Every Time Unlucky: finding new challenges for a series character by Antony Johnston
Do we expect spy thrillers to have an emotional arc?
Perhaps not. Many readers, certainly, seek out the genre for action and tradecraft rather than mental health issues, relationship problems, or dysfunctional family snapshots.
Nevertheless, the Brigitte Sharp thrillers have always featured her internal struggles, and emotional development, alongside the fist fights and car chases. There are plenty of those too, never fear! But it’s important to me that we see how Bridge’s inner turmoil affects the mission, and vice versa; glimpses of the human being beneath the superspy.
In The Exphoria Code we met Bridge as a troubled MI6 hacker, traumatised and uncertain, on a mission that helped restore her self-belief. In The Tempus Project I turned to external pressures, making Bridge decide whether to bow to the expectations of her Anglo-French family, or defy them and live without compromise.
So now, with third book The Patrios Network, I faced a problem: what remaining emotional journey could I take her on? This mission sees Bridge fighting neofascists radicalised online to prepare for a race war, while she also pursues the stolen plans for a hi-tech weapon. It touches on refugees, people trafficking, white supremacy, and hostile nations working to destabilise society. Not exactly light reading (and the research was as depressing as you’d imagine) but I was determined to ensure Bridge also continued developing as a character, in ways that make sense within the context of the mission.
Perhaps inevitably, the answer turned out to be right in front of my eyes.
The story’s issues all revolve around crossing a line in way or another; of going beyond what society deems reasonable. That’s not a value judgement. Sometimes societal norms can become misguided, and deciding whether or not to push against them is a decision we all make every day. Not in the context of globe-trotting espionage, of course! But how often do we compromise our desires in exchange for keeping a job, fitting in with peers, or satisfying our families? And as society changes, do we?
None of us is the same person we were last year, last month, or even yesterday. That’s just as true of Bridge, which led me to ask: has her line moved? Are there things she would do in the past which now rankle? Just how much is she willing to compromise, anyway? To make these questions gripping naturally requires putting her through the wringer, but that’s the price of being the hero.
Nevertheless, the book isn’t a literary character deconstruction. Spy tradecraft, desperate gun battles, and undercover disguises abound; from London to Paris to [REDACTED] Bridge kicks, shoots, and bluffs her way through the pages like any good field officer. After all, my first duty is to give the reader their own particular emotional arc – of excitement, and a compulsion to turn those pages!
But a little humanity goes a long way.
Antony Johnston is a New York Times bestseller and creator of Atomic Blonde. The Brigitte Sharp thrillers are in development for TV, and The Patrios Network is on sale now, published by Lightning Books.