Reader Manipulation, a Lesson from Steven James

Loved this post from a few years back, and decided it needed to resurface . . .

Reader manipulation is a writer’s tool for the experienced author, and Steven James illustrates just how experienced he is in his recent release, The Queen.

Several bad guys are at work in this book, but one in particular is fascinating: Alexei Chekov. He’s a paid assassin who approaches his job as any professional from AAA Bug Extermination would. He’s cold. Quick. Lethal–but only if necessary. Sure, he’ll kill his target, but he’ll only incapacitate those who get in his way. Then he’ll do whatever he can to take care of them. Like the state trooper whose car he stole. He apologized for breaking the man’s wrists, worried whether he would suffer from hypothermia. Spoke soothingly to him about how he’d regain use of his hands after surgery.

He has a code: He doesn’t kill women or children. But he’s been set up, he tells hero Patrick Bowers–as he leaves Pat with the dilemma of pursuing him or saving the deputy who he’d made lame and tossed into the freezing waters of the Chippewa River. Still, he watches Pat dive into the waters, sees his struggle and failure to save the deputy, sees him pull himself to the snow-covered bank, and calls his location in to authorities who can save him before driving away in a stolen eighteen-wheeler.

He’s sympathetic: Someone killed his wife, and he believes that Valkyrie, the one who has hired him, is guilty of the murder. He wants revenge, and we’re rooting for him in a morbid, unfamiliar way. Okay, so he’s an assassin. A man’s gotta make a living, right? He’s one of the good guys–well, no, not a good guy, but not entirely bad, right? Well, yeah, he’s bad, but . . .

We struggle to figure out where to fit Alexei on scale of morality for several more pages, then James tells us this:

I told Jake about Alexei’s claim that he wasn’t responsible for killing the Pickron family. “It seemed important to him that I not associate him with the murder of Aris and Lizzie.”

“Typical assassin mentality,” he said, profiling on the spot. “They have their own unique, individualized set of moral values and convictions. Often they see violence that isn’t mission-oriented as immoral, but violence committed in the context of their professional life as simply necessary. Mental compartmentalization.”

Jake was right.

Next, James turns the tables on us:

It’s not just assassins who do that, we all do. Freud once said that rationalization makes the world go round, and whatever else he got wrong, he nailed that one.

Everyone rationalizes their own immorality–people have affairs and yet look their spouses in the eye, they cheat on their taxes and then get mad at corruption on Wall Street, they lie outright to their bosses to get ahead and still manage to feel good about themselves, to have high self-esteem.

Mental compartmentalization.

Rationalism.

Without it we’d have to live in the daily recognition of who we really are, what we’re really capable of. And that’s something most people avoid at all costs.

He just put us on the same plane with a stone-cold killer. Where do our sympathies lie now? How do we feel about Alexei now that we discover we’re “kindred spirits” of sorts. How do we feel about ourselves?

Even if we aren’t guilty of the things James lists through Bowers’ POV, we’re guilty of something similar. Where should we put ourselves on that morality scale we’d just tried to fit Alexei on?

This is reader manipulation at its finest.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing How-To Books, Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reader Manipulation, a Lesson from Steven James

  1. Love that code name Valkyrie. James has been on my TBR pile for a while now. Gah! So many books, so little time!

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  2. Linda Yezak says:

    No kidding! That’s why I listen to audiobooks for some authors, otherwise I’d never get to read them all.

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  3. It does sound like a great plot and characterization. Thanks for highlighting it for us, Linda. Gives me something more to chew on.

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