What we get wrong in political thrillers is the same thing we get wrong in real life —
We tend to oversimplify antagonists.
For the protagonist, every writer asks, who is she? what does she want, and why can’t she get it? Part of the writer’s craft is to artfully reveal details that make the main character(s) feel rounded.
But what does the antagonist want–and why?
My recent thriller, Emergency Powers, takes seriously those questions, delves into who the bad guys are–so much so that one reader said he almost began rooting for one of them.
He didn’t think that was a bad thing, and neither do I. You don’t have to agree with- or root for them. But reader and writer should at least understand who the bad guys are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
My thrillers – Faithless Elector, Dark Network and the new Emergency Powers – have been called prescient, seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines (or, rather, anticipating them). One of the reasons is that I looked not only at the driven, conflicted protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, but at what the bad guys wanted; how they might get it—and what it would take to stop them. If possible.
That impulse forced me to think like them, to consider how they might go about staging a coup. I had to consider which tools were at hand, which key institutions and offices could be undermined, corrupted or hollowed out. And as I worked on the second draft, I stumbled onto things I had written that were really happening. (I should say that I never saw the Jan. 6 capitol riot coming; and even if I had my editor would have axed it as too far-fetched.)
But I did see that a pliant, corrupt Attorney General would be the key to covering up and legitimating a coup; that cabinet positions–even whole departments–could be captured or rendered ineffective through second-in-commands and “acting” heads; that hollowing out the civil service by putting the OPM (Office of Personnel Mgmt) under the ambit of the White House and returning it to a “spoils” system would make a cover-up more complete. And I saw that this state of affairs–a true conspiracy with many moving, coordinated parts–would be hard to stand against, much less defeat. But if anyone could, Imogen would be the one to do it.
Thrillers are meant to be an escape, but not an escape from sense. The gray eminence presiding over the coup (“The Postman”) is concerned with private power, exercised through public means. In the past, he tried to get himself elected, and tried to buy politicians, but his ideas are unpopular and can’t win in the public sphere. Like a lot of frustrated suitors, he thinks it’s because the game is rigged. Well, two can play at that game…
His henchmen are not James Bond automatons, but have real (if misguided) reasons for signing on with the Postman. A great many of us bemoan the level of discourse on social media, but confronting (and considering) some of the ideological rantings there has given me insight into what ideas they hold and what they might be capable of doing.
It makes for a thrilling story–all the more so because much of it could really happen.
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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network , and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.
His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.