The best books aren’t just entertainment; they’re friends. The power of strong, memorable characters keeps us coming back to our favorite reading chair again and again. Here, Gregg Hurwitz, author of the Orphan X series of thrillers, shares why he thinks characters are even more important than research and plot.
I’m known for undertaking lots of stupid adventures in the name of research: going up in a stunt airplane, test-firing machine guns in the desert, rafting through Mexican jungles on Class IV whitewater runs, going undercover into mind control cults, sneaking onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs and blowing up cars, and practicing hand-to-hand combat with mixed martial artists (ouch).
As I’ve often said, all of that is to give my readers a front-row seat to the action. Once I taste the river spray, shoulder the recoil, feel what it’s like to get choked out (not entirely pleasant), I can write about it with a telling detail that makes it different, I hope, from anything you’ve read before.
When I started my Orphan X series, I knew I’d have to raise my game on research. After all, I’d be writing about a kid who was taken out of a foster home at the age of 12 and trained in an off-the-books program to be one of the world’s most dangerous assassins. I had to paint that training meticulously to make it real. I had to add a ring of verisimilitude to the missions. And the spycraft! Every adjustment of the sniper scope, every encrypted comms device, every breach of a firewall had to be precisely right. I needed to know between which ribs an escrima knife fighter would punch the blade to puncture the heart.
All of that research is great. It makes for good reading, I hope. And for good bourbon conversation (though I suppose that depends on who you’re drinking with). But it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is character.
I knew immediately that Evan Smoak was different from anyone I’d written before. For one thing, I had a handle on who he was right away—it was as though he came to me fully formed. I knew that he was never like the other Orphans. I knew that was in part because of Jack Johns, his handler, who raised him not just to be a top-tier operator but also to keep his sense of humanity intact. As Jack tells him, “The hard part isn’t making you a killer. The hard part is keeping you human.”
I knew that at a certain point Evan would leave the Orphan Program and devote himself to helping the truly desperate, those who have nowhere else to turn. And though he had an incredible assassin’s resume, I knew I wanted him to live in the real world like you and me. Because in all the books and movies that we love, one thing we never get to see is James Bond go home. Or Jason Bourne have an awkward moment with a single mom in the elevator of his condo. What would that really be like? And how would this character, so real to me already, cope with moving between those worlds?
That’s the heart of what I connected with when I found Evan Smoak. There’s a conflict deep within him. Because everybody, no matter how tough, no matter how well-trained, has a need for human contact. Evan is a guy who spends his existence protecting people living ordinary lives that he himself could never have.
Over the past year, I’ve talked to countless readers at signings, over email, and through social media, and what always strikes me is that they inevitably want to discuss some aspect of character. Will Evan get together with Mia, the district attorney who lives downstairs? Of all his vodkas, which is his favorite? What would he have been like if he’d been raised by a handler other than Jack?
As much as the research is essential (and cool), it’s not what makes us read. Without a compelling character staking down a thriller, turning the pages just feels like getting punched in the face with plot.
I dedicated the book to some of my favorite fictional characters I grew up with—all the bad boys and girls, rule breakers and vigilantes. After all, reading was just an excuse to hang out with them.
And I suppose if I’m honest, I’d say that writing has increasingly become an excuse for me to hang out with Evan.
Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of 16 novels, most recently, The Nowhere Man (January, 2017; Minotaur Books). His novels have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, have graced top ten lists, and have been translated into 29 languages. He is also a New York Times bestselling comic book writer, has written screenplays for many major studios and has written, developed and produced television for various networks. Visit him at gregghurwitz.net.