5 Things I Learned About Writing from Jack Reacher

Updated: Jun 10, 2018


From Forbes Magazine:

The Strongest Brand in Publishing is....


"Lee Child's Jack Reacher series has the largest reader loyalty of any best-selling author today."

When Child was interviewed for the magazine he credited the following with the strong branding:


Consistency: Jack Reacher can be counted on to be the same character in each book.

Authenticity: " the art of narrative authenticity is culling details that are authentic from the larger pool of those that might be merely accurate."

Uniqueness: The series is like none other, filling a previous hole in the market.

When I picked up my first Jack Reacher novel I had no expectations. In fact, I don't read many, if any, books with a single male protagonist, so I suppose I had negative expectations.


My response was hugely unexpected. I read through 16 books in four weeks (I didn't read the two prequel novels or the singles). It became an obsessive experience.


There were several occasions when I finished a book and paused, a little annoyed at plot contrivances. BUT--that was after the book was finished or if during the actual devouring of the book, it certainly didn't keep me from completing the book.


Child had done his job. I was pulled into the world he created and I empathized and cared enough about Jack Reacher to read to the end.


Being a writer, naturally I sought to analyze how Child does this.


First let me say that the Jack Reacher series are thrillers, with very little or no use of graphic language. They have violence depicted, and they do have adult content in some of the books (none in the movie). So whether you read them or not there is still a vast amount of learning to be found in analyzing the writing.


Now let's get down to the nitty gritty. Here are the five things I learned about writing by reading Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. I learned how these writing techniques are done by a pro and you can too!


1. Empathy


I've often (okay, possibly ad nauseum) quoted Michael Hauge. Identification with the protagonist equals empathy. You make the reader identify with the character in the following ways:

1. Make the character the victim of some undeserved misfortune.

2. Put the character in jeopardy.

3. Make the character likeable.

4. Make the character funny.

5. Make the character powerful.


Hauge recommends using two of these characteristics. Jack Reacher embodies all five of them.

He's alone in the world. Each book is a Jack Reacher in jeopardy book, and we are not only rooting for him but worrying about him.


Jack is likable and funny, with a self-deprecating, dry sense of humor and powerful.


  • His mouth was set in a wry smile that was halfway between patient and exasperated.

  • "When in doubt, turn left."

  • Reacher was six feet and five inches tall and had hands the size of supermarket chickens

Characters like Jack Reacher are anti-hero archetypes, no different than Robin Hood, Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) or Spiderman. They are flawed heroes, vigilantes, doing for humanity what we don't dare do ourselves. Child calls him an over-dog.


2. Goal -Motivation-Conflict.


There is never any doubt in a Lee Child book what the GMC is and you don't have to wait very long for the GMC to be unveiled. There is no subtle hint, it's in your face, explosive GMC and every single time Reacher is willing to risk everything to achieve his goal no matter what stands in his way. That's what makes the books so powerful.


As Hauge says,"If your hero isn't putting everything on the line to get what he wants, WE DON'T CARE!"


A Writer's Digest article quoting thriller writer Gary Braver, says this on how to write a thriller:

"There are only three themes in all of literature: death and rebirth ; the hero slaying a dragon to restore the world to normalcy ; and the quest to make life better . Know which theme fits your story.

..make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears. There are two quests: Stopping the bad stuff form happening and dealing with the character’s baggage.


Isn't this applicable to romance (and all other fiction) as well?


3. Urgency


"Urgency pushes the plot and the pace."-Debra Dixon (GMC)

Urgency is tied to motivation. It creates a finish line and one that is so easily defined it sets the pace for the protagonist who is willing to (as Dixon says) "act against his own best interest" in order to get there.


Not only that, but this well defined urgency is what makes readers stay up and read obsessively and ignore their own best interest to finish the book.


Can you FEEL the urgency in these Child novel blurbs?


A bus crashes in a savage snowstorm and lands Jack Reacher in the middle of a deadly confrontation. In nearby Bolton, South Dakota, one brave woman is standing up for justice in a small town threatened by sinister forces. If she’s going to live long enough to testify, she’ll need help. Because a killer is coming to Bolton, a coldly proficient assassin who never misses.

Reacher’s original plan was to keep on moving. But the next 61 hours will change everything. The secrets are deadlier and his enemies are stronger than he could have guessed—but so is the woman he’ll risk his life to save.- 61 Hours.


Four people in a car, hoping to make Chicago by morning. One man driving, another telling stories that don’t add up. A woman in the back, silent and worried. And a hitchhiker with a broken nose. An hour behind them, the FBI descends on an old pumping station where a man was stabbed to death—the knife work professional, the killers nowhere to be seen.

All Jack Reacher wanted was a ride to Virginia. All he did was stick out his thumb. But he soon discovers he has hitched more than a ride. He has tied himself to a massive conspiracy, in which nothing is what it seems, and nobody is telling the truth.- A Wanted Man.



4. Character Driven versus Plot Driven


"Character-driven: When something about the character's essential self leads to a particular action or event in the story. Plot-driven: When a character takes a particular action so that the result is a particular plot point." - Alicia Rasley


Or from Indie Tips Film making:


"In a character driven story, if you change one thing about the smallest character the dynamic of the whole story changes. If you were to remove the main character from the story, there would not be a story left to tell."


"A plot driven story is one where the plot defines who a character is. The call to action still exists despite a change in character."


Most of us write character driven stories.

Lee Child writes a perfect blend of both.


5. Details


Possibly one of my favorite things about Lee Child books is his unique blend of showing and telling and his attention to details, and his phraseology.

"The shaved snow on the street was part bright white powder and part ice crystals. They shone and glittered in the moonlight." -61 Hours

"I could feel the storm boiling up overhead. The air was like soup. It was pitch dark. About midnight, the storm broke. Heavy drops the size of quarters spattered the leaves around me." -Killing Floor

"Two minutes later the phone rang. An old-fashioned instrument. The slow peal of a mechanical bell, a low sonorous sound, doleful and not at all urgent."- Worth Dying For


"He kept the car at a nothing-to-hide seventy miles an hour and touched the CD button on the dash. Got a blast of mid-period Sheryl Crow in return, which he didn't mind at all. He stayed with it. Every day is a winding road, Sheryl told him. I know, he thought. Tell me about it."-One Shot


I'm really running out of time and space, though not enthusiasm. A word for you suspense writers... If you want to learn tight, fast, action packed pacing.. read a Lee Child book.

Now let's talk Jack.


Box Office Case Study: Why "Jack Reader Couldn't Muscle Through Anti-Tom Cruise Outcry -wordandfilm.com


"A vocal outcry erupted among Reacher diehards the moment Hollywood’s 5’ 7” Top Gun expressed an interest in playing the 6’5” taciturn anti-hero – a hulking ex-military-cop-turned-vigilante, defined by his ability to overpower and intimidate by virtue of his size and cold-blooded determination to mete out justice at all costs."


Who is Jack (None) Reacher?

Born: October 29, 1960

Army brat. Mother is French.

All family deceased including his brother Joe, formerly with the U.S. Treasury Department.

Reacher is former Army MP, rank of Major.

Left the Army after 13 years.

A drifter, he chooses to stay off the grid.

Has an expired passport for ID, a debit card and carries cash and a travel tooth brush. Does not carry a change of clothes.

Physical description:

A man of abnormal size and strength, he is six foot-five, with a 50-inch barrel chest, and weighs approximately 220 to 250 pounds-all muscle. Has dirty blonde hair and winter cold, blue eyes. Needs to eat ten thousand calories and two gallons of water a day just to stay level. Note the aforementioned hands the size of chickens.

Not agile, he is a methodical and well-trained fighter. Also a military marksman.

Has a mental alarm clock.

Reacher-isms for the true Reacher fan:

"Hit them fast, hit them hard, and hit them a lot."

"Always move on and never look back. Never do the same thing twice."

"Look, don't see; listen, don't hear. The more you engage, the longer you survive."

"If you're constantly looking down at your phone, you're not looking at the world around you."

"Tune in to your circadian rhythms to set your personal internal alarm clock."

"Your silence will make your opponent want to babble."

"We're making an omelette here...we're going to have to break some eggs."

From Jack Reacher Rules by Lee Child


Photo by James Garcia on Unsplash


#Characterization #Empathy #Hero