Thrillers are most often populated, and propeled, by strong male heroes. But in Simon Toyne's new thriller, Sanctus, a woman takes center stage. Read Simon's guest post to learn why he had no other choice...
A strong woman in a wicked world
The first time you meet a stranger who has read your book, it’s a very odd moment. In my case it took place at a literary agency in London after one of the agents had read my manuscript and invited me in for a meeting. The moment I walked into her office, she did a double take and said ‘But you’re a man!’ I knew right then I was in very good hands.
To be fair she did later explain this was meant as a compliment. She said the protagonist of my story, a woman, was so convincing that she had just assumed I was female. I had also signed my letter of introduction ‘S. Toyne’ rather than ‘Simon’ thereby introducing an element of ambiguity. Anyway, long story short, she signed me up and sold my book all around the world, so quite frankly she can call me ‘Susan’ if she wants to and I will just smile.
My book is a bit male in style and genre if not in theme. In ‘marketing speak’ it’s a contemporary, high-concept, conspiracy thriller and these are, for the most part, populated by alpha males with a strong moral code. These men tend to have combat skills, picked up through a colorful backstory in the military, the police, or on the mean streets of somewhere or other. Think Jack Reacher, or Joe Pike, or Nick Heller or any number of others. I’d like to say that in writing Sanctus I was deliberately being counter-intuitive, spotting the gap in the market and bucking the trend by placing a woman at the center of the action, but in fact it was all just a happy accident. As soon as I had the idea for the book (and when you read it you will understand) it was obvious that a woman had to play the central role. And this has made all the difference (as Robert Frost might have said when embarking on his own high-concept thriller, never published as far as I’m aware) –because the right protagonist (or the right hero or heroine?), is everything.
Let me explain.
The main job of a thriller writer is to create a sympathetic character and then cause unspeakably bad and exciting things to happen to them. If for example, your hero meets the love of his life in chapter 1, she has to disappear in chapter 2; if he’s already married and deeply in love on page one, you must kidnap or kill his wife by page twenty. Basically whatever your main character’s deepest fears are, you have to rain them down upon him or her like some kind of twisted god, and then show them squirming.
So when I suddenly found myself, a man, putting a female character through this kind of ordeal, I had to take a good long look at myself in the mirror and wonder whether I needed some kind of therapy. In my defense all I can say is don’t blame me, blame the story. At the center of Sanctus lies a deeply traditional, patriarchal religious cult with a big guilty secret to keep: so who better, or more unlikely, to get to the heart of it than a modern woman? And the second job of the thriller writer is to never make things easy for your hero. You want them to struggle against insurmountable odds – so a woman trying to crash the oldest men’s club in the world and bring it down was far more exciting than a man trying to do it.
Having made this decision I started thinking about prominent female heroines and realised that most of them, for me at least, came from James Cameron movies: Ripley in Aliens; Sarah Connor in the Terminator films; even Avatar has, roughly speaking, Mother Nature as a protagonist. Maybe that’s the secret of his success; he empowers women in his stories. But though I’d dearly love to reach an audience as large as his, I didn’t want to create a sort of proto-male action hero. I wanted my heroine to succeed as a woman. So in the end, I turned to what I consider to be, the best female action lead in the past thirty years. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Clarice Starling from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. This also meant I was using Jodie Foster as a model, for I defy anyone to read that book and not see her as Clarice. She owns that part; she is Clarice.
Of course I drew on other people to flesh out my character, but there’s a lot of Clarice in the heroine of Sanctus, Liv Adamsen. Liv ultimately succeeds because she embraces what makes her a woman and utilises her nature rather than fights against it. She’s smart, resourceful, vulnerable, pretty – but not defined by it – and above all she’s brave. No matter what she faces, and whatever danger she finds herself in, she never backs down and she never looks away. And this, I think, taps into a truth: because despite all the bravado and physical posturing, it’s the men who often walk away in real life and the women who stare down difficulty and stay.
So please look past the fact that Sanctus is driven by a heroine, yet written by a man. Just take the story as it comes. You can even call me Susan if you like. I answer to anything.