The storytelling trope I hate most is that the hero needs a personal reason to get involved ("Refusal of the Call," if you wanna get all Campbellian about it).
It's such a prevalent trope, it even works its way into genres where it isn't traditionally needed.
One of the biggest culprits? Modern detective stories and crime thrillers.
As Weird Fiction author Misha Burnett once pointed out, there's a trend in modern detective stories for saddling the protagonist with some personal loss or trauma that drives them to catch killers. Mom/Dad/Sis was murdered by the infamous Bay Street Butcher, a case that remains UNSOLVED TO THIS DAY!
But in older stories, the detectives just want to catch killers because they're killers.
That's a noble goal in isolation, and it needs no further justification for the reader to buy into it.
Sometimes, the best reason for your hero to get involved is that it's the right thing to do. But with a few notable exceptions (indies, some action/adventure series, etc.) we seem to be losing that in our fiction. Heroes motivated by nothing more than a personal code or a sense of justice aren't seen as compelling or "realistic."
To put it succinctly, we've turned into an audience that can understand Batman, but not Superman. Avenging a personal tragedy is seen as a realistic motivation. But standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way is seen as hopelessly quaint and outdated.
At a minimum, it's a sign that something is deeply wrong with our notions of what constitutes a Good Man.
Maybe that's why I hate the trope so much. It's a glaring reflection of the nihilistic selfishness permeating modern American society.
For my part, all I can do about it is try and tip the scale a little with my own work. We write what we believe, after all. And for all my cynicism, I do believe the world changes for the better when Good Men see an injustice, and try to do something about it.
With Christmas behind us and the New Year just around the corner, it's a pretty safe assumption that most of my readers have watched Die Hard sometime in the last few weeks.
Based loosely on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard almost single-handedly redefined what an action movie could be. While stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone dominated the 80's box office as invincible super commandos, Die Hard broke the mold in giving us Bruce Willis as Regular Guy John McClane. It also confined the action to a single, claustrophobic locale, creating a high-octane game of cat and mouse between McClane and the heavily armed villains.
"Unique Location + Everyman Hero + Over-the-Top Action" proved to be a winning formula. It changed the genre forever, spawned countless imitators, and created a film so memorable that it was successfully memed into a bonafide holiday tradition decades later.
It's hardly surprising people still find so much to say when discussing the film.
What I find odd is that people hardly ever talk about the novel that inspired the movie. Well, this year I decided to read it for myself. And while I enjoyed the book immensely, I can see why it rarely gets talked about.
Folks, Nothing Lasts Forever is dark.
Tonally, it's almost the polar opposite of the movie it inspired, focusing on themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how exposure to both can dehumanize you.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Nothing Lasts Forever is the story of Joe Leland, ex-WWII aviator, retired detective, and semi-retired PI and security consultant.
Joining his estranged daughter Stephanie at her company Christmas party, Joe is looking forward to a chance to reconnect. He's also looking forward to spending some time with his two grandchildren, who are at the party with their mother.
His plans are quickly shot down when a group of German terrorists led by Anton Gruber take over the building. Outnumbered, barefoot, and armed with nothing but a 9mm Browning Hi-Power, Joe manages to evade the terrorists and hide.
And while that set-up might be identical to the film's, Joe Leland's inner narration reveals him to be a starkly different character than John McClane.
The gang. He'd seen four. Even with their radios, they needed two people downstairs, in the lobby and in the control room. The one in the lobby was probably sending the police away at this moment. It would take Leland ten to fifteen minutes to get down on foot to the street level from here. He would have the element of surprise in his favor, and would probably be able to get out to the street. Then what?
In other words, Joe Leland isn't a cop trying to end the situation peacefully and bring the terrorists to justice.
From the outset, it's clear he's an armed professional forced into a one-man war. He gives no quarter to his enemies, shooting from ambush, setting booby traps, and relying on the same kind of hit-and-run tactics the terrorists themselves use against governments.
He fights dirty because the stakes are high. He knows if he doesn't win, the LAPD's heavy-handed tactics—which he helped develop—will put the hostages at risk. It's a race to kill the terrorist before the LAPD comes in, guns blazing.
As I mentioned above, Nothing Lasts Forever uses the action to explore themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how rapidly both can change a man. After his first kill in the novel—a woman—Leland experiences shock and second thoughts. This war, he realizes, may have too high a price. By the end, he's so desensitized to the act that he'll mow down both male and female terrorists without a second thought.
The book takes this idea several steps further. In his broken, beaten, and bloody state, Joe resembles a primitive savage. When his own granddaughter spots him near the climax, she mistakes him for one of the terrorists he's been shooting into hamburger for 200 pages.
It's an important scene, and one that dramatically illustrates the novel's central theme.
After playing both hunted and hunter, the only thing separating Joe from the likes of Gruber and his butchers is his single-minded goal of saving the hostages. But to an innocent bystander, that crucial difference is impossible to see.
Indeed, it's interesting to see how such a familiar story plays out, when the action is serving a radically different purpose than the one we've grown used to.
The film has John McClane running through broken glass, crawling through the ducts like a rat, and rappelling off an exploding tower on a firehose to show us what he's willing to do to save his wife. The novel uses those same set-pieces to show us just how small the dividing line is between a man like Leland and the militant terrorists.
The other thing the novel explores—and that is almost entirely absent from the movie—is the relationship between news media and big disasters like terror attacks. Like international terrorism itself, this was new territory in 1979. "If it bleeds, it leads" might be an old saying, but by 1979 Americans were learning just how ghoulish the camera's fixation on sensational violence could be.
Leland eventually figures out how to use the live news coverage to his advantage, manipulating events on-camera so the terrorists watching see exactly what he wants them to.
It's makes for yet another interesting contrast between Leland and the terrorists, and another illustration of how similar they really are. Once again, Leland isn't using the methods of a Law Enforcement Officer. He's using the tactics of international terrorism against the terrorists.
All in all, Nothing Lasts Forever is a memorable read, a solid entry into the action thriller genre that tackles heavier issues than the film it inspired. It's an exploration of the "Wolves vs Sheepdogs" dichotomy, written long before the phrase gained popularity. It also refuses to give the reader easy answers.
It's very good, but it's about as far from the bombastic, feel-good action of Die Hard as you can possibly get.
Just don't go in expecting the same experience you get from the movie.
If you're looking for a book that does offer bombastic, feel-good action, Elf Hard is available on Kindle.
Die Hard is great.
But do you wish was even more of a Christmas movie?
Do you love the gunfire and explosions, but wish there were also elves, reindeer, and a magical gingerbread village at the North Pole?
If you answered yes, then folks, I've got you covered.
Elf Hard is a fast-paced, hard-hitting novella of Christmas action. A paperback is forthcoming. The Kindle edition is available now.
You can order it here.
Many, many years ago, I was privileged to train with a knife instructor by the name of Tom Sotis.* He was a frequent guest instructor at our home dojo, coming in 3-4 times annually to show us the finer points of his system, one based heavily (but not entirely) on the Filipino art of Kali.
Sotis was and is the real deal, and many of his observations, truisms, and training methods have stuck with me over the years, even when I couldn't train regularly.
Unfortunately, personal circumstances have once again kept me out of the dojo for an extended period. But one of Sotis' earliest and strongest lessons was "It's my job to teach you. It's your job to train you."
Being kept out of the dojo just means I'm not able to learn. I still have a wealth of material I can train. And there's always conditioning.
I've mentioned before how I'm working to rehab bad knees. That continues, and as of this writing, my personal best on the back squat is 75 lbs for 10 sets of 5 reps each.
Yeah, yeah, I know... I'm still moving sissy weights. But I'm also a guy with a blown ACL, who couldn't do one single, bodyweight squat 18 months ago. From where I started, this is practically a different world.
Incidentally, I woke up sore from last night's weight training session, so I did a day of active recovery with some heavy bag work, calisthenics, Kali forms, and Kali solo drills. All performed both orthodox and southpaw, a habit which stems from another of Sotis' truisms: "If you don't know a technique both left and right handed, you don't know it."
Learning can go on pause. But training doesn't stop unless you say it does.
*Incidentally, Tom Sotis still actively teaches in the Holdbook, MA, area. If you're local, and at all interested in knife-base combatives, seek him out. He also has a book available on Amazon.
17 Years ago today, the Second Battle of Fallujah began. It was the single largest urban battle US forces engaged in since Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. I usually don't make a big deal of memorializing it, but maybe I should.
The men I fought alongside in Fallujah were the best men I ever knew. Not all of them made it. None of us made it home unchanged.
I share my worst memories with my bravest brothers.
I truly would not have it any other way.
This year, the memories sting a little harder than usual. The disastrous collapse of the US mission in Afghanistan, and the restoration of control to the Taliban, marks the final and utter failure of our adventures in the Middle East.
I suppose it was inevitable. Bringing US-style Democracy to those places was always a fool's errand.
Even so, the images of the Afghanistan pull-out, and the news that we left Americans and Allies behind to face the mercy of our enemies, just hammers home how little we accomplished, despite all the blood, sweat, and tears.
But the one thing that I learned in my years of service is that courage and valor exist independently of causes.
Win or lose, right or wrong, the Marines and Corpsmen of 1/3—and one particular Army Ranger brother—were the bravest sons-of-bitches I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. It was an honor to chew the same ground as those men, and if given the choice to do it over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Even knowing how it ends.
So tonight, boys, this cigar and this drink are for you.
To Brave Men and Lost Causes.
May all we meet again in happier times.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.