter gunned down by a drug cartel in a drive-by shooting. She recovers from her own injuries and goes underground, training her body and mind as she prepares to exact revenge not only on the criminals, but the crooked cops and judge who failed to bring justice down upon the shooters. The film is directed by Pierre Morel, the Frenchman who brought us the 2008 thriller classic Taken, starring Liam Neeson. Morel’s involvement in the project almost guarantees a quality production, and Jennifer Garner, who plays North, developed her own action-film credentials years ago by appearing as the sai-wielding assassin Elektra in two films: Daredevil (2003), alongside her future (and now ex-) husband, Ben Affleck, and a sequel two years later featuring just her, Elektra. During that period she also starred as a CIA agent in the TV series Alias. It will be interesting to see how well Garner, at 46, carries the action required in a vigilante-themed film. I’m betting she pulls it off, and in spectacular fashion.
My first literary effort was a challenge: bringing a kick-ass female protagonist to the page. I created Jo Ann Geary, an officer in U.S. Air Force Special Operations. She’s the daughter of an American CIA officer and a Korean mother, and she’s an expert in martial arts and fluent in several languages. Her debut came in The White Vixen, set in 1981-82, and she next appears in The Red Wolf, showing her in action five years later. To model for the cover of the second novel, I asked a former taekwondo student of mine, Jenna Green, to play Jo, and she pulled it off very well indeed:
But no matter how good your character looks on the screen, he or she has to “read” well on the page first. It all comes back to what Lee Child said: “Character is king.” If your protagonist is one-dimensional, that will only carry you so far with your readers. He has to be human, someone the reader can relate to. I’m as tall as Jack Reacher (although, thankfully, not as heavy), and I can hold my own on the martial arts mat like Rapp and Harvath, but I’m not nearly as good with firearms as they are. Certainly I don’t have the biceps of Rambo (not for lack of trying, though). But once you get past the appearance and the skills and all that, what is there? What makes this guy or gal likable? Can the readers relate to him or her, even a little? If they can, that translates into books downloaded onto Kindles and seats filled in the theater. Ultimately, every author wants his readers to tell him, “I couldn’t put it down.” Then you know that your character has struck a chord.
UPDATE: Lee Child has announced he’s close to a deal for a TV series based on his iconic creation: Reacher coming to TV.
Also, Sue and I binge-watched Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon last weekend, and it’s first-rate entertainment. Krasinsky is excellent as the hero, building on the action-film chops he developed in recent movies like 13 Hours and the under-appreciated A Quiet Place. You know a military- or espionage-themed show is good when liberal media outlets criticize it, as Vanity Fair and others have done since it dropped on August 31st. The only bad thing about the series, as far as I’m concerned, is that Season 2 won’t be dropping for almost a year.