Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Weep No More My Hero

Please, Thriller writers, no more heroes who shed tears. No more manly weeping.

Thrillers are about tough guys. Often, far too often, I'll be reading along and suddenly I can almost hear the writers' mind-gears begin to grind:

OK, I've had a bunch of action scenes, I've had my guy kill when he has to, he's shown he has the skills and the guts to get the job done. Hmm, what I need now is to prove that he's also got a soft side, that he cares, especially about the love interest, that he has depth. I've got to hook some women readers, everyone says they're the only ones buying books these days. I know! I'll have him cry! Women love it when a man cries!

Sorry. Actually, women hate it when a man cries. In real life and in books.

Men hate it as well.

In a thriller, it's just sooo obvious, such a cheap ploy to try and snag reader sympathy. Instead of figuring out an interesting, novel way for the hero to show emotion, the author takes the low road and sure enough, the hero's eyes begin to “well with tears.”

“He turned his head so she couldn't see the tear that trailed down his cheek.”

“He felt hot tears spring to his eyes.”


And I'm not talking about first novels or wannabes, Big Guys (you know who you are) do this over and over. I think it's always a mistake. Even though I may love the rest of the book, it's always tainted for me if the hero cries.

It makes the author look exploitive. It makes the character look foolish, and what is worse, weak.

Which is the kiss of death for a thriller character.

I think Lee Child's series character Reacher is pretty much the epitome of a thriller hero. He's beyond tough, but at the same time readers know he can be emotional, that he has feelings. I haven't read all the books in the series, but has Reacher ever wept? I'm asking the question of those of you who are aficionados of this series. Has he ever shed a tear? I'll bet not. Or let's just ask Lee Child. Are you out there? Has Reacher ever wept?

OK, here's a challenge to writers and to readers. Writers, if you've ever had your hero weep, tell us where and why you think it worked. Readers, if you disagree with me, send me an example of a thriller hero who weeps, cries, sheds a tear or two and who comes off looking the better for it.

I'm the most unreligious of men, but the only one that I can come up with that does work is in The King James Bible, the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verse 35. In its entirety.

“Jesus wept.”


  1. okay, so you want the guy to put his fist through the wall to show how distressed he is. I agree that's probably tougher, but don't thriller writers have moral obligation to the young men of America to let them know it's okay to cry?

  2. That's my point. It's not ok to cry. At least in a thriller. Putting your fist through the wall? See, that's already more creative than weeping.

  3. Well, they're not thrillers, but in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, Jack Aubrey, a manly man in all other respects, occasionally has a good cry, and still comes off as a swashbuckler - yes, a sensitive swashbuckler.

  4. Whups - I look at the last paragraph of a scene of a wannabee novel I'm writing and see that I just stepped into the cliche of the sobbing hero:

    "The gang member thought he saw the man fly straight up into the sky but he couldn't tell for sure and didn't think anyone would ever believe it anyway. He also couldn't know that the man who had attacked them was sobbing silently as he disappeared into the night."

    Honestly, I wasn't after a cheap ploy - I tried to think of how I would feel, if my wife and kids were kidnapped and I was forced to do crazy vigilante stuff. The thought of losing them would be enough to make me weep in reality, I think the frustration / helplessness / rage would drive me nearly insane. I'm not an action hero, but I am a former Marine, and think of myself as tough when I need to be - I've been in disasters and dealt with horrific accidents and emergencies and was coldly calm and just did what was needed without any emotional overload. Yet, losing those closest to me would certainly turn on the water works. I still get emotional thinking of the loss of my father, and seeing my wife devastated at the loss of our first baby tore my heart apart. So I thought my 'hero' would be like that. I had thought that action hero's never showing emotions would be phony. I did toy with the idea of putting a humorous one liner - some pragmatic gallows humor one would expect from an action hero, but thought a real writer wouldn't resort to that.

    Any suggestions on a better way to handle that?

  5. If you're worried about doing a crying scene well, then my advice would be to to just not do it at all. You have very little to gain and much to lose. I would offer the same advice to 99% of the thriller writers I read when it comes to sex scenes. But that's a topic for another day.

    Thrillers are not usually depictions of real life. Thriller heros are not real people, even though to be successful characters they need to have at least some realistic characteristics. And the situations you suggest, the loss of a child or parent, could indeed bring some strong men to tears, but not necessarily all strong men. If you were writing a mainstream novel you could delve as deeply as you liked into the various expressions of grief. But that's not the given purpose of a thriller. Bending or breaking genre "rules" is dangerous for a writer, and one should be very sure that the result is worth the transgression.

  6. Ok, I get that. Say - what would be the top ten rules for the thriller genre, not to break? Aside from only one ! per 100,000 words that I read somewhere :)

  7. That's always one of my rules for writing a novel in general: You're allowed one exclamation mark per novel, use it wisely.

    Good question, what are the top ten rules for thriller writing? Maybe over time we can figure them out on this space. We know where I begin:

    Rule # 1. No weeping.

  8. These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.
    1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
    . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
    You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

  9. OK, everyone, print them out and tack them up over the computer.

    If you're still out there, Mr. Leonard, I've got to ask the question: Did you ever have one of your main male characters (and oh, what characters they are) weep?

  10. What with the babe to rescue and a bomb ticking off the final three minutes before obliterating the warehouse and dodging bullets every three or four steps, the average "good guy" hero just doesn't have the TIME to cry! (If the writer is doing his job, that is).

  11. How about blinking back tears? Or moaning softly?

  12. Actually, I believe stage actors are advised that blinking back tears and appearing to be trying not to cry are more effective indicators of distress than actual weeping. Good advice for writer's as well. As far as moaning softly, we'll get to that when we have the sex scene blog.

  13. There is nothing wrong with a hero weeping. The real crime is not the crying but using a cliche to describe it, (ie., blinking back tears, hot tears springing into the eyes, felt on the verge of weeping.) Just say he began to cry. (hard to tell with a couple of comment posters,but it looks like all the anti-weepers are male. Why am I not surprised?)
    Mr. Leonard, as a writer (non-fiction)and college level journalism writing teacher, I agree with your rules. My mantra is: show, don't tell.

  14. Let's see...I think maybe Teddy Magyk cried from laughing so hard after he murdered the old lady under the boardwalk, Atlantic City, in GLITZ.

    And I recall Stick felt like crying there at Detroit Metro at the end of SWAG, finding out from the arresting officers he'd been sold old by his squeeze.

    There may be others -- I'll have to think about it.

  15. One of the commenters here put the question I had for Lee Child into the Reacher Forum and received an answer. I asked if Reacher had ever cried, and I thought the answer would be no. I was wrong.

    Reacher cries in Persuader when he finds Dominique Kohl's body. Page 488 of UK paperback edition.

    'I threw up on the floor and then for the first time in more than twenty years I cried.'

    I've got to say, this works. Which is what commenter Marlene C. says above, if you're going to do it, just say he cries.

  16. Loving this thread. As a big fan of the Aubrey/Maturin series, I’d add this thought: What “softens” Jack Aubrey for me isn’t his crying, it’s his violin-playing. He’s a warrior with an artistic soul. But the key point is that the music serves many more purposes than just revealing the character’s softer side.

    It’s a common ground between Jack and Stephen, who otherwise are implausibly mismatched. Playing together gives them a means of patching up their occasional quarrels. It even provided the mechanism for their first meeting. It also reflects Jack’s social striving and even his persistent resentment of his “betters” who aren’t actually any better than him.

    That’s making one trait do a lot of work.

  17. In my experience, women don't GET it when a man cries. They are under the misapprehension, based understandably enough on their own experience, that it is as easy and cleansing for us as it is for them.

    I used to read thrillers, but I don't much any more because the characters are as shallow as a coat of paint. And the examples you gave are clichés -- small wonder you don't care for it.

    Aubrey doesn't cry often, but when a talented and handsome young midshipman falls 150 feet from the highest yardarm to lie smashed across a carronade, he picks up the boy's body and carries it into the cabin, tears streaming down his face. This is graceful, appropriate, and diminishes him not one whit in our eyes. But then, Aubrey is a fully three-dimensional character.

    Aubrey is as far from Jack Ryan as Jack Ryan is from Winnie the Pooh.

  18. Aubrey is a true hero with nothing to prove. if tears come then he cries. If you need a reference I refer you to "The Healing of Sir Urry" in Morte D' Arthur.

    A cursed Knight can only be cured by "the best knight in the world". After searching the world Sir Urry finds King Arthur and is cured by Lancelot. The King and all of the Knights praise God for the miracle except for the hero: "Sir Launcelote wepte, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn" (Malory 1152.35-36).

  19. Contrast Elmore Leonard's Leonard's rules with Patrick O'Brian's writing. PoB is full of description: colors of sky, texture of sea, faces, manner of carrying oneself, etc. etc. As for weather, the very first sentence of "Post Captain" describes the weather." Far from diminishing the writing, it is an enhancement.
    They are such different writers. Leonard is full of plot. PoB can seem almost plotless.

    Of course, Orwell's sixth rule of writing says it all:

    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  20. The poster above, Anonymous, is referring to George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language. A nice explanation of Orwell's rules of writing in this essay can be found here: http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

    Or if you want to read the original, go here: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

    All of this is leading to another entry about the nature of Thrillers and other genre writing as opposed to mainstream novels or even the novel's of Patrick O'Brian, for example.

  21. You're in publishing? I hope your bosses can't see this.

    Plurals don't use an apostrophe before the S.

    Perhaps I shall give you the benefit of the doubt and consider it a typo.

  22. Yes, Anonymous, I cringed when I hit the post button and at the last second saw the apostrophe error as it winged its way onto the Interweb, but I'm new at this so had no idea how to call it back. Stop! I'm not that stupid! Really!

    It was late, I was tired.

    I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all those who are writing to correct my mistakes, point out my URL errors and offer advice on the more technical aspects of blogging. I assume I'll get better at this.

  23. oh no, writers are human and err as do we all? well, there goes another misconception.