How “Oleg the Terrible” Hijacked My Novel
(Author’s note: This article first appeared in Sirens of Suspense)
I’m smiling today because I just heard from a reader who loved my term “Code War.” She hadn’t run across it before and appreciated my coinage.
I have to tell you that one of the supreme pleasures of writing in an emerging genre is the opportunity to play off conventions established in long-standing categories of literature.
With Code War I played off of two of them: the Cold War spy novel; and, of course, science fiction.
So let me tell you how I came up with Code War. When I started thinking about writing Trident Code I looked at the countries that might fare relatively well if the oceans rose, say, three feet. Russia stood out. For the Russians it wouldn’t be a day at the beach — sorry, I couldn’t resist — but they would not suffer the impacts of countries with extended and/or highly vulnerable coastlines and coastal cities.
Enter “Oleg the Terrible”
That meant I’d likely have a Russian villain, so it would have shades of the Cold War, which had consumed the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the half century after World War II. So I needed two things: a term to distinguish this from the Cold War’s long shadow, and a character who could embody a new Russian villain.
I sat back, ruminating for no more than a few seconds when “Code War” came to me. But I still needed that emblematic character, and I had no interest whatsoever in simply replicating — more likely disinterring — some musty creature from decades years ago.
Even Putin was so yesterday, so Cold War with his pushy takeover of the Crimea. Base a character on that sweaty macho shirtless equestrian? No way.
I was still wresting with this when I started chapter two of Trident Code. That was when Oleg Dernov, or Oleg the Terrible as I thought of him, arrived on the scene. Terrible because he tried to take over the book. You think he’s pushy on the page? He was even worse in his insistence on more face time. He was like a spoiled Hollywood star — yes, I recognize the redundancy — with his narcissism and unbridled pushiness.
But to give the devil his due, and I use that word advisedly, Oleg had something to say and his personality entertained me. When I realized that I was smiling almost every time he came on the scene, I knew I had a character who would do that for readers as well.
I have a very simple formula for characters: if I like them, readers will like them. The same goes for plot twists: if they surprise me, they’ll likely surprise readers.
Oleg was critical to Trident Code. Not only was he a particularly vibrant individual — one “you’ll love to hate,” according to a reviewer — he also did things I would never have thought of otherwise. And he was funny, as well as creepy, despicable, and, I trust, unforgettable.
Mostly, though, Oleg was a character who could have emerged only in a Code War thriller, for he reflected both the solitary self-centeredness of an extraordinary hacker and the surly swagger of a pixel pirate. I’ll leave you with a taste of Oleg’s point of view as he meets another Russian character, Galina Bortnik, for the first time in a Starbucks in Moscow:
“So adorable in her swishy pale-blue pleated dress that fell not even halfway down her milky thighs. Such a munchkin. Five feet — maybe. Black hair cut by his own stylist, so it looked chic, as in you’d never guess Galina Bortnik was a single mom, stuck with a deadbeat dad, or a former nanny or dropout from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Most of all, do you know what you would never guess? She is greatest hacker in all of Russian Federation. Maybe greatest in world.
Except for me.
He rushed to her table. Muah, a kiss for the right cheek. Muah, a kiss for the left cheek. Muah, a kiss for her cushiony lips. She smelled like lavender. And her cheeks so red. A shy girl, a sexy girl, a girl who blushes from such a modest greeting. How good is that?
She already had taken her first sip of her espresso con panna, three shots with real whipped cream. Nothing light for her. And she had the appealing, slightly plump pulchritude of a ripe apricot, and the complexion of — what did the Brits and Americans call it? — “peaches and cream.” That’s it. She was the whole fruit basket. She didn’t skimp on fats, but good fats. And she was slightly plump, but good plump.
True, Oleg’s plutocratic father had warned him that girls like Galina turned to lard quickly, with everything “sagging and dragging” by the time they were thirty-five, but right now Galina Bortnik was twenty-six-years-old with full bouncy breasts and thighs so smooth and wonderfully soft when she wrapped them around his back and rocked him in the warm bath of pleasure he didn’t care if she put on ten kilograms a year for ten years. They would be like candy to him. Besides, his father was a rich asshole, married six times. Still waiting for his Galina.
Was this love?
Not so much for Oleg. For her, yes. But for him, many girls to bed before he wed. On that he and his father could agree…”