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Author Nick Petrie Discusses Building a Strong Protagonist

People don't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the science, and no one watches Forrest Gump for seafood recipes. Character is what truly makes an audience turn a page or turn up the volume. Thus, I am so pleased to sit down with bestselling author Nick Petrie to discuss the much anticipated second book in his Peter Ash series Burning Bright because see? I just called it his PETER ASH SERIES. Ash is an astounding character, and the craft, technique and detail that went into his conception and development is just phenomenal. Join me while I ask Nick some burning questions about his bright protagonist. (See what I did there?)

This interview is with author Nick Petrie. Petrie received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and his short story "At the Laundromat" won the 2006 short story contest in The Seattle Review. A husband and father, he runs a home inspection business in Milwaukee. (Interviewed by literary agent Barbara Poelle.)

nick petrie book

Barbara: So, Nick. Lee Child himself was quoted as saying, "Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal." Two questions: How many riffs did you do on air guitar after hearing that, and why, beyond the drifter/veteran angle, do you think so many are thrilled and confident to make this comparison?

Nick: Less air guitar and more of a dance around the living room. A friend compared my situation to being a newbie filmmaker just finished with my first little indie project, and then Steven Spielberg starts saying nice things about me in public. Pretty cool, right? Turns out Lee Child is very generous in this way to new writers. I’m extremely grateful, and thrilled that he likes my work.

It’s odd for me to compare my stuff to Lee Child’s because I’m such of fan of his, and also because it’s curiously something I never did until I kept hearing about our protagonists’ similarities.

Some comparisons are pretty obvious. Like Jack Reacher, Peter Ash is a rootless military veteran. Both characters are physical, confident in their skills, and tend toward action as a solution to problems. Despite this, both characters are also intellectuals – the reader can feel them reasoning their way through the mystery they’re confronting. And both characters have a strong moral center and they use their considerable skills to protect the weak against the powerful.

Barbara: What was your first impression of Peter, what was he doing in your mind? And how has he changed book to book from that initial first impression?

Nick: I had this single image of a young man on a narrow, winding trail, coming down from the mountains to the edge of a town. But for some reason, he didn’t want to go into town. He had a decent pack on his back, he was fit and capable – he wasn’t a bum – but he was hungry and alone.

At the same time, I was coming into contact with combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m a home inspector and these were my customers, buying their first homes. I realized how little I knew about what they’d faced overseas, and were now dealing with on their return home. So I did what I always do: talk to people, ask questions. After some compelling conversations, I made the connection between these young men and women trying to return to their lives and my own mystery man on his narrow mountain trail. Something just clicked.

This actually the core of how Peter is changing. The larger arc of the series is one man’s path back from his wartime experience. He’s trying to find his way home.

[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]

Barbara: Peter moves through the world not necessarily wanting to encounter adventure, but then is, for lack of a better word, subtly relieved when he does. How do you craft that irresistible, impossible line between one dimensional adrenaline junkie versus complex character reacting to external influences in an adrenalized way?

Nick: From a purely craft standpoint, a simple character has a single motivation, while complex characters have two or three or more motivations, at least one of which is in direct conflict with another. Here are a few of Peter’s motivations. Alone, each is pretty basic. Together they paint a more complicated picture.

  1. Peter wants to put the war behind him because it was horrifying, cost him many friends, and has given him post-traumatic stress.
  1. Peter wants to remain a warrior because war has fundamentally changed him as a person, and because he finds physical conflict deeply attractive. The dopamine fight-or-flight response is addictive, and helping others with his warrior skills makes him feel good emotionally.
  1. Peter wants to find love and a home, but returning to civilian life requires an entirely new kind of effort and discipline, one that doesn’t come naturally to Peter.
  1. Peter welcomes the distraction of another adventure, because it allows him to put off the difficulty of his return to civilian life.

Barbara: Lewis is such a fabulous character – and I mean who does that? Who makes the ANTAGONIST of book one into a co-protagonist for the series?!?! (Mad air guitar riff.) Did you mean to make him recurring? Or did he elbow his way in?

Nick: Writing The Drifter, I didn’t plan for Lewis to turn out the way he did. He just showed up with that tilted smile and took over. With the chemistry between Peter and Lewis, I knew Lewis would have to come back. He’s so much fun – he gets almost as much fan mail as Peter.

Barbara: Often one of the most interesting things about a character is his or her flaws. Peter is such an interesting juxtaposition of complicated Everyman. If you asked him what his flaws were what do you think he would say?

Nick: Peter always thinks he can do better, that he should try harder. He’s more concerned with analyzing his failures rather than celebrating his successes. It’s part of what made him a successful Marine, and what makes him such a compelling hero, the fact that he’s never satisfied. At the same time, he’s capable of seeing something truly amazing about the exact moment he’s living – I tried to give him more of those moments in Burning Bright. I had a lot of fun with that book.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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