Writing a new crime or suspense series is a bit like getting married. You tie yourself and your future to your new creation. You're going to be spending a lot of time with your new series hero. Not to mention all the supporting cast (think of them as in-laws or your spouse's close friends). You have to create with care when you start a new series, or you'll quickly find yourself stuck in dead ends.
The key is in how you build the hero of your story. He or she must carry the world of your fiction. And in creating the hero for my new series, I probably invested more thought than I ever had before on fleshing him out before I started writing.
I had written four thrillers in a row when I got the idea for a new series. I'd thought of doing a series because readers often asked if the main characters from my thrillers would be returning for more adventures. I said, I'll do a series if the right idea comes. And one day at my desk"”I was doodling a picture of a globe, and for some odd reason drew a martini glass beneath it"”Sam Capra came in a flash: an ex-CIA agent who ends up owning bars around the world.
Ex-CIA. Bars. All over the world.
The idea stopped me cold, and then I felt warm, because the idea felt so right. The very idea suggested intrigue, foreign locales, colorful characters. A man with the skills of a spy, but without the bureaucracy or the rules; and bars around the world, meaning I could let him find adventure (and a new supporting cast, if I liked) in locales both plain and exotic. The bars would be an entrÃ©e for him into danger, a reason to pull him into cases, a legitimate excuse to travel the world; the settings would be widely varied. At the same time I realized there would be a consistent backdrop: a dark underworld of crime and intrigue, one tied to the rise of global crime syndicates, some of whom wield more economic power than major corporations. (Did you know twenty percent of the world's economy is illicit now? It means about 14 trillion dollars worth of illegal activity.) The cities would change, but that fact of underlying criminality would be a constant for Sam.
That was the seed. I knew nothing else about Sam at that point, not until I started to write, and I realized I had to explain how he came into possession of so many bars as a young man (he's in his mid-twenties, and has only been with the CIA for three years). I decided to start at the beginning: how he was forced out of the CIA, how he lost the perfect life he once had, how he came into owning the bars. I felt, strongly, he had to earn them.
Then I had to think about what kind of hero this man was going to be.
Heroes are hard. In this massively cynical world of ours, they have to believe in something bigger and yet not seem naÃ¯ve or foolish. Sam believes in justice and is willing to mete it out"”and accept the consequences.
Heroes sacrifice. They give up parts of their lives"”security, safety, love"”that would shatter lesser men and women. Sam has lost nearly everything and is willing to confront overwhelming forces.
Heroes have to be believable and complex. Their choices often set them outside the rules of law"”they forge their own paths through darkness.
Heroes are born of myth. Read Joseph Campbell's excellent The Power Of Myth to see how heroes are defined in the same ways across cultures, around the world. I wasn't penning a Greek epic but I had to create a compelling backstory for my own hero.
Heroes have faults. Perfection holds attention only briefly. The flaws make a hero interesting, relatable"”flaws in fact keep us reading. Perfection means stasis. So I knew the hero would question authority too quickly, flout the rules. Why? He never learned rules, not well. A nomadic childhood with parents who paid more attention to their careers than to their son. As a teenager, he was an Odysseus, always wandering, never at home. He learned how to pickpocket in the streets of Beijing (stealing from the pickpockets and slipping the wallets back to their victims), how to cheat his money back from a crooked gambler in the cafes of Mombasa, how to pretend to be someone he wasn't in the squares of Moscow. I gave him a brother he loved"”to his family, the good brother, Ã la Aron in East of Eden"”and then I took his brother away. The brother died as a relief worker in Afghanistan, executed in a propaganda video. Sam the rule breaker goes into the CIA to try to do good in his brother's name. You can see how that might not work out.
Out of this myth-building came Sam Capra, a character I knew I could write about for years to come. I wrote Adrenaline in a rush (pun intended), and other elements of the series rose to the surface: that every manager of Sam's bars is a person who was wrongly accused of a crime and cleared by Sam's benefactors; Mila, Sam's "boss" of sorts, a mysterious eastern European woman who serves as mentor, sidekick, and thorn in the side; his loyal friend, August, a fellow CIA operative; Sam's favorite sport of freerunning, or parkour, which pushes him to physical and mental limits but also provides a handy means for chasing bad guys.
But the start was entirely with the character, and with the building of him in a hero's mold. Define the hero, and you can define a world that will capture a reader's imagination. --Jeff Abbott