S. Lee Manning: Why do I write international espionage thrillers? For the adventure. For the excitement. In part, of course. What could be more thrilling than a high stakes race against great odds to save the world or to save the country or to save hundreds or thousands of people from a terrorist threat?
But that’s a little too simplistic. A little too black and white.
In international espionage thrillers, it is not always that one side is completely good. Because while the ultimate goal may be lofty, the tactics used to achieve it are not always so pure. Deceit. Blackmail. Sexual seduction for information. Assassination. Betrayal. We would find these acts morally repulsive in our private lives, but these are all part of the necessary repertoire in the world of espionage.
In our private lives, murder and assassination are unacceptable. Yet who would argue that it would have been wrong to assassinate Hitler or Stalin? How many millions of lives would have been saved by a simple act that we would otherwise find morally wrong? The German officers who tried but failed to assassinate Hitler and were executed for their attempt are not viewed as traitors, but as true heroes.
But what about other leaders or individuals who, while engaged in policies or actions that are threatening or reprehensible, are not evil on the scale of a Hitler? What tactics are acceptable? Does it matter if innocent people are hurt in order to achieve a greater good? And who decides?
There are no easy answers to these questions – which is what makes espionage thrillers less black and white and more gray and tan – and which makes espionage thrillers interesting and three dimensional. A good espionage thriller forces the reader to think about what should be morally acceptable even to achieve an admirable goal.
For example, in my thriller, Trojan Horse, in order to prevent global nuclear power plant meltdowns set into motion by a cyber terrorist, the head of a U.S. intelligence agency sets up Kolya Petrov, the agency’s own operative, and his fiancée to be kidnapped and tortured. It is important that readers empathize with Kolya – and see that what happens to him and to his fiancée is horrific. From this perspective, the betrayal is an unforgivable act.
Yet how many people would die if the cyber attack against nuclear power plants succeeded? It is a question that even Kolya ultimately has to answer: does he choose to prevent the attack or choose revenge against the agency head who betrayed him and his fiancée.
Kolya’s struggle with this question – that he even considers out of anger letting a cyber terrorist succeed – is what makes him a more interesting character – and therefore, more fun to write.
The overall complexity of the characters and the complexity of the moral questions arise out of the nature of espionage. Characters in an international espionage thriller inhabit a world that remains a secret to all but the initiated. They have to play roles even sometimes with the people they love, and they have to carry out difficult and sometimes morally questionable yet necessary actions. These elements all combine to make the espionage thriller distinctive.
Reading or writing, I get caught up in the excitement and the thrills, the twists and turns, the risks to characters that I like. What stays with me are the questions – questions in gray and tan.
What stays with you?
Sandy, I agree wholeheartedly! My favorite part of writing espionage thrillers is exploring right/wrong, good/evil: two agents working against each other, but each believes their mission is for the greater good. And when I watch The Americans, I always root for Elizabeth and Phillip (sorry, Stan)!
Great post, Sandy. Characters are the driving force behind all compelling stories, and I can't wait to read yours!
One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received as a writer is to "always remember that the villain is the hero of his own story." At this point, I can't remember who even said it, but it stuck. It sounds like you have assimilated the same concept into your writing. I can't wait to read your book.
Love your post, Sandy. It reminds me why we write these books — because they're not just adventures but also insightful looks into the human soul.
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Great post, Sandy. Who better to write about motives (of the "bad guys") than you — as I saw on your website that you have a background in law enforcement….so you have definitely seen the "good and the bad" in all sorts of people. Your piece was very enlightening – thanks for writing it!
Wherever there is conflict, there are stories that teach us how to live. Thanks for reminding us of that!