Investigating thrillers – the male romance – 2020 Writing Week 39

Mike GristWeekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Along the way in my recent investigation of the thriller genre (reading Baldacci’s Memory Man, Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X, Mark Dawson’s The Cleaner), I first called these books ‘cosy thrillers’. Now I’m refining that to ‘male romances’.

What does that mean? Well, they’re fantasies for men, just like romances are fantasies for women. What does a romance do?

Romance – a lady gets a good man, happily ever after

Male romance (thriller) – a man protects a single mother and her son from bad men, has sex with her and moves on

I suppose these are evolutionarily-based human directives. The genetic human female directive is to grab a man and keep him to provide for and protect her and her kid. The genetic male directive is to dominate rivals and spread his genes as widely as possible.

And that’s it. On some level it’s the fantasy all our selfish genes are telling us to do, and fulfilling it causes dopamine spikes from the brain. These books are like a drug that gives us our fix.

Now, this kind of thriller/male romance doesn’t seem to hold great attraction for me. That said, I respect Shane, enjoyed Logan, and probably plenty of other similarly themed stories. But it’s not my go-to archetypal plot.

What’s the archetype I like? The thriller that really turned me on to thrillers was 24 the TV show. I guess in that Jack Bauer is going to rescue his wife/daughter, but what interested me most was the terrorists. What drove them?

That’s the haunting mystery that ended both season 1 and season 2. It reflected the reality of 9/11 in a very real way. Why do they hate us? Everyone was asking that back then. Wondering that. 24 seemed to suggest it might have answers. I cared about that much more than rescuing Kim/Terry.

Draw a straight line from that to Wren. Neither his wife nor his child are at stake in any of the books. He doesn’t have sex with any vulnerable single mothers. He doesn’t bond with/protect anybody’s son. He just goes after the terrorists, and we get to delve deeply into why they do what they do.

That’s what fascinates me. In that sense, I’m not a great fit for the male romance side of the thriller.

Other famous male romances:

Jack Reacher is the most obvious one. He rolls into a town, gets wronged, and helps/shags a single mom before roaming on. Every time, pretty much. Except maybe my favorite Reacher novel, Make Me, where he goes into a small town where people are arriving and disappearing.

That one really inspired the darknet shenanigans of Wren. It also has the tropes of single women to shag and vulnerable children to be protected, but the core was the darknet operation of the bad guys – it really fascinated me. Why were they doing what they were doing? The answer is a super dark and fascinating take on human nature.

Jason Bourne has a female companion throughout, at least in the movies, I think. He protects/shags her probably.

Shane is the archetype. He protects both the woman and her weak husband, while becoming a role model for the son. No shagging here… Did Clint Eastwood shag the ladies in his Westerns? Not sure. Maybe he wasn’t even a role model to any sons. He just dominated the bad guys then left town.


Beyond being simply very interesting for me to think about, this genre distinction really helps me understand what the thriller genre is and what reader expectations are. Perhaps I should add shagging single moms and protecting their kids to my stories. It’s an easy thing to add. I won’t add that with Wren, but in another series, maybe…

I’ve got another series idea. Who knows if it will pan out or hold my interest, but the scale will be smaller than Wren. Big issues will be smaller, and while motivations of the bad guy will still be interesting, they’ll be more normal. The hero can shag/rescue/protect the single woman. Protect the son. Hit those cosy male romance notes.

Wren can be my more literary ‘hard’ thriller. This other (or some other series) can be my ‘cosier’ thriller. We shall see.

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