These days many thrillers have protagonists who, if you stand back for a moment, are only marginally better than the people they are hunting down or trying to escape from. This is particularly the case when they are cold-blooded killers. Most of us as readers would never dream of killing anyone, and wouldn’t hang out with killers. As an example, if you were in a tight and dangerous spot, you’d be forgiven for wanting Jack Reacher on your side. But if things were going just fine, I’m not sure you’d want him to come babysit your kids every Thursday…
As a writer the trick is to make such characters ‘sympathetic’. This is writing jargon for ‘likeable’, or at the least, forgivable. It means you can relate to, or admire, or simply respect something about the character, which means you care what happens to them. Don’t care = stop reading.
Take Jack Reacher, for example. On the one hand, once he gets going, he’s a lethal killing machine. But on the other hand he can be very respectful and non-judgmental with ordinary people, and absolutely a gentleman with women, never assuming anything, never taking advantage. He is also entirely self-reliant, and never blames others for his misfortunes.
For my own protagonist, Nadia, I was inspired by Stieg Larsson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo, and his world-famous female protagonist Lisbeth Salander. But I wanted to explore Nadia’s transition from normal country Russian girl, to killer, while still keeping her sympathetic. In the first book, during the prologue, she is trapped into working for a gangster, Kadinsky, and from that point on, she finds herself in increasingly dangerous situations where the easiest way out is to kill, the one thing she does not want to do. At the very end of the book, she accepts her fate, and having crossed that line in order to save her sister, is promptly thrown into a secret prison.
So, at the beginning of book 2, I needed to do two things: introduce her, and make her sympathetic, even though she is now a killer. I employed 5 rules, based on everything I’d ever read about hard-nosed heroes who had a dark side:
1. Make her fiercely independent
2. Make the odds stack up against her
3. Don’t let her blame others for what has happened
4. In the event of a ‘fight or flight’ situation, she always chooses fight
5. Show the reader how she can nevertheless be fragile
I then wrote the following short scene where we first meet Nadia, at the beginning of the novel 37 Hours:
Nadia heard the familiar rattles and clanks down the corridor. Steel bar gates unlocked, opened, locked again. Distant footsteps. Coming her way. She stopped her third round of push-ups and sat back on the wooden bench in the cell she’d barely left in almost two years. No visitors, no phone calls, no internet, no television, no papers. Books occasionally, classics. Minimal human contact.
They kept her in the dark, because they still weren’t convinced she’d given up all her secrets, and had classified her ‘need to know’ status as zero. They kept her hidden, afraid she’d talk about the Rose, and shame the British government over what it had created and almost let loose on its own kingdom. Afraid she’d let the public know they’d narrowly dodged a nuclear war with Russia. The government could invoke plausible deniability. Just another foiled conspiracy. But it wasn’t over. Cheng Yi was dead, but the unknown client was still out there. The threat was still real.
He would try again.
Maybe they’d keep her there for good. She’d killed two people. The world was better off without them, but British justice took a dim view of unlawful killing. British justice… She’d not seen a lawyer, nor been charged as far as she was aware. No visitors. She tried not to reopen that particular can of tarantulas; it never helped.
In the first six months, the thought of someone visiting her, Jake, maybe, or Katya, kept her going. But after a year the pain became unbearable. Nobody came. Nobody cared. And so she worked out, she read, and the rest were just bodily functions. She often sang the Cossack lullaby before lights out, just to practise using her voice, and to reach out to her older sister who used to sing it to her when they were young, soothing her while their parents screamed at each other downstairs. Nadia prayed Katya was all right, and comforted herself that above all, Katya was a survivor.
The sounds drew nearer, the telltale rattle of iron keys on a large ring. She knew the routine. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a mouldy towel, and stood to attention at the end of her cot, next to the washbasin. No mirror, no glass anywhere, a metal sink and lavatory in the corner. Light filtered through the misted glass and steel bars. She faced the solid metal door. Maybe she’d get coffee today. It would be cold, but that didn’t matter.
Footsteps grew closer. Two sets, not one. Another routine medical inspection? There hadn’t been an interrogation for months. Jake’s ice-bitch ex-lover and current boss, Lorne, had come regularly in the first nine months, until she could extract nothing new. Initially Nadia had played tough, until Lorne showed her photos of Ben’s funeral – the man who had helped her so much in the Scillies, yet asked for nothing in return – whereupon she’d cracked and told Jake’s MI6 handler everything she knew.
Lorne informed Nadia she would receive no visitors, because no one knew where she was: some British military high-security facility. Probably not even on the books. Nadia doubted anyone would visit even if they did know, after what had happened back in the Isles of Scilly. Unless it was to spit in her face, something she’d welcome after two years of solitary. But Jake must have known, and yet he never came. That was a kick in the stomach. And inevitably, she’d become angry. Now, after two years, it had cemented into a deep resentment. She might just lash out at the first unfortunate soul who came to see her.
The footsteps stopped right outside the door. A double-clank as the deadbolts retracted. A small scratchy noise as someone slid the latch and peered through the glass eyehole. The door didn’t open. Nadia stayed absolutely still. Come on, you bastards, give me my bloody breakfast! The routines of each day were sacrosanct, propping up her sanity. Still the door didn’t open. Voices, muffled, she couldn’t make anything out. A high-pitched cry, female, stifled.
Nadia was suddenly gripped by panic. What if they were going to kill her? Take her outside, shoot her and bury her? Nobody would know; no one would care. She clenched her teeth and fists, suppressed the fear. This was England, not Russia. But her arms and legs tensed like coiled springs, just in case.
The heavy door swung open slowly. She smelled her sister Katya before she saw her, the perfume she knew so well. Katya walked around the door, into full view, tears sliding down her cheeks as she held out her arms.
‘God, Nadia, I’m sorry it took so long.’
But Nadia was already in her arms, squeezing her, gripping her, two years of pent-up emotions erupting. The anger fled, chased away by a deluge of relief. She shook so much she couldn’t speak. Katya whispered soothing noises while the guard waited patiently. Nadia’s face was wet, like the rain she hadn’t felt in two years. She gathered herself, knowing this visit would be kept short. She wiped her eyes and cheeks, and spoke to her sister urgently, taking in every line of her face, details she might have to remember and savour for another two years.
‘How long can you stay?’ Nadia asked. ‘How long have we got?’
Katya bit her lip then pulled Nadia’s face tight to her chest, struggling to get the words out. ‘Time to come home, my Cossack,’ she said.
Nadia’s legs gave way.