Bad Guy Boot Camp Redux

By John Gilstrap

I’m pleased to announce that my publisher, Kensington, has signed me on for three more installments of the Jonathan Grave series.  The working titles are Untitled Grave 12, 13 and 14.  Few series get that kind of lifespan, and I am both humbled and thrilled.

One of the questions I have to wrestle with at the plotting stage of every book is the most basic of them all: Why?  Jonathan Grave and his team are freelance hostage rescuers who frequently end up rescuing far more than that, and there has to be a plausible reason why his clients, who often are government officials, are compelled to turn to him instead of to local police, the FBI or even the military.

There’s another compelling why question that is often more difficult to satisfy.  More times than not, Jonathan’s enemies are bad-ass dudes who are well-schooled in their bad-assery.  Why do they always lose the fight in the end?  If I’ve established a bad guy who is an expert sniper, it’s not fair to the reader or to the story to make his one bad shot of the book the one that was intended for my protagonist.  All elements of a story need to be earned by the characters.

I’ve just recently discovered the wonderful Amazon original series, “Bosch,” based on the novels of Michael Connelly.  I binge-watched all four seasons over the course of a couple of weeks.  For the most part, the writers keep within the realm of probability, but they dropped the ball at a critical juncture.  Over the course of eight episodes, we’ve come to know and hate a mass-murdering bad guy who is ruthlessly good at what he does.  He’s a killer who kills.  Then, in the final scenes, as Bosch and his partner creep through the woods toward our bad guy’s mountain cabin (without backup, of course), the bad guy gets the drop on our heroes and opens up with a machine gun.  He rips out a good 30 rounds from a defended position from which he’s had plenty of time to aim, but he misses, thus setting up a pretty cool shootout. It’s an exciting scene that just happens to defy logic.

More recently, I was watching the season finale of “Blue Bloods,” another favorite, in which the NYPD is searching for an assassin who’s been offing people with amazing marksmanship.  The MacGuffin of the episode is pretty compelling, and as each of the killer’s targets drops dead, we learn that the police commissioner’s own family is in danger.  In the final reel, our assassin has the commissioner’s son in his sights at point blank range—think three feet—and this one time, when he pulls the trigger, his bullet goes wide.  Aargh!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.  In fact, I wrote about it here in the Killzone back in 2010.  I decided to host a convention of fictional villains to give them a pep talk to inspire them to have more pride in their work.  I called it Bad Guy Boot Camp.  Here is a transcription of my opening remarks:

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Bad Guy Boot Camp. Please take your seats so we can get started. Yes, it’s good to see you, too, Dr. Lecter. What’s that? Oh, no thanks. It looks delicious, but I’m still full from breakfast. Couldn’t eat another thing.

Um, Mr. Morgan? Dexter? Please don’t sit so close to Dr. Lecter.  I’m pleased that you’d like to get to know him better, but wait till after the session. The lounge downstairs has a very nice wine list. I recommend the Chianti. 

Let’s get right to it, shall we? I think I speak for all when I say that I’m sick and tired of the good guys getting all the credit in fiction. Without you, all those stories would be pretty darned boring and I think that . . .

Um, Mr. Dolarhyde, please turn off the camera. We don’t allow filming of these sessions, and I believe you know why. Thank you.

As I was saying, I think it’s about time that, as a group, you started taking more pride in your work. It’s about craftsmanship and respect. For example—and please take no offense—several of you were taken down by a quadriplegic detective. I mean, really. That’s embarrassing. Yes, we all know that it’s the hot chick doing all the leg work (no pun intended), but the quad is the headline, and that makes all of you look bad.

Let’s start at the beginning. You’re villains.  Be . . . I don’t know . . . villainous. Be a freaking bad guy. Do your crimes, get them over with, and quit making it so easy for the heroes. If we frustrate those detectives enough, they’ll quit being so glib.

Let’s start with you serial killers. I know you’re crazy and all, but try to stay focused on your goals: sexual gratification through unspeakable mutilation. Everything else is secondary. Are the notes and the clues really necessary?  You know those always work against you, right?  I know that for some of you, your creative process requires spewing DNA, but how about leaving that as your only direct pathway to arrest? It’s about risk management, people.  Business 101.

If making bombs is your thing, I submit that the digital countdown clock is not your friend.  And folks, please.  All the same color wires.  Trust me, this will frustrate the daylights out of the cops. 

A note about travel: Stay out of Miami, Vegas, New Orleans and New York. They’ve got CSI teams there that are amazing. They’ve got a hundred percent catch ratio, and the average time from incident to arrest is only an hour. Really, an hour. I recommend keeping to the heartland, where all the local police are incompetent and depend exclusively on the FBI or on passing private investigators to get anything done.

Oh, and there’s a town in Maine called Cabot’s Cove.  Bad, bad news there.

Any questions? Great.

Let’s move on to marksmanship and gun play. Folks, at the end of the session today, I’m hosting an outing to the shooting range so you can hone your skills. There’s a trend among all of you where you show excellent marksmanship at the beginning of your crime spree, but then they erode toward the end. Maybe you’re choking because of the pressure, but the basic skills are there. When you whiff that critical shot, you miss by only a fraction of an inch.  When your instructor, Mr. Wick, is finished with you, I’m confident you’ll see a world of difference. 

While we’re on the topic of guns, I beg you to keep one point in mind: When in doubt, shoot. If the moment comes when you’re muzzle to muzzle with the protagonist, don’t negotiate, shoot. Why do you care if he drops his gun? You’re a villain, for heaven’s sake. Just pop him. You don’t need to tell him why.

Yes, Dr. Moriarty, you have a question?

Actually, I’m not sure I agree that murders have become less civilized over the years, but I encourage you to bring that up during your breakout session . . .


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

20 thoughts on “Bad Guy Boot Camp Redux

  1. How many times have I watched/read where the bad guy misses an obvious shot, or sits there spilling the beans about their evil plot while they’re waiting to finish off the good guy. Staples of entertainment. 😎

    But it isn’t easy finding just that right balance either when you are trying to write believably and still be real. In a historical fiction piece set in the U.S. west, I’ve got a frontier army situation where I need the protag to make an error in judgement tactically, but not come off looking like a total buffoon. It’s hard to balance all the pieces. But I’ll get there. 😎

  2. I won’t mention the thriller I just watched, but the hero is being stalked by the master hit man of all hit men. So as he’s walking along a heavily trafficked afternoon sidewalk in a major city, the hit man of all hit men is following him: dressed all in black, including black leather gloves (yep, in the sunshine), to go with his shaved head and glowering expression.

    Our hero remarks to his companion. “We’re being followed.”

    Ya think?

  3. Gee, John, aren’t you being unduly harsh? After all, villains are only human too…aren’t they?

    Thanks for a great morning laugh.

  4. A serious thriller climax or a moment of desperation in a police procedural or other mystery is not a new episode of _The A Team_.

    Missed shots or jammed weapons that just happen to occur at the right time are really dei ex machina. That’s what makes the writing so hard. I guess it’s ok for luck to play a role, but then at least the skills and abilities of the protagonist should create their own luck by appropriately loading the deck/shaping the odds.

  5. THE BIG RED DISPLAY – counting down on the bomb. Whenever I see it I always remark to the screen, “Who is that for?” Do we need a visible display? I am not a bomber, and if I was I wouldn’t admit it here, but it seems to me wouldn’t it be better, and more fun, if the good guy had no idea how much time they had left?

    And it’s not just ‘the bad guy’ who are great shots in the beginning of the story and can’t hit the side of a barn in the end, the same applies to the other side’s military. What, don’t they train?

    That’s enough reiterating what has been said, so here is my question – What is with the second set of books??? So you’ve embezzled – redirected so much money that the FBI is after you, good thing you kept an accurate accounting so they know just how much you have. Is one’s ego so great they have to know to the penny how much they took? Can’t one just have pride in their work, isn’t it sufficient to know you stole enough to afford this beautiful mansion in Belize while you sip on a cocktail overlooking the ocean?

    John – you’re supposed to forewarn a spoiler alert – fortunately last night I watched the season finale of Blue Bloods while doing laundry.

  6. My favorite movie is “Where Eagles Dare.” It’s great despite several glaring uniform mistakes among others, but the topper is the fact the Germans can’t hit anything. This must be why they lost the war. Poor marksmanship. You see it in almost every popular war movie.

    One explanation to the villain missing after the first few shots is a spike in his adrenaline level. Most people can’t shoot accurately once that happens. However, a trained assassin may have different results.

    Several years ago, I binge-watched the first few years of NCIS. My question was: What makes this series work? It’s predictable, relies on a ton of cliches, and the humor is often repetitive. I came to the conclusion that the writers know the characters and the actors know how to deliver a sympathetic performance. They get the audience to buy in and it works.

    • According to an article from the Belfast Telegraph, US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan fire 250,000 rounds for every insurgent killed. I can’t verify that number, but I know that the hit ratio in every war is extremely low. Some of that is tactical–using firepower to keep the enemy’s head down so they can’t shoot back.

  7. Excellent post. I think the larger picture is, of course, believable endings. Spoiler alert .Three of my favorites are:
    Marty: There never was a Roy..
    Aaron: No Marty, there never was an Aaron.

    Hannibal: I must go now. I’m having an old friend for dinner.

    And the best of all:
    Cop; Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

    I think the difference is the whole story was a setup for the final reveal of the truth of the story. If you haven’t seen all three of these, you have cheated yourself. I have to go now to watch Chinatown for the millionth time.

    • I’m one who thinks Chinatown doesn’t hold up so well over the years, but it is an outstanding closing line. And you’re right: the screenwriter wrote to that line from the very beginning.

  8. Isn’t it one thing to bring instant, swift, deadly resolution on the page, but quite another thing to do so on the screen–either screen.

    Had the writers killed off Jamie Reagan, wouldn’t there have been mobs and mobs of people hunting down the writing team members with pitch forks, nooses, and torches? At least in written letters to the production company, e-mails, and the occasional note tied to the arrow being pulled from the TV writer’s gluteus maximus by an emergency room doc?

    Aren’t we talking of the effects of killing in two different media?

    Have you noticed I wrote this whole reply in interrogatives?

    • In THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, Frederick Forsythe handles the whiffed shot really well.

      (Okay, spoiler alert from the 1970s–for those who don’t remember how Charles De Gaulle died (or didn’t die))

      The Jackal is using an ingenious single-shot homemade rifle that is perfectly sighted, but the instant he pulls the trigger to assassinate the president of France, De Gaulle leans forward for one of those French cheek kisses. The shot was well-aimed, but the target moved. Bravo!

    • I’d have been outraged if they had killed Jamie – haven’t forgiven them for killing Linda and how they did it.

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