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Daniel Palmer Headshot

The Joy of Harm

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"Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized." - Albert Einstein

Why is it bad things happening to good people makes for such compelling, dare I say, pleasurable reading? There is a universal appeal to peeking into the miserable lives of others that has nothing to do with schadenfreude in its purest definition. Most readers don't rejoice in a protagonist's suffering (unless that character is poorly developed or turns out to be an unreliable narrator), but still desire to experience it. In fact, my publisher, Kensington, is downright ecstatic when I turn in stories about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and downright horrible circumstances. Basically, it's what they pay me to do.

My fourth suspense novel, Desperate, tells the story of a married couple, Gage and Anna, each rebounding from personal tragedy, desperate for a child of their own. When they encounter a homeless pregnant woman named Lily in need of a loving couple to adopt her unborn baby, it is a match made in thriller heaven. Of course things go hideously awry once Lily is entwined in Gage and Anna's lives.

Stories of military and political intrigue often top bestseller lists, and it's easy to understand their popularity. These tales abound with high stakes drama, colorful characters, ripe conflict and palpable tension. Will the world end? Will the assassination happen? Will the spy get away with highly sensitive information? Fun as these books are to read not many of us can personally relate to globe-trotting do-gooders who have expertise in weaponry, combat, and spy craft that makes even our greatest skills--be it culinary, knitting, or house painting--seem painfully pedestrian by comparison.

No, we're much more in tune with our friend who is going through a painful divorce, a loved one suffering the loss of a parent, a co-worker who has been fired unceremoniously, or child who has taken seriously ill. These are ordinary problems that take place each day, often without our knowledge, unless we happen to be personally affected by such troubles. And yet, it's not those ordinary problems we want to read about in thriller fiction.

I'm not suggesting those topics do not warrant the in-depth exploration a novel can provide. I'm saying themes of ordinary strife are the playing field of others. What suspense readers enjoy seeing their everyday hero tackle are hyper ordinary problems--the extraordinary circumstance, if you will. It's not just a divorce, but also a divorce with incredibly high stakes--preferably something involving life and death. A story of mistaken identity isn't good enough unless the protagonist is put in grave danger. We have come to expect high stakes in high stakes professions--police and legal come to mind. But the hero in Desperate is a quality assurance manager for a lithium battery company. While his skills are admirable, they offer little help when he's threatened in a dark alley.

A central tenet of the Everyman is to construct a character without any expert skills or special abilities. A well-rounded, yet average personage that the reader can project themselves onto, and therefore into the story. Most always the goal of the everyman is to live a happy life and blend in with the rest of society, while the obligation of the author to create enough conflict to make that goal seem unobtainable. Then we root and we read. We want the character to achieve what we all desire--happiness and love.

For this reason, it is essential for the everyman to be not just relatable, but also sympathetic--it's the non-negotiable requirement of the gig. In this way, Hitchcock was the master of the everyman thriller. Think of John "Scottie" Ferguson from Vertigo, whom the audience relates to from the very first moments of the film when we see him clinging by his fingertips to the gutter as it bends under his weight; the asphalt below stretching out into the infinite of his mind's fear. Why is the scene so relatable? Why does it create tremendous empathy? Because we all have fears, just like poor Scottie does.

So perhaps by watching the everyman archetype suffer what we're really doing in a way is trying to answer the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? It could be we are all hardwired to be empathic to our fellow everyman. We want them to succeed because it's what we want for ourselves. Even if these stories can't definitively answer why horrible things happen to our friends, our neighbors, even to us, it does inform in a unique way. Stories of the everyman showcase our shared humanity and, let's face it, it's hard to pass a mirror without taking a glance at the reflection within.

Because we see ourselves in these everyman heroes, when they overcome tremendous obstacles it implies we too can do the same. Let's face it, most of us can't make a kill shot from two hundred yards away. But to imagine that our brains, creativity, cunning, and smarts, is enough to get us out of any jam is hopeful indeed. In this light, we aren't powerless to tackle our most difficult problems. In fact we are truly powerful, so long as we have the courage and passion to face our greatest challenges head on.