BY LEE CHILD
How far back should I go with this? Reacher made his first appearance in print on March 17, 1997-Saint Patrick’s Day-when Putnam published Killing Floor in the US, which was Reacher’s-and my-debut. But I can trace his genesis backward at least to New Year’s Eve 1988. Back then I worked for a commercial television station in Manchester, England. I was eleven years into a career as a presentation director, which was a little like an air traffic controller for the network airwaves. In February of 1988, the UK commercial network had started twenty-four-hour broadcasting. For a year before that, management had been talking about how to man the new expanded commitment. None of us really wanted to work nights. Management didn’t really want to hire extra people. End of story. Stalemate. Impasse.
What broke it was the offer of a huge raise. We took it, and by New Year’s Eve we were ten fat and happy months into the new contract. I went to a party but didn’t feel much like celebrating. Not that I wasn’t content in the short term-I sleep better by day than night, and I like being up and about when the world is quiet and lonely, and for sure I was having a ball with the new salary. But I knew in my bones that management resented the raise, and that the new contract was in fact the beginning of the end. Sooner or later, we would all be fired in revenge. I felt it was only a matter of time. Nobody agreed with me except one woman.
At the party, in a quiet moment, she asked me, “What are you going to do when this is all over?”
I said, “I’m going to write books.”
Why that answer? And why then?
I had always been an insatiable reader. All genres, all the time, but very unstructured. I naturally gravitated toward crime, adventure, and thrillers, but for a long time in the UK we lacked genre stores and fan magazines, and of course the Internet hadn’t started yet, so there was no effective network capable of leading a reader from one thing to the next. As a result, I had come across some very obscure stuff while being completely ignorant of many major figures. For instance, in February of 1988-while the ink was still drying on our new TV contracts-I took a vacation in the Yucatan. I flew back via Miami and picked up John D. MacDonald’s The Lonely Silver Rain at the bookstall in the airport. I had never heard of MacDonald or Travis McGee. I read the book on the plane back to London and loved it.
I was back in the States at Easter that year and bought every McGee title I could find, which added up to about a linear yard’s worth.
Nobody needs me to sing MacDonald’s praises, but that yard of books did more for me than provide excellent entertainment. For some reason the McGee books spoke to me like textbooks. I felt I could see what MacDonald was doing, and why, and how, as if I could see the skeleton beneath the skin. I read them all that summer, and by New Year’s Eve I was completely sure that when the ax fell, I wanted to do what MacDonald had done. I could stay in the entertainment business but work for myself in the world of books.
It took six years for the ax to fall. But fall it did, and so it came time to make good on that earlier ambition. I went to W.H. Smith’s store in the Manchester Arndale mall-which the IRA destroyed a year later-and bought three legal pads, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, and an eraser. The bill was a penny under four pounds.
(I read Ngaio Marsh’s essay in Otto Penzler’s 1978 book The Great Detectives, and she reports doing very much the same thing, except that 1931 prices were radically lower than 1994’s, and she didn’t buy an eraser-maybe she already had one, or was more self-confident than I was.) Then I sat down with my purchases and let years of half-formed thoughts take shape. But not just six years of thoughts-now I have to take the process back another thirty years or so, to the point when my reading habit first took hold.
I had found that I liked some things in books and disliked other things. I had always been drawn to outlaws. I liked cleverness and ingenuity. I liked the promise of intriguing revelations. I disliked a hero who was generally smart but did something stupid three-quarters of the way through the book, merely to set up the last part of the action. Detectives on the trail who walked into rooms and got hit over the head from behind just didn’t do it for me. And I liked winners. I was vaguely uneasy with the normal story arc that has a guy lose, lose, lose before he wins in the end. I liked to see something done spectacularly well. In sports, I liked crushing victories rather than ninth-inning nail-biters.
Some of my reading was directed, of course, in school. I was part of probably the last generation ever to receive a classical English education. I read Latin and Greek and Old English, all the ancient myths and medieval sagas and poems. I met the “knight errant” at its source.
Then I took a law degree at university. I never intended to be a lawyer, but the subject knit together all my nonfiction interests-history, politics, economics, sociology… and language. Legal language strives for concision and avoids ambiguity wherever possible. The result is inevitably dull, but all that striving and avoiding really teaches a person how to write.
Then I went to work in the theater, which back then featured plenty of experimental theater, some of it good, most of it awful, and I developed a growing contempt for those who saw their minimal audiences as badges of honor.
“The public is too stupid to understand us,” they would say.
I hated that attitude. To me, entertainment was a transaction. You do it, they watch it, then it exists. Like a Zen question: If you put on a show and nobody comes, have you in fact put on a show at all?
So for me, the audience mattered from the start. Which helped me thrive in television. And along the way, I discovered I was the audience. We were generally doing quality mass-market entertainment, but even so, some guys were conscious of slumming. Not me.
G. K. Chesterton once said of Charles Dickens, “Dickens didn’t write what people wanted. Dickens wanted what people wanted.” I would never compare myself to Charles Dickens, but I know exactly what Chesterton meant.
So, at thirty-nine years of age, after maybe thirty-five years of conscious experience, I sat down and opened the first of my three legal pads on my dining room table and lined up my pencil and sharpener and eraser and… thought some more, and came up with three specific conclusions.
First: Character is king. There are probably fewer than six books every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody.
So my lead character had to carry the whole weight… and there was a lot of weight to carry. Remember, I was broke and out of work.
Second conclusion: If you can see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on. I think the person who said that to me was talking about investment issues-as if I had anything to invest-but it seemed an excellent motto for entertainment as well. It’s a crowded field. Why do what everyone else is doing?
So I was going to have to do something a little different. It seemed to me that the mystery series that were then well under way-and most that were just starting out-were, when carefully analyzed, soap operas. (Which to me is not a derogatory term… Soap opera is an incredibly powerful narrative engine, and soap operas had put food on my table for eighteen years. Lots of it, and high quality.) Lead characters were primus inter pares in a repertory cast, locations were fixed and significant, employment was fixed and significant. In other words, series heroes had partners, friends, jobs, apartments, favorite bars, favorite restaurants, neighbors, family, even dogs and cats. They jogged, worked out, had pastimes. They had bills to pay and issues to resolve.
If you can see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on. I was going to have to avoid all that stuff.
But, the third conclusion, and the most confounding: You can’t design a character too specifically. I knew in my bones that to think too carefully would produce a laundry list of imagined qualities and virtues and would result in a flat, boring, cardboard character. I would be consulting a mental checklist: “I need to satisfy this demographic… check… and please these people… check… ” until I had a guy with all the spark and life beaten out of him. So I quite self-consciously pushed that thirty-five-year-old soup of ideas and influences into the distant background and decided to relax and see what would come along.
Jack Reacher came along.
I was interested in dislocation and alienation, and I had noticed that people who have spent their lives in the military have trouble adjusting to civilian life afterward. It’s like moving to a different planet. So I wrote a character who had been first a military brat, then a military officer, and was now plunged unwillingly into the civilian world. And because the books would be broadly crime novels, I made him an ex-military cop, in order to give him plausible familiarity with investigative procedures and forensics and so on.
Those twin decisions gave him a double layer of alienation. First, his transition from the rough, tough world of the army made him a fish out of water in civilian life, which situation was then further reinforced by any law enforcement officer’s separation from the rest of the population.
And he was American. I’m British. But by that point I had been a regular visitor to the United States for twenty years-my wife is from New York -and I felt I knew the country pretty well, at least as well as I could expect an alienated ex-military drifter to know it. And it’s easier to be rootless and alienated in a giant country like America. Alienation on a tiny crowded island like Britain is of a different order, almost wholly psychological rather than physical or literal.
I like reading the internal, claustrophobic British crime books, but I didn’t want to write them. I wanted big, rangy plots, big landscapes, big skies.
His status as a former officer happened instinctively. Looking back, I clearly wanted to tap into the medieval knight errant paradigm, and a knight errant has to have been a knight in the first place. I thought a West Point history and a rank of major would be suitable.
In literary terms it was an important choice, but later I realized it has plausibility issues. His whole personality, approach, and implied past experiences make it much more likely that in the real world he would have been a warrant officer, not a commissioned officer.
But to me it was crucial that he should have a certain nobility-which is a strange thing to say about a guy who goes around busting heads as frequently and thoroughly as Jack Reacher does, but it is clear from subsequent reaction that his “white hat” status depends heavily on our images of and assumptions about rank. (And his “white hat” status has tempted readers to classify the series as a set of modern-day Westerns, which is convincing in terms of feel and structure.)
Some of the novels are just like Shane or a Zane Grey story or a Lone Ranger episode-lonely, embattled community has a problem; mysterious stranger rides in off the range, solves the problem, rides off into the sunset-but I have never been a fan or even a reader of Westerns. What is happening there is that Westerns too have strong roots in the medieval knight errant sagas.
As in much of evolution, if B isn’t descended directly from A, then they both shared a common ancestor much further back.
At first he wasn’t called Jack Reacher. In fact, he wasn’t called anything at all. The part of writing that I find most difficult is coming up with character names. My books are heavily populated with stationery brands and other authors, because when I need to name someone I tend to look around my office helplessly until my eye alights on the front of a notebook or the spine of a book on my shelves.
Once or twice I stared out my window until a neighbor walked past, or I thought back to the last clerk’s name badge I saw in a store… All kinds of people get their names in my books, most of them unwittingly. But obviously the main character’s name is very important to get right. With luck it will appear in many books and even be talked about in other contexts.
I started writing with no clear idea of the name. The first book was written in the first person, which meant he didn’t need a name until someone else asked what it was, which didn’t happen for thirty or so manuscript pages. Then a police detective asked, “Name?” I put my pencil down and thought. The best I could come up with was Franklin, as I recall. But I wasn’t happy with it.
Then I went shopping. Part of the problem of not having a day job was, well, I didn’t have a day job, and my wife therefore assumed that after many years of solo struggle, she now had help with chores. So she asked me to go to the supermarket with her, to carry stuff home. I’m a big guy; she’s a small woman.
She was also a worried woman, although she was hiding it well. Our life savings were disappearing, and regular paychecks were merely distant memories.
In the supermarket-and this is a common experience for tall men-a little old lady approached me and said, “You’re a nice tall gentleman, so would you reach that can for me?” My wife said to me, “If this writing thing doesn’t work out, you can always be a reacher in a supermarket.” I thought, Great name! And I used it, and I smile now when I read Internet commentary imagining I specified the name for its forward-going, striving, progressive implications.
His first name came from conclusion number two-don’t do what the others are doing. There was a miniature rash at the time of characters with cute or complex first names. So I looked for the simplest and plainest name I could find. I chose Jack, and not as a diminutive for John, either. It’s just Jack. (One of my grandfathers was called Harry, which most people assumed was a diminutive for Henry, but it wasn’t. Harry was on his birth certificate.)
In my third book, Tripwire, there’s a passage that starts: “Reacher had been named Jack by his father, who was a plain New Hampshire Yankee with an implacable horror of anything fancy.”
I wanted to underpin Reacher’s blunt and straightforward manner with a blunt and straightforward name. I didn’t think the character would have worked with, say, MacNaughten Lawrence for a name. Still don’t. Even though the first name could have been abbreviated to “Mac” on nearly all occasions, the hidden truth on his official papers would have implied something that I didn’t want implied.
So, he’s an ex-military officer, he’s American, he’s alienated, he struggles to participate effectively in civilian society, and he has a plain name.
And he’s huge.
He’s six feet five inches tall, and around two hundred fifty pounds, all of it muscle. In Tripwire, after he’s been doing physical labor in the sun for a spell, he’s described as looking “like a condom stuffed with walnuts.” No one in his right mind would mess with him.
I had in mind the kind of intimidating physical presence that pro footballers have, relaxed, utterly sure of themselves, but in Reacher’s case with a barely visible hint of danger. (In fact, in One Shot, he admits to having played football for Army while at West Point, but that his career was limited to only one game. “Why?” someone asks. “Were you injured?” “No,” he replies. “I was too violent.”)
His physical presence is another offshoot of conclusion number two-don’t do what the others are doing. For a long time what the others had been doing was making their protagonists more and more flawed and vulnerable. Way back, it had been a welcome development to move away from the uniformly lantern-jawed he-men that had crowded the genre. Heroes became smaller, realistically afraid, physically unexceptional.
On the emotional side, they became battered. They were alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics living in cabins in the woods and traumatized by professional mistakes. Literal and metaphorical bullets were lodged near hearts. There was an overwhelming feeling of incipient failure and melancholy.
As with all trends, this one was started by inspired pioneers and then overdone by imitators. By the time I started writing, I was tired of it. I wanted to start over with an old-fashioned hero who had no problems and no issues, and didn’t go in for navel gazing. His physical competence is really an expression of his mental competence too. He’s a fully functioning person.
And I thought it would be interesting to reverse the paradigm in terms of physical vulnerability. Usually, a book’s hero comes up against people he needs to be afraid of.
What if, I asked myself, the hero is the toughest SOB in the valley, and others need to be afraid of him? In my fourth book, Running Blind, an FBI agent called Blake threatens to leak Reacher’s name to a violent psychopath called Petrosian.
Blake thinks it’s an effective motivator-and in real life and most books it would be. But Reacher just says: “Look at me, Blake. Get real. There’s maybe ten people on the planet I need to be scared of. Extremely unlikely this guy Petrosian happens to be one of them.”
I was trying to discover whether drama was possible without the usual David-versus-Goliath structure. I wondered, would Goliath-versus-Goliath work?
I have a fan and a friend who works in the gaudy world of pro wrestling-worked, actually, because he’s retired now. You’ll be shocked (shocked!) to hear that their bouts are heavily scripted and rehearsed, even to the extent of having story conferences. My friend’s major concern is that the wrestling paradigm always has the designated good guy lose, and lose, and lose, before winning in the final round. It was hard for him to come to terms with the absence of a battered underdog. But I always wanted Reacher to be the overdog.
Because I was following my instincts. Remember, “Dickens wanted what the audience wanted.” I was the audience. I wanted the kind of vicarious satisfaction that comes from seeing bad guys getting their heads handed to them by a wrong-righter even bigger and harder than them. I thought, Isn’t that what fiction is for? Because the existence of fiction is a curious thing.
Language evolved way back when leisure was simply unheard of. Language was all about survival and cooperation and the dissemination of facts in pursuit of literally life-and-death issues. For most of our existence language has been for telling the truth. Then fiction started up, and we started burning brain cells on stories about things that didn’t happen to people who didn’t exist. Why? The only answer can be that humans deeply, deeply desired it. They needed the consolation. Real life is rarely satisfactory.
The transaction is clearly apparent in romantic fiction. In real life, you sit on the subway and you see a beautiful girl. Truth is, you aren’t going to dinner with her, you aren’t taking her home, you aren’t going to live happily ever after. In fact, you aren’t even going to talk to her. But in a novel, all that good stuff happens. It’s a way to live vicariously.
Same for crime fiction. In real life, your house gets burgled or your car gets ripped off, they aren’t going to find the bad guys, and you aren’t going to get your stuff back. Someone bullies or disrespects you at work or in school or in a relationship, there isn’t much you can do about it. But something can be done about it in a book, and people enjoy watching it happen. They love it. It’s closure, albeit also vicarious.
So I wanted Reacher to do what we all want to do ourselves-stand strong and unafraid, never back off, never back down, come up with the smart replies. I thought of all the situations that we-timid, uncertain, scared, worried, humiliated-find ourselves in and imagined a kind of therapeutic consolation in seeing our wildest dreams acted out on the page.
So Reacher always wins.
Which is theoretically a problem. He’s a plain, uncomplicated man who breezes through life without evident trouble. Shouldn’t he be boring?
In theory, yes. But readers don’t agree. Because actually he has plenty of minor problems. He’s awkward in civilian society. He gets around his difficulties by assembling a series of eccentricities that border on the weird. If he doesn’t know how something works, he just doesn’t participate. He doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t understand text messaging, doesn’t grasp e-mail. He doesn’t do laundry. He buys cheap clothes, junks them three or four days later, and buys more. To him, that’s a rigorously rational solution to an evident problem. To us, it’s almost autistic.
The contrast between his narrow and highly developed skills and his general helplessness humanizes him. It gives him dimension. He has enough problems to make him interesting, but, crucially, he himself doesn’t know he has these problems. He thinks he’s fine. He thinks he’s normal. Hence interest without the whiny self-awareness of the bullet-lodged-near-the-heart guys.
What motivates him?
He has no need for or interest in employment. He’s not a proactive do-gooder. So why does he get involved in things? Well, partly because of noblesse oblige, a French chivalric concept that means “nobility obligates,” which mandates honorable, generous, and responsible behavior because of high rank or birth.
Reacher had the rank and the skills, and he feels a slightly Marxist obligation “from he who has, to him who needs.” Again, that attitude predates the twentieth century by a long way. It shows up in nineteenth-century Western heroes, and thirteenth-century European heroes, all the way back to the Greeks and, we can be sure, much further back into oral traditions where no written records exist. Added to which, in Reacher’s case, is a cantankerousness that provokes him.
In Persuader, during a flashback to his military days, he is asked why he became an MP when he could have chosen any other branch of the service. He gives a vague answer, along the lines of wanting to look after the little guy.
His questioner is skeptical. She says, disbelievingly, “You care about the little guy?”
“Not really,” Reacher admits. “I don’t really care about the little guy. I just hate the big guy. I hate big smug people who think they can get away with things.”
That’s what motivates him. The world is full of unfairness and injustice. He can’t intervene everywhere. He needs to sense a sneering, arrogant, manipulative opponent in the shadows. Then he’ll go to work. Partly because he himself is arrogant.
In a sense, each book is a contest between Reacher’s arrogance and his opponent’s. Arrogance is not an attractive attribute, but I don’t hide Reacher’s because I think the greatest mistake a series writer can make is to get too chummy with his main character. I aim to like Reacher just a little less than I hope you will. Because basically a book is a simple psychological transaction.
“I’m the main character,” the main character announces.
The reader asks: “Am I going to like you?”
There are several possible answers to that question. The worst is: “Yes, you really are, and I’ll tell you why!”
But Reacher answers: “You might or you might not, and either way is fine with me.”
Because, as an author, I believe that kind of insouciant self-confidence forms a more enduring bond.