It’s hard enough to write well in one genre, never mind blending two or more into one seamless whole. But Myke Cole, author of the Shadow Ops trilogy and its prequel series, the Reawakening Trilogy (which includes his latest, Siege Line), mixes zombie horror, military thriller, and urban fantasy, and makes it look easy.
The cornerstone of his success? Characters that never fail to be three-dimensional people. Also: terrific pacing, and action sequences that make it impossible to stop flipping pages.
I recently talked with Cole about how he creates his characters and plans his action sequences. We also touched on what other books have influenced his work. The most surprising thing I learned? He’s taken flak for writing military characters that are fully human. (Well, not the ones who are zombies, but you get the idea….)
When asked what goes into his character creation, Cole cites two elements.
“Research is important to understanding the life and experience of those unlike yourself. I’m not a Yale graduate who went on to a career in politics, so it’s necessary for me to do a lot of reading on the surface trappings of those lives,” he said. “But to truly understand a person, you have to know them. What are their goals? What are their fears? What kind of music do they like? What is the first thing they like to do in the morning and the last thing before they turn out the lights? In these cases, drawing from experience interacting with other people is a better tool.
“The important thing to remember is to make your characters deeply flawed,” he added. “The more screwed up, the better. Perfect people are boring. Readers resonate with characters who are just as messed up as they are. As we all are.”
I asked what went into the decision to feature many types of people in his story—a small-town sheriff Wilma, her aging grandfather, a Persian CIA operations specialist. He said it was a conscious and deliberate choice.
“Wasn’t it Gandhi who said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world?’ I’m just one guy, and there’s a limit to who I can be all the time. But I can certainly write the change I wish to see in the world. The Reawakening trilogy takes place in the near future, so I’m free to imagine the society we might become,” he said. “The society I want to see is one that has cast off the American monoculture of the white male. Look, I’m a white guy, and I want to be able to do anything and everything, and I can. But I also want to live in a world where those same opportunities are not just available, but actively leveraged, by every other member of our polyglot and diverse country. Persian women should run CIA’s Special Activities Division. Dene women [like Wilma] should be the main law in towns. Women should be running and gunning on SEAL teams. We’re slowly getting there, but not nearly fast enough for my taste. I try to…nudge us along in my writing, where I can.”
I’ve read a number of military thrillers in which the men are over-the-top and too-good-to-be-true. Jim Schweitzer in the Reawakening trilogy is a good guy, but he’s human (well, in mindset, if not in form), as are all the other special ops fighters in the book. I asked Cole if this too is a conscious effort on his part.
“It absolutely is,” he said. “One of the biggest complaints I got about my first novel, Control Point, was that the main character was indecisive, emotional, and routinely made idiot decisions. This was by design. I was sick and tired of the military stereotype—all military members are courageous, decisive, have good judgment. It’s BS. The military is a massive cross-section of society. We are you and you are us. We’ve got cowards and freaks and idiots, just like everywhere else. Military SF frequently fails to address this reality, and I take some pride in trying to correct the record here.”
His military experience (he served three tours in Iraq and in a member of the United States Coast Guard Reserve) also impacts his fight scenes—but so does another unexpected element: his nerdom.
“I’m a tabletop wargamer, and therefore have a library of maps, counters, and miniatures ready to go in my apartment,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t laid them out in the past to assist with blocking a fight scene. Much of the rest comes from physical experience. Between military and law enforcement training (shooting, unarmed combat, tactical driving) and sports (kendo, boxing, fencing, SCA) I have spent a lot of time understanding how people fight, and how my body moves and feels when I fight. I like to think this informs what I put on the page, and hopefully, the readers agree.”
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There’s another element that also goes into the making of his books—magic. I asked what inspired his magical systems, and if he based it on mythology, or was influenced by other fantasies.
“A lot of research went into the mythology, but the inspirationwase the scientific and rational magic systems of other fantasy authors,” he said. “I constantly call out Patrick Rothfuss’ Sympathy magic system [in The Name of the Wind] and Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancy [in Mistborn]. In both cases, the magic systems are so rational and extrapolate so realistically, they feel like science. The reader gets possession of the rules and can predict outcomes without the author’s guidance, because the systems are so well-explained. That was the kind of magic system I wanted to produce in my books. Hopefully, I succeeded.”
If you’ve read his books, you know he has.