Having a journalist as the main character is good news and bad news. The good news is that it solves one of the trickiest problems in crime fiction writing: if your character is not in law enforcement of some kind (or at least a private detective) and they come across some sort of nefarious activity, say, a murder … why don’t they just call the police?
If your character is a reporter, there’s a perfectly good reason. Or, at least, good enough. There are few things as devoted as a good reporter on the trail of the story. And for an author, that’s a good thing.
The bad news is that in the search for a ”relatable “or ”likable” character — if that’s your goal — a journalist may not be tops on everyone’s likability list. Think of how often journalists are described as predatory animals: vultures, hyenas, snakes and weasels. Or in groups: Packs, hordes, gangs, and circuses. It is simple — and trope-ish — to write a pejorative cardboard reporter, someone shallow, manipulative or loose with the truth. In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, at least, that bitter lush of a tabloid reporter is meant as satire. And J.K. Rowling’s Rita Skeeter is a pretty fabulous exception to my no-clichéd-reporters rule.
But when an author really grasps the deep intent and motivation of a journalist – to get to the truth, to find the story, to change the world, and to get some justice–a book with a reporter character can be especially powerful.
Fiction about reporters can also reveal some of the realities of a reporter’s life: In my psychological thriller Trust Me, it’s the realization that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth. In The Murder List, it’s how savvy politicians and law enforcement officers can wield their information as a weapon with reporters. In The First to Lie, it’s how undercover reporting can be used to advance a personal agenda. And in my upcoming Her Perfect Life, it’s how the intense and relentless pressure not only to have a blemish-free personal life but also the inevitability of devastating results if you make a mistake in a story.
I began to understand the power of a journalist character by way of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. In college, I was riveted by All the Kings Men, and enchanted by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. I worked for Rolling Stone Magazine during Watergate, where Woodward and Bernstein’s articles appeared in my morning newspaper every day. They became so iconic that even the book All the President’s Men reads like a fictional thriller.
If you love reporter books as much as I do, here are some to try, past and present.