I like stories that surprise me, show me things I’ve never seen before, and get me playing make-believe like I haven’t done since selling my G.I. Joes and Legos at a garage sale. Few tales are as make-believe (or as fun) as fantasy fiction—from the “light fantasy” of alternate histories and time travel to the hardcore stuff involving space odysseys and dragons. Trouble is, I’m a skeptic, a hard sell. For a story to grab me, no matter how far-fetched it’s supposed to be, I have to see and feel things I recognize, things I relate to.
Sounds like common sense, but as a voracious reader and a judge in umpteen competitions, including the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Awards, I’m here to tell you it’s not as common as you’d think.
The idea of believable fantasy truly hit home when, after writing four reality-based thrillers (Comes a Horseman, Germ, Deadfall and Deadlock), I decided to infuse my next series of thrillers with a hefty dose of fantasy. The first of The Immortal Files books, The 13th Tribe, deals with immortal vigilantes, a group of never-aging killers, determined to make their long lives meaningful by ridding the world of bad guys. It never dawns on them that in the process they’ve become bad guys themselves.
Its sequel, The Judgment Stone (releasing today, May 15th), ups the fantasy ante with angels and demons: not the Dan Brown, metaphoric kind, but the biblical, winged-creatures-of-protection-and-temptation kind. In this story, a group of immortals—different from the group in the first book, this time more violent and malicious—steal an archeological find. It’s a piece of the first Ten Commandments, the tablets Moses broke when he came down Mt. Sinai and found the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf—and touching it peels back the veil between our world and the spiritual world. The Clan—as this group is called—uses it to hunt down and kill the people closest to God. They’re nasty that way.
Upon choosing this direction, my first thought was, Oh no, what will readers of my more traditional thrillers think? Will they join me on this ride? Will they be willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the adventures and suspense at the heart of these stories? All of my stories have pushed the reality envelope—the virus in Germ that becomes lethal only after finding the DNA matching the DNA encoded within it; the reality-bending helmets of Deadlock that make soldiers better killers by turning targets into “ideal” enemies. But immortality and spiritual beings? I knew I was asking a lot.
Looking within, to my own reading proclivities and preferences, I realized the best way to “sell” fantasy to traditional thriller readers was to make the fantasy parts feel less fantastical, to make them seem real. And one strong way to do that was to make everything else about the story hyper-realistic; that is, insert the fantasy into the relevant, recognizable and real: the fantasy becomes real because everything around it is real.
Drones are a hot topic these days, with their uses and abuses in the War in Afghanistan, in domestic airspace, and in the arsenals of our enemies. Before FoxNews’s and CNN’s reporting that weaponized drones were vulnerable to terrorist hijacking, the bad guys in The 13th Tribe hijacked a fleet and attacked a major U.S. city. In fact, one reader wrote me, saying facetiously (I think), “What have you wrought? You put the idea into their heads!” Of course, that was never my intention, but it was my intention to make my story timely and pertinent.
Another American concern is making our soldiers safe and giving them winning strategic advantages through technology. My immortals have access to the latest high-tech advancements, including invisibility suits. As CNN reported on the Pentagon’s investment in “Quantum Stealth” camouflage metamaterial, which bends light around the wearer, rendering them invisible, readers of the Immortal Files were experiencing the technology in action.
Likewise, DARPA—the Department of Defense’s agency for new military technologies—helped the cause by announcing its intention to develop a performance-enhancing exoskeleton that allowed soldiers to walk faster and farther, jump higher and carry more weight. In The Judgment Stone, the bad guys use just such technology. While I call the exoskeleton “Austin boots” (after Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man fame) and Lockheed Martin calls its prototypes “HULC,” the announcement put the concept into the public eye, another reality that lends credence to The Judgment Stone’s fantasy elements.
The Judgment Stone takes place, primarily, in Egypt, a current flashpoint of political hostility and unrest. My using this location was no accident—it was designed to reflect the unrest in my protagonist’s life and offer another pressing reason to make his family safe in a dangerous environment.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of reality for most people—the human condition. If the majority of readers are like me (and I think they are), they’re more willing to accept the fantastical elements of a story if they recognize emotions and fears and desires in the characters; if they can relate to them. The Judgment Stone’s main protagonist Jagger Baird’s main interest is in protecting his family, even while struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome and adjusting to a new prosthetic arm. The terrible things he’s endured cause him to doubt the existence of a loving God. His on-the-fence spirituality mirrors many America’s struggle with reconciling why God allows bad things to happen to good people, as poll after poll indicates.
It was only in the midst of finding the reality in which to set the Immortal Files’ fantasies that I realized that my stories may not be as far-fetched as I’d feared: 78% indicated belief in angels, and 70% believe in the devil. Still, drawing inspiration from today’s headlines does help shift the stories from a fantasy tonal palette into a traditional thriller’s. And that means, at least for my fans, more readers throwing disbelief into the wind and enjoying the fun.
So, when a story asks you to make a leap into a not-so-realistic world or situation, what helps you take that plunge?