Author says he takes a hard-hearted approach to character and planned to kill him off
Jack Reacher has millions of fans all over the world, but his creator, Lee Child, has revealed he doesn’t “like Reacher that much” and originally planned to end his bestselling thriller series by having his character “bleed out on some filthy motel bathroom floor”.
Child said he had a motto about his 6ft 5in former US army military policeman: “I need to like him less than you’re going to like him.”
His 24 novels about Reacher – a wandering loner who rights wrongs before moving on, toothbrush in pocket, to the next problem – have sold more than 100m copies around the world, according to his publishers.
“The best thing to do is not to get too close to the character,” said Child. “That’s what keeps him alive and honest and authentic. There are many series where the author clearly falls in love with the character and starts to be too protective. I’ve always been very hard-hearted. I don’t like Reacher that much; I’m in total control of him. I’m the only person in the world he’s scared of.”
Child described Reacher as “the noble loner, the mysterious stranger, essentially the knight errant”, saying he arrived as a character “pretty much fully formed”. Child recently announced he would be handing the series over to his brother, Andrew Grant, rather than continuing it himself.
But this had not always been his plan, he told the Guardian. At first, he thought he would have to conclude the series with the brutal killing of his main character. “Initially I had the idea that in the last book he would die in a blaze of glory or noble self-sacrifice. It would have been difficult to plot, because he’s a very capable guy, but there would have been some situation where he’s either got to give up the person he’s protecting or give up himself, and obviously he’ll give up himself and bleed out on some filthy motel bathroom floor.”
This final book even had a title, Die Lonely. But when he mentioned it to fans they would “groan in abject misery”, he said, so he had to rethink.
“I thought maybe we could have a metaphorical version, where he’s heading for the bus depot to leave town but stops and thinks: ‘Maybe I’ll stay here and adopt a dog.’
“But I moved through that and thought: ‘Let’s let Andrew keep it going.’ He really is me 15 years ago, still full of energy, still full of ideas, and so I think this is the perfect solution,” Child said.
“I thought it would run until I couldn’t do it any more, but he [Reacher] just proved so genuinely popular, people really like him, and I started to feel a bit of a responsibility to keep him going.”
Sara Paretsky, by contrast, has no plans to pass on her creation, the Chicago private detective VI Warshawski. She said: “I absolutely have to put it in writing that there is to be no one taking over the series when I die,” she said.
“People in the industry talk about the character being your ‘brand’. Well, thank you, she is not Pampers or a tampon, she is a person alive in my imagination, not a commodity to be bought and sold by other people. I was so startled when I read the news about what Lee Child was doing.”
When Paretsky started writing her bestselling series, which now runs to 20 books, she wanted to age Warshawski in real time. However, she’s stopped at about 50 “because I just don’t want VI to be helpless”.
For Child, a long-running series works because while the plots change, the character at the heart of the story stays the same.
“If you study English literature, you’re taught the character must change and go on a journey. I want very much the opposite,” he said. “As a reader, I love series for the familiarity, so I’ve put effort into stopping Reacher from changing. That’s why people love series: it’s like putting on a comfortable old sweater, they know what they’re going to get.”
Ian Rankin has taken a different approach with his creation, the curmudgeonly John Rebus, who has aged “more or less in real time” as the series progresses. “That keeps it fresh, that keeps me interested in him, because he’s not the same person he was when I starting writing,” said Rankin.
But “there are problems with that, as I’ve discovered,” he said. “He had to retire. He retired twice, in fact. He retired at the end of Exit Music, because he had hit the mandatory retirement age for police detectives in Scotland. I found a way to keep him in the force working as a civilian for a while. Then even that had to come to an end.
“But I keep finding things for him to do. I’m writing one at the moment. He’s got health issues now, but he’s still getting into trouble and mysteries are still there to be solved.”