Word on the Wire

Tag: Robert McKee/Game of Thrones/James Patterson


According to latest PLR (Public Lending Right) figures, crime fiction dominates lending in libraries.   Great news, but what’s also intriguing is that US authors lead the market in the lending field, with James Patterson reigning supreme. It’s been suggested that his short (sometimes extremely short) chapters hold particular appeal for readers who, in our time-sensitive, pressurised 24/7 lives, prefer to read a book in double-quick tempo and then (speaking softly) chuck it away. Hmmm.

Musing on this put me in mind of something Kazuo Ishiguro, (The Remains of the Day) said some years ago in an interview.   He questioned whether people read quite as many books as they claim. When I heard it I wanted to cheer because, although I read a lot of books, as you might expect, they are not confined to crime fiction. Are there gaps in my crime repertoire? You bet.

Let’s be clear, even if I weren’t a writer, I don’t consider reading a book a chore, degenerate activity or an excuse for not cleaning the kitchen. It rates as one of the most satisfying and pleasurable, occasionally challenging, activities on the planet. When I wrote book reviews for the Cheltenham Standard newspaper, I read a book a week (and I mean really read it, not skipped through) in addition to working as a freelance editor for Writers’ Workshop and writing my own novels. Despite this, for all the ‘must reads’ I’ve consumed, there are plenty I haven’t. Initially, this became apparent when I took part in my first crime quiz at a literary event almost a decade ago. Was I really this ignorant, I thought as I sloped off to the bar afterwards to bolster my wounded pride. To be fair, it didn’t help that the walking encyclopaedia of crime, author Martin Edwards, was on effervescent form that evening.   Anyway, determined to smarten up, I set myself a target to plug any glaring literary gaps. My self-imposed crash course included an array of contemporary crime novelists and, somewhat oddly and in a rush of blood to the head, Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, not exactly your average ‘easy reading’. Am I better informed now?   Hard to say because every year new and exciting novelists take the crime writing arena by storm and, of course, I have my favourite authors to whom I return again and again.   In this regard, Mariella Frostrup in her book programme once made a comment that resonated with me. She said that of all the books one reads, it’s hard to remember every storyline. For me, of all the books one reads only the best stories remain forever.

And they certainly don’t get chucked away.



Robert McKee, the creative writing guru, is heavy on what he calls the ‘Forces of Antagonism’. I’ve been known to use this phrase myself when talking about ‘bad guys’, most often within the context of fixing a story that isn’t quite developed or feels a little thin. If a writer ramps up his (or her) ‘bad guy’ and gets right underneath his skin to explore what lurks beneath and makes him tick, the story itself will spark with vitality and instantly become a ‘meatier’ proposition. Conflict is the name of the game in thrillers and if the murderer/thief/spook/con man is a pale and wilting foe, there isn’t going to be much for the main protagonist to bump up against. Your good guy/main protagonist can only really show the reader what he’s made of (mouse or man/woman) if he’s got a worthy adversary with whom to struggle.

Many writers will tell you that they love creating villains. I’m among them. I enjoy rummaging around in damaged psyches and letting rip with writing about the extremes of human nature. It’s not necessarily a case of the more evil an antagonist, the better. I prefer to think in terms of how the heck did they become that damaged in the first place? The smartest writers explore this aspect to avoid the creation of cardboard, two-dimensional caricatures rather than fully fleshed out characters. Perhaps this explains the popularity of psychological thrillers – it allows the writer to get to grips with what makes good people go bad, something that can happen to any one of us, given the right stressors. And maybe that’s the scary bit.

Even bad guys have Achilles heels when it comes to their nearest and dearest, or chums. The Lannister clan in ‘Game of Thrones’ provide one of the greatest fictional examples of inter-generational evil, yet they are not vile, individually or collectively, all of the time. The exception, perhaps, is King Joffrey Baratheon who seems to have pure evil running through his DNA but, as he’s a result of an incestuous relationship, his bizarre and barbaric behaviour can be cheerfully explained away by the fact that he’s bonkers! Writers like James Patterson, whose bad guys read like an encyclopaedia of mental disorders, embrace this device warmly and it’s a trademark of his novels.

Meanwhile, the rest of us hunt around for more mundane motives: thwarted in love, neglected or abused childhoods, inheritances going south. This usually involves a healthy dose of the seven deadly sins, greed, lust, avarice and that old chestnut the root of all evil, loot, the most popular. Plenty there to get your teeth into which is what every writer wants.