Ten years ago when I started writing novels if you asked me what genre I planned to write, I would not have said thrillers. Yet from a dozen false starts sitting on my hard drive, I picked a thriller for the first novel I tried to complete. That became The Expendable Man, which some still rate as my best story. And, what is the genre of the story I’m working on today? You guessed it––a thriller.
Thrillers are one of the most competitive genres these days in terms of sales and numbers of books published––along with romances and mysteries. Why? What is it that attracts both writers and readers to this genre? I have some ideas. Let’s see if they make any sense.
Ask yourself whether thrillers would be as popular as they are today if the world was experiencing an unprecedented era of calm and peace? You say ‘no.’ Good answer. Thrillers in some way are an antidote to the nightly newscasts that highlight the chaos taking place throughout the world. I’m not just talking about terrorist or spy novels. Domestic thrillers often have an international element to them. Perhaps the CIA mole is working for Iran or a foreign conglomerate is financing domestic bad guys.
The way I distinguish mysteries from thrillers is that the former involve an internal threat; the latter an external threat. Mysteries deal with the rotten apples in our midst; thrillers are about external enemies who seek to disrupt our ordered society.
Thriller protagonists are often different from mystery protagonists as well. Mystery protagonists have evolved from the 19th century detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, who used logic and in some cases science to discover the villain. Mystery protagonists can be little old ladies who have a hard time killing a spider. Thriller protagonists, on the other hand, are often fighters––take Lee Child’s Jack Reacher as a prime example. Yes, they use reason, but they also very often have to use force to beat back the enemy.
Mystery antagonists don’t have to be physically powerful. They just have to be cunning, secretive, manipulative, ambitious, and/or amoral. Thriller antagonists often possess physical resources––guns, bombs, and other weapons––that make them a danger to society. They also possess a ruthlessness that is anything but subtle, and they are willing to die for their cause, or, more often, send their subordinates to their deaths for their leader’s cause. With thriller antagonists, it’s a life or death struggle and your protagonist had better be ready to use any and all means to come out on top.
Certainly these are generalizations and you may know of an exception or two to my theory, but I think the overall analysis is correct. Fear of the unknown stalks modern society. We write thrillers because we want to prove to ourselves and to our readers that right will win out over might, good over evil. If the hero of a thriller has to knock off a handful of terrorists to get the job done, so be it. Readers feel better about the state of the world if the protagonist is put in a seemingly unwinnable situation with lots at stake––such as Western Civilization, but triumphs and restores the status quo.
What does it mean that I’m still writing thrillers? I guess I’d like to see more signs that the free world recognizes and has started fighting back against the threats we are facing. Until then I’ll point the way with my average Joe protagonists who put it all on the line to save the day.
- An earlier version of this essay appeared in LateLastNightBooks.com. Email me if you have a suggestion for a subject for my next column on writing.