These are the last of my notes from a ThrillerFest panel. The participants discussed spy fiction (in a very general sense) and then branched out from there to talk about writing and other things. Sitting on the panel were Joseph Finder, Barry Eisler, Gayle Lynds, Raymond Benson, Grand Blackwood and moderator Leslie Silbert.
(Note: I didn't take any notes on the discussion of spy fiction. What I wrote down was mostly writing craft stuff, which is what I'm including here.)
Barry Eisler (on the subject of violence): He writes about characters who excel at violence -- but people who excel at violence have troubled lives. They're not normal people and they're incapable of leading normal lives. So someone like John Rain, who is so adept in one area (i.e., violence), is basically inept when it comes to such basic things as sustaining a relationship with another person. Violence takes its toll on people like him and it's interesting to show that in fiction.
Gayle Lynds (on writing larger-than-life characters): Give the heroes flaws so that they don't become superheroes, and give the villains good qualities so that the reader can understand their motivations, if not actually empathize with them. The key is the make the characters three-dimensional. They can't just be cardboard cut-outs or the audience is going to lose interest. You should work just as hard at developing your villains as you do your heroes. Your protagonist must have a worthy antagonist in order to get the most out of your story.
Joseph Finder (on the kind of characters he likes to write): An everyman character who gets caught up in events that spiral out of control and take over his life. Finder likes to see how his character -- who's basically an ordinary guy -- reacts; how he behaves in that situation. Thriller readers want to read about experts; people who know what they're doing, who have extraordinary abilities -- but who are still ordinary people. So the trick is to make your hero(ine) exciting while not making them unbelievable.
Gayle Lynds: We often see stories that are "ripped from today's headlines." But what's most interesting is to take those stories and then put a fresh twist on them. If people are reading a story in the newspaper, chances are they're already familiar with it, if not tired of it. So why would they want to read it in a novel? So use that idea as a launching point to create something new and different of your own.
Barry Eisler: Your protagonist might do bad things, but by peeking into their heads -- knowing their goals and motivations -- the reader can understand their behavior. This makes the character realer and more accessible. The same can also be true of the antagonist. The reader needs to understand why the villain is doing what he's doing in order to make him an intriguing adversary.
Joseph Finder: The old saying is that "truth is stranger than fiction" -- but fiction had better be more exciting. Thrillers focus on the most exciting characters, in the most exciting circumstances, doing the most exciting things.
Grant Blackwood: The reader needs to understand the antagonist's motivation. By understanding the actions of the villains, by getting a peek behind the curtain, the reader's interest in the story will increase, as will the dramatic tension.
Joseph Finder: The "ticking bomb" makes for a great plot device -- a great MacGuffin as Hitchcock used to say. But in order for the reader to care about that scenario, the story must have compelling characters. The characters are what matter most of all. The fact that a bomb is going to explode in New York City isn't very exciting unless the hero(ine) knows it's going to happen. It's by seeing the scenario through their eyes that the reader becomes invested in the story.
Panel Question: What one thing does a thriller need?
Barry Eisler: Thrills.
Joseph Finder: A character you care about.
Gayle Lynds: Structure.
Barry Eisler: And sex.
Grant Blackwood: Larger than life characters.
Raymond Benson: Pace; forward momentum.