(Editor’s note: Below you’ll find the 47th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was sent to us by E.A. “Ed” Aymar, who was born in Panama but now lives outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife and their small animal menagerie. Aymar’s first novel, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was released late last year by Black Opal Books. The essay below supplies some background to that book.)
No antihero is more exciting to me than a kick-ass vigilante. I love the concept of the good guy who goes bad, who fights a moral war against those without morals. As a kid, I devoured the cheesy violence of Mack Bolan and the Punisher comic books (the families of both protagonists had been killed by the mafia), and as I grew older, I kept searching for scarred heroes in literature. So it makes sense that my debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, centers around Tom Starks, a widowed single parent desperate to avenge the murder of his wife. Unable to pull the trigger himself, Starks hires a pair of hit men (well, one is a hit woman) to do the job for him. But that job is soon botched, and Tom and his daughter inadvertently become the assassins’ new targets.
Of course, by the time I wrote my novel, my concept of justifiable vengeance had lost its black-and-white simplicity. As a resident of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia triangle, and the child of a parent who was in the Pentagon at the time of impact (but, fortunately, survived), I keenly felt the echoes of September 11, 2001. I lost some of my enthusiasm for revenge when it was played out on a global scale, and in the national debate about which lines were necessary to cross. Furthermore, TV shows born in the same time period--such as 24--that never bothered to question their heroes’ questionable actions, bothered me. Unlike the majority
of 24’s critics, only part of my concern was its endorsement of torture; most of my criticism was because of the empty personality of the show’s lead. A driven but bland hero can survive in television and film by his charismatic good looks but, speaking as a novelist, a character like that couldn’t be more boring to write.
Don’t get me wrong; I love tough guys, and tough guys as well as tough woman populate the pages of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. But my first-person, vengeance-seeking protagonist isn’t part of their world. Yes, Tom Starks wants revenge, and yes, that desire consumes him; but I was often
surprised that Tom found himself more reluctant than he initially realized, even as he was dragged into a world darker than he’d imagined. My aspiring vigilante had trouble making the kind of choices his quest required, and I love that about him. He rushes through the pages of the novel and through his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, first seeking and then desperately rejecting the antihero label, while violence thickens around him like a sick fog. I only realized well after the book was written just how much his indecision was rooted in my complicated thoughts about revenge.
And that’s one of the best parts about developing a character, especially a character you get to grow over time (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead being the first book in a trilogy). The choices Tom Starks struggles with in book one may be a given course of action in books two and three. There’s a lot of fun in this challenge, but you’re always faced with a risk if your character is seeking violence: how far can you extend the sympathy of the reader? And how far can Tom, in this instance, go before he loses my sympathies as his creator? Does his journey have to end in redemption, or does
it simply end in an acceptance of evil? After all, there’s a lot of fun in being evil, but life, especially in fiction, needs limits.
This is an antihero path we’ve seen in characters from Hamlet to Humbert Humbert to Darth Vader, and it’s a hell of a joy to write. It’s also a tricky path, because you have to hope that readers stick with your protagonist to the end. And you have to trust that even if those readers
disagree with his decisions, they understand and believe them. Even as Tom sheds his morals (or, depending on your point of view, adopts new ones), he has to stay believable, he has to stay human. He can’t scar; he has to bleed.