Everyone loves a great underdog story. In Rocky, a down-on-his-luck everyman fights for the chance of his lifetime. In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy we have Lisbeth Salander, the damaged outcast yet skilled hacker confronting society’s powerful abusive men who repeatedly target her (and other women) with impunity. In Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, our hero outsider stands up for the smallfolk against rich corrupt villains, armed with only a folding toothbrush and the clothes on his back.
I love these stories. There’s something so profoundly universal about the appeal of plucky outsiders taking on the establishment with grit and dogged determination, one lone hero against the world. Now…how to bring a fresh new perspective?
Why Historical Fiction?
I’ve always loved history from an early age. It’s fascinating to have that unique viewpoint into the living, breathing world of our grandparents and ancestors. Historical fiction’s made a triumphant comeback in recent years; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and Antony Horowitz’s The House of Silk have all garnered universal praise for their stories transporting the reader into rich evocative worlds that capture the imagination. Plenty more novels cover the Victorian Era, the legacy of colonial empire, the dawn of a new century and the onset of the First World War. Yet comparatively few have explored the Boer War and Edwardian Era. Those that do usually portray this period as an idyllic golden summer of peace, with leisurely afternoons on the river, tranquil garden parties and inter-class romances (classics such as Howards End, Wind in the Willows, The Forsyte Saga, Cavendon Hall, The Summer Before the War or the TV series Downton Abbey).
Which are great, sure. But rather unrealistic. They tend to be portrayed in an affluent setting, heavily featuring the wealthy aristocracy. As a result, they’re a bit too idealised, too…clean.
History: from the ground up
I hoped to portray an alternative view from the gutters in rich earthbound detail, a time of immense struggle and grinding poverty for the industrial working man. Robert Tressell’s classic The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was a withering damnation of this; it condemns the rich and powerful institutions of society preying on the working man, from hypocritical Christians and exploitative capitalists to corrupt town councillors. If you get the chance to read it, please do – it’s truly an eye-opening book!
Two of my favourite TV series also feature this grimy past of Britain’s industrial empire; Taboo follows James Delaney as he gathers a crew of underworld rogues and thieves to oppose the mighty East India Trading Company – the ruthless leviathan ‘with a million eyes and a million ears’ whose atrocities include slave trafficking, colonial plunder, and contract killings. Peaky Blinders explores Brummie gangster Tommy Shelby’s rise to power, from a street-level bookmaker to family leader of a criminal empire across Birmingham and London. Along the way, he faces other sharks in the underworld’s murky waters; local police, rival kingpins, the IRA, Jewish gangsters, Russian aristocrats, Italian mobsters, secret government organisations, and even the Crown.
Like Rob Wilson in Slumdog Soldier, both these protagonists also have deadly underworld sidekicks happy to help with wetwork; Taboo features Atticus and French Bill, two cutthroat rogues who regularly dump bodies into the Thames. Peaky Blinders has Johnny Dogs, a Romani gypsy fond of horses and playing the fiddle, who won’t bat an eye at burning a body in the woods.
Universal Themes in Slumdog Soldier
The Unscrupulous Antihero
Max Rockatansky. Lisbeth Salander. James Delaney. Jack Reacher. All four protagonists are lone wolves. Antisocial outcasts who prefer solitude. Often gruff and tactless towards their friends.
And utterly merciless warriors against the abusers of power, wealth and privilege; the timeless knight-errant archetypes of mythical Arthurian legend who right wrongs, slay dragons and defend the helpless. Whether with a shotgun, a golf club, a karambit or bare fists, all four antiheroes enact righteous vigilante justice, intervening as protective avenging angels on behalf of beleaguered innocents. For Max Rockatansky, it’s the community struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a tribe of feral kids seeking a better world, and the downtrodden wives of a tyrannical warlord. For Lisbeth Salander, it’s women victimised by abusive men, or her few closest friends and supportive journalists harassed by the state. For James Delaney, it’s his stepmother and partners in crime, especially those imprisoned and mistreated by the East India Company and the Crown. For Jack Reacher, his wards include Mexican migrants, small-town Coloradans, Nebraskan farmers, an elderly librarian, a single mum working as a cocktail waitress, and a quadruple-amputee war veteran.
All four are vicious towards abusers and sadists who prey on the weak, displaying unrestrained primitive savagery when delivering righteous comeuppance to society’s predators. All four fight back against the three-headed dragon (of greed, cruelty and corruption) that feeds off society & preys on so many real people in today’s world. These are classic hardboiled revenge fantasies that resonate with millions of people worldwide; all four protagonists strike back against evil oppressive forces on behalf of others, fulfilling that universal appeal of setting things right with violent retribution. Yes, they reduce their enemies to a quivering mess of broken bones, but it’s progressive vigilantism – the scumbag is killed, but always for noble reasons.
Hurt his friends and family or terrorise innocent settlers, and Max the Road Warrior will happily blast you with a shotgun or leave you cuffed to burn alive unless you saw off your own ankle. With Salander, anything goes: she will cripple you with a golf club, taser, axe or nail gun if you dare abuse women or harm her trusted friends. Target him or his allies, and Delaney will tear your throat out with his teeth, slash your tendons or impale you with baling hooks before disembowelling you. Profit from wartime or threaten the little guy, and Reacher will break your legs, slit your throat or just shoot you dead, then sleep like a baby (when asked how he feels about murdering five thugs, he replies ‘How do you feel when you put roach powder down?’). Such bullies include a Texas district attorney, a crooked general, Al-Qaeda agents, a Mexican drug lord, and a Russian mob boss.
Don Quixote said it best: all four are ‘willing to march into Hell, for a heavenly cause.’
And yet…despite seeking reclusive solitude and displaying utterly shocking violence, all of them have soft spots for the few decent people in their lives. Although gruff loners reluctant to emotionally invest in others, all four are nonetheless drawn to people in need, and won’t betray their innate better nature to turn down a plea for help. Their underlying kindness shines through when they act as guardian angels, regaining their humanity by helping others in need. Having such diverse characters defend the innocent against rapacious bullies, they give readers the visceral satisfaction that there’s someone just like them – Robin Hood figures for our troubled times who can fix a broken world. Yes, you could argue that it’s merely cathartic wish-fulfilling escapism…
But isn’t that the whole point?
In the real world, of course, we know the good guys don’t always win. So there’ll always be that huge appetite among readers for fiction that features proper cathartic punishment for villains.
I loved tapping into that universal appeal for my own protagonist’s journey, mirroring that Arthurian knight-errant archetype for a war veteran in an unfamiliar city. Sergeant Craig Harper is an ethical hero who avenges wrongdoing with his own feral code of righteous violence, but also this innate kindness; ultimately he’s trying to do the right thing and will always help innocent people struggling on the grimy margins of society. It’s his underlying decency and compassion that makes stories like his so elementally compelling. By escalating the greed, cruelty and corruption of the villains and establishing their victims’ innocence, hopefully the audience is fully invested when Craig avenges his friends with his own brand of violent justice against the wicked.
The bully: a universally relatable villain
Ultimately, this is a story about bullying. I’m hoping to illustrate its numerous layers throughout this story, from Vince the domineering landlord getting his kicks from intimidating defenceless people (see Chapter 12) right up to Starrick’s men; the wealthy powerful gangsters who relish humiliating and terrifying the weak, just because they can (see Chapter 18).
Why bullying? Well, because it’s such a relatable experience for so many people worldwide. We can’t truly empathise with Voldemort or Sauron, the stereotypical genocidal maniac out to rule the world. We can’t identify with Ramsay Bolton or Gregor Clegane, the sadistic psychopaths who delight in bloodshed. Most people haven’t had their parents murdered by a xenophobic cult leader, fought for their lives against giant snakes, been kidnapped and tortured for dark rituals, or watch numerous friends die in front of them. These monsters’ crimes are horrifying and numerous, but they’re distant, unfamiliar and fantastical. Like hearing about a serial killer on the news.
But everyone’s had a Dolores Umbridge or a King Joffrey in their lives. That one bully who made their life a living hell, the ones who were needlessly sadistic and condescending, and delighted in making others’ lives miserable. That one teacher who inflicts extra punishments just because they disliked you. You’ve complained to parents and authorities only to be ignored. You’ve sat through pointless classes and been silenced whenever you criticise. Umbridge is that teacher we all hated because she made our lives a misery and we were powerless to stop her. Joffrey is that teenage bully who lorded it over others and dominated the playground. Whenever someone was brave enough to push back, he would hide behind his mother’s skirts and his father’s reputation so he wouldn’t get punished.
Yet even as we grow out of school, there are still people in positions of power who act just like them. The manager who denies your schedule requests and penalises you for invented infractions. That customer who complains to corporate because their scam didn’t work on you, yet still persuade corporate management to side with their story. Cops performing illegal searches because they know you don’t have proof and can safely hide behind a badge as they harass you. Those who take callous pleasure in dominating others, abuse their positions of power to inflict pain, fear and suffering…and smile as they do it. The universal archetype we despise and can all root against.
Supervillains are bad guys in distant fairy tales, nightmare figures we hope never to face.
When they’re defeated, we breathe a sigh of relief.
But bullies are the villains we face every day. Bullies are personal.
When they’re defeated, we cheer.