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7. Gender Equality & Plot Structures A Century After Buchan

I have always liked writing fiction with a strong male and a strong female lead involved in a love story. For me it's the most personal, natural, and powerful way to write fiction. I have come to believe that all literature is essentially about the love story of the young (20ish) man and woman at the height of their powers, seeking to mate and procreate the human race. It's evolutionary and biological.

Start with Gilgamesh and Shamhat; visit Achilles and Briseis; or Odysseus on his quest for Penelope; the tragic story of Aeneas and Dido; and wend your way through world literature; the quest is usually by the male seeking his female mirror image to complete the marriage of morning and evening or the sun and moon upon a bed of the four elements.

As I will show, this the strong male and female pairing are a critical story driver in Valley of Seven Castles; and in the development of Progressive Thrillers as I envision them. I’m a passionate promoter of progressive causes, which must include gender equality.

Let’s take a quick look at the progression of the modern hero and heroine. Believe me, there is no greater joy or satisfaction than writing a strong, attractive heroine in the modern thriller. The stronger the female love interest (and all literature is the love story), the stronger the male lead becomes, and therefore the stronger is the resulting adventure story.

Author John Buchan, in his archetypal 1915 thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, author John Buchan (essentially still an Edwardian if not Victorian writer) introduces the hero Richard Hannay, but there is no real female protagonist. In his 1935 movie The 39 Steps, based on the Buchan novel, Alfred Hitchcock makes some changes; e.g., he introduces the Westminster clocktower, with its Big Ben clock, as the destination. He introduces two women, one of whom is a villain and gets killed off, while the other is a fairly pale sort of love interest (hand holding at best).

In time-honored literary fashion, I was thrilled to discover the North By Northwest connection, even as I was already laying out my ten-part plot with a drone aircraft battle in the sixth (or seventh) part, followed by the spy or the man on the run coming in from the cold (to a Wise Elder in a shack in the woods, so to speak), and then becoming a vital part of the solution in the final chapters. I very consciously took the lone male hero (Richard Hannay) in John Buchan’s novel, and split him into a gender-equal male-female duo working on equal terms: Rick (Richard) and Hannah (from Hannay). I’ve said elsewhere that the thin potboilers of the early to mid 1900s always included a female prop called simply “the girl.” I’ve noticed that in Michael Crichton’s early novels, for example. I call it “wallpaper.” If “the girl” is “wallpaper,” then by definition “the guy” becomes “wallpaper” as well—shallow.

I’ve always preferred working with a strong female lead and a strong male lead. For example, in my first mainstream novel—begun 1992: The CON2: The Generals of October (anniversary edition titled CON2: Autumn of the Republic)—I dramatize what would or will happen when an unhappy USA finally has that Second Constitutional Convention or CON2, a shoe that has been waiting to drop since 1787, when the existing Constitution was composed at CON1 in Philadelphia. In itself, my novel is a parable for why CON2 must never happen. I left the discoveries to the two leads (male and female) in equal portions.

My male lead in CON2: The Generals of October is a young, handsome US Army Captain named David Gordon, working for a secret intel unit disguised as an Inspector General office. He pairs off with Lieutenant Victoria “Tory” Breen, a highly competent and courageous Military Police officer also assigned to protect or shadow the enormous encampment of CON2 with its delegates and protective military units in Washington, D.C. I’ll keep this brief: Together, David and Tory stop the menace, save the nation, and fall in love happily ever after (HEA).

For me, this seems the sensible and optimal author practice. Keeping things simple, which usually makes ideas strongest, we have:

Story Arc: Call the essential story skeleton its story arc, which is comprised of two interdependent trajectories:

—Plot Arc: the plot arc (what happens)


—Character Arc: the character arc (who does it and why).

Having worked in this mode for a long time, I find it comfortable and extremely powerful. You have to flush “the girl” down the pipes of history, and treat your characters with total and equal respect regardless of gender and other tags.

You can (almost paradoxically) then use their powerful gender differences to optimal effect because, as I like to point out, all literature is the love story. It’s a biological imperative that drives why we need stories in the first place.

That’s my theory. I haven’t seen a better one yet. I’m already working on the next novel with exactly those ingredients to make my story sizzle.


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