In this series of posts I promised to share with you some of the key elements of STEEL FEAR, how they came to be and how they work in the story. Last post (“A Strange and Alien Universe”) was about a central “character” in the book: the aircraft carrier itself. This time, we take a close look at the story’s hero—and the question of whether or not he really is our hero or, perhaps, something rather more opposite … or both.
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“Everyone,” the writer John Barth pointed out, “is necessarily the hero of his own story.” You are the hero of yours. I’m the hero of mine. We all are, each of us, the central characters of the stories we’re telling with our lives.
But here’s the thing about you and me: we are imperfect. Flawed. In fact—let’s be honest, shall we?—flawed in lots of ways, some of which we see clearly and perhaps some we don’t.
I think that’s why we like our heroes to be less than perfect. Complicated. The more flawed the better. Because when you read a good story, you want it to resonate. You want to identify with the hero, so you can “put on” the story as you read it, like a well-fitted suit of clothes. And you can’t do that if the hero is too squeaky-clean and sparkle-toothed.
Enter the antihero.
By now you know where the story of STEEL FEAR came from. My Navy SEAL buddy Brandon served on an aircraft carrier back in the nineties, when women had just been integrated on board, and during that deployment there was a serial molester on the ship. The perpetrator’s identity was never discovered, and at the time Brandon wondered, what if those incidents had been murders?
By the time he brought that idea to me a decade and a half later, he’d drafted some 12,000 words of a story setup.
Brandon’s story idea had an interesting hero: Scott, a Navy SEAL who’d lost his leg in a firefight, got fitted with a titanium prosthesis, worked his way back up and became a JAG officer. Strong. Traumatized. Complicated.
I liked Scott. Good character for the story.
But not our hero.
To carry the whole novel, we needed someone still more complicated than Scott. We needed someone whose life story was complex enough, whose psyche was damaged enough, whose character was puzzling enough and strange enough and rich enough to carry not just a novel but an entire series of novels.
I marinated this thought for well over a year. Every now and then, jotted a sporadic idea or two. And when it finally came time for us to dust off our notes and get serious about writing the book, the first step—before researching aircraft carriers, before starting to work out the plot—was to spend a few weeks writing about Finn.
Although he wasn’t “Finn” yet. At that point, we called him “X.” Finding his name was part of learning who he was, or at least who he seemed to be. (For me, characters are never quite fleshed out, never quite fully there, until the story is well under way and we start seeing how they behave in situ, what they do and say in the face of actual events and circumstances.)
True to his name, Finn is an echo of the classic American orphan/adventure hero (think Mark Twain’s Huck Finn), but there is also something dangerous about him, even lethal (think shark’s fin approaching you in the shallows).
Early on we learn that he is there on “special assignment,” though he doesn’t (or can’t) say exactly what that is.
Special assignment. An antiseptic term, crafted to cover a lot of sins. Could be as simple as briefing a high-level committee. Or as complex as extracting sensitive intelligence from deep inside hostile territory. Sometimes a “special assignment” concluded when two men walked into a dark alley and only Finn walked out.
Finn is not just the hero of a mystery, he’s a mystery himself. A cipher in the middle of a riddle.
We first meet Finn through the helicopter pilot Monica’s eyes. Monica, who is copiloting the helo going to pick him up, has an intense dislike for SEALs. Here’s what happens when she first sees him in the distance, accompanied by an officer:
As the bird lowered to the tarmac Monica spotted the two men walking toward them, illuminated by runway lights.
Even from a hundred feet off she had zero trouble identifying the SEAL. He was tall, muscular, powerful, carried his fully loaded backpack as if it weighed no more than a paper boarding pass. He didn’t stride so much as he loped, moving with a dangerous grace that made her think of the mountain lions she’d seen back home.
As they drew closer she could make out the officer lagging behind the SEAL in his desert cammies, lugging the other man’s kit bag and gun case. This little guy was totally eclipsed by the SEAL, not just a head shorter but almost a different species: thin wiry limbs, knobby joints, oversize eyes. He looks like a marsupial, she thought.
In the navy, rank was everything—who outflew, outperformed, outlasted whom—and SEALs were a breed apart. The short, awkward-looking officer might technically outrank the big guy, but the big guy outclassed him in every other way. The contrast was almost comical.
Marsupial, meet mountain lion.
Stickman [a crew member] leaned out the door and shouted over the din of the rotors. “We’re here for Chief Finn.”
The marsupial took the backpack from the mountain lion, stepped forward without a word, and boarded the helo.
Monica’s assumptions have just been turned upside-down—and so have ours. This SEAL isn’t your typical Hollywood military spec ops hero. In many ways, he is the opposite of what you expect.
Preternaturally observant, yet seems strangely absent any real empathy. Socially awkward (he can never seem to remember to include the “Sir” when addressing an officer and typically adds it as a fragmented afterthought), yet with an uncanny ability to make instant connections with nearly anyone (he calls it his HUMINT network, the military’s acronym for “human intelligence”).
He looks strange, yet blends in. Is an elite sniper, but has “a weird thing about guns.” Despises authority figures but worships his lieutenant, Kennedy. Loves water, hates big ships. He is, as his friend and (possibly) life partner Carol tells him, “a fucked-up mass of contradictions.”
His pre-navy past is a mystery. He has, apparently, no last name. Which is part of the puzzle of his origin. There is a dark secret there, and I won’t say what it is, but it has colored everything about him. Made him who and what he is.
And what that is, we are not exactly sure. In fact, we’re not sure whether he is falsely accused—or far guiltier than anyone imagines.
Finn was the missing piece, the X factor that, once we found him, caused the story to start sparking onto the page. He is, as we all are, the hero of his own story—but exactly what that story is will take some unraveling.
And isn’t that true for each of us?