Freezing up the Protagonist, examples in how antagonists make life hard for Nikki Heat

Recently, our PeoWriMo group had a workshop on antagonists. We talked about the antagonist in the fairly abstract quite a bit and primarily used examples from sci-fi and fantasy projects since those are the fields Barb and I write in and pay the most attention to. This week, I’m reading Frozen Heat by Richard Castle (a pseudonym) and as I close in on the final pages, I realize that it has so many different antagonists that it goes through the abstracts we talked about. I’ll break down the different antagonists and how they function in the novel.

A short summary on the book first: Frozen Heat is the fourth Nikki Heat book based off the characters discussed in the television show Castle. For this book’s case, Heat discovers a murdered woman in the suitcase that once belonged to her own mother. The case thaws details on the murder of Nikki’s mother and she investigates both the recent murder and the cold case. The farther she gets, the more obvious the connections between the two cases, but she faces more and more opposition at each step.

The Subordinate/Rival: Sharon Hinesberg. Sharon has been in all the Nikki Heat books so far, but her usual level of incompetence and disrespect has only been an annoyance. In Frozen Heat, Hinesberg moves up from disturbance in the background to obstacle to overcome. Now, I’m not completely done with the book yet, so some of these facts may turn out to be false. Hinesberg creates problems for Heat by being constantly late to work, by showing little to no respect for Heat as lead detective, by questioning Heat’s assignments on occasion, and by having crummy investigation skills–those are the normal Hinesberg traits. In this book, Hinesberg conspires with the captain (who is also her secret boyfriend), she turns off her cellphone over the weekend despite policy stating she always have it on and with her, and Heat believes Hinesberg is leaking important murder case details to the press.

So how does Nikki Heat overcome Sharon Hinesberg? A lot of the behavior Nikki ignores. She adopts a “Hinesberg will never change” mentality and brushes off the minor inconveniences because she has bigger problems on her plate. Often, she’ll give Hinesberg simple follow-up assignments and busywork to keep her out of the main investigation. However, when she suspects a leak in her team and pins it on Hinesberg, she hands out the more secrecy-critical details and assignments in one-on-one fashion or discusses the cases with her squad when Hinesberg is gone. She refrains from putting those details on the murder board. Essentially, Heat does everything she can to cut Hinesberg out. Are these obstacles going to affect the outcome of the novel? I doubt it. Hinesberg has been around for a while, at the most, Hinesberg might finally see reassignment at the end of the novel, but I don’t think Heat will be that lucky.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Hinesberg is a contrast foil. Her laziness, lack of respect, and somewhat indifference remind us that Nikki cares, she’s early if she’s able, and she’s always trying to find the best way to communicate with others. Hinesberg shows us what Nikki could have been, but refuses to be.

The Boss: Captain Irons. This is the second book for Captain Irons. At the end of the last novel, Heat was offered Irons’s job, but she turned down the promotion. This has put a huge kink in an already tense relationship. Irons has a reputation for going after numbers (closure rate, etc.) instead of caring about individual cases. He does the job and looks for a pat on the back while doing it. He’s pretty much everything Heat hates about the upper brass–and he knows it. I’d say from his behavior (and I might be forgetting a detail that actually says it) that he believes Heat sees herself as better than himself. Irons likes to run everything by the book and gives Heat a hard time, even though she rarely goes off book to begin with. Irons impedes Heat’s investigation constantly–though he does so in legitimate ways. He refuses to hand over resources, he ‘takes lead’ during certain points of the investigation, and he forces Heat to go on a suspension and see a therapist after a traumatic event.

So how does Nikki overcome Captain Irons? Well, she doesn’t typically do it alone. The first problem is when Irons won’t allow for the extra overtime or additional resources. Heat explains this frustration to her partner/boyfriend/resident-writer Rook and Rook appeals to Captain Irons’s vanity by saying that this murder case could make a wonderful story piece. So, Rook exploits a personal character flaw of Irons. The second time Nikki needs to deal with a huge roadblock Irons put in, she uses an ally contact at One Police Plaza and goes over Irons’s authority to get what she needs (something that puts her in debt to that ‘ally,’ which is bound to be a problem in another book). So, Nikki exploits the fact that Irons isn’t an absolute authority–that there are people above him in rank. And on a third event, Nikki shows that she knows more about the case when interrogating a ‘suspect.’ She exposes that Irons isn’t that great of an investigator. What will happen with these plot points in the end? I don’t know, but I suspect that Irons will remain the head of the 20th’s homicide division and Heat will have to keep putting up with him. This is a work relationship that is deteriorating before it could form into something productive, but like everyone else, Nikki doesn’t get to choose her boss.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Irons is another foil, as all antagonists are. He has a habit of bringing Nikki’s passions to the surface–making her argue for and have to stand up for what she wants in her investigative trails, though she has to learn not to lose her temper with him (a hard task when she deals with Irons). He also helps her galvanize relationships with her allies–Rook, Raley and Ochoa, and other detectives, as well as One Police Plaza. In doing so, he brings out her support system, which helps us understand how complex and huge Nikki’s world really is.

Opposing Force: Homeland Security. Homeland Security agents keep a close track on Heat and Rook through much of this case. They record conversations and eventually, abduct Heat and Rook in order to ask questions about where their investigation is leading. So far, these agents have been neither bad nor good–the only impediment they’ve been in the investigation has been to detain Heat and Rook for a short while.

How does Nikki overcome them? So far, she hasn’t needed to, but she has been a bit more tight-lipped during the investigation.

What do they tell us about Nikki? Encounters with these two have reinforced Nikki’s determination. They’ve been more plot element than foil.

Antagonistic Family Relationship: Her father. Mr. Heat (for I forgot his first name)  and Cynthia Heat (Nikki’s mom) had divorced at least a couple years before Cynthia’s murder. Nikki and her father haven’t had the greatest relationship, and the passing years haven’t helped. While she loves and respects her father, she has troubles going to him for information, even telling Rick that he would have to be the one to keep the peace if the conversation became too dicey.

This isn’t exactly a relationship to overcome. Mr. Heat doesn’t purposefully block Nikki’s investigations, he’s simply not forthcoming. Their terse relationship doesn’t improve, but it doesn’t grow much worse.

What does this tell us about Nikki? This relationship highlights, and perhaps explains, why Nikki has a hard time emotionally. She has a tendency to lock down and ignore everything, putting up a wall between herself and others who should care about her. With the other cops, this wall’s expected and respected, but Rook calls it into question. The relationship with her father points out painfully that this is a family that doesn’t communicate about emotions, and that’s what stunts Nikki’s personal life.

The Big Bad: No frickin’ clue. I’m nearing page 300 in this book and I can’t pinpoint who the killer is. I could make assumptions and point to evidence, but I don’t have a name to label the clear and present danger. This book is one of those cases where it’s working. There’s so much digging through the past, so many other hurdles in Nikki’s way, and then there are little tidbits here and there. A hitman tries to take Nikki out, one of the evidence pieces goes missing, the toxicology labs are destroyed in accidents, the body is cremated before anyone knows what’s going on–all these incidents are clues, but no name. As soon as Heat discovers a possible line of inquiry, she’s crossing the newest name off the list.

How does Nikki overcome the Big Bad? Well, that’s the whole plot of the book, isn’t it?

What does this say about Nikki? She’s determined with a capital D. Determined and dedicated to finding this killer, Nikki won’t stop until she’s forced to–either by finding the bad guy, or by winding up in a grave herself…

So you can see, there’s a *lot* of problems for Nikki in Frozen Heat. Her way of navigating through the difficulties is what keeps the novel interesting and the suspense of the nameless powerful villain keeps readers on the edge. Every antagonist is different and complex, coming in with their own motivations and goals, which keeps Nikki from responding to them in the same manners. I can’t wait to see how this all finally finishes and discover, alongside Nikki Heat, who the murderer is.

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Heat vs. Storm

Being a huge Nathan Fillion fan, I checked out Castle when it first came on the air many seasons ago. Despite being yet another procedural show about yet another NYPD homicide department, having a writer in the mix changed up the game enough to keep my interest and unlike other cop shows with specialists, what Richard Castle and the guest spots have to say about writing is fairly authentic. (You wanna see a physical anthropologist’s head explode, ask them about Temperance Brennan of Bones.)

Some executive had the brains to green light one of the best media tie-ins you could do with a show about a writer. ABC Entertainment has actually published books bearing the pseudonym Richard Castle which has so far included several novels, three ebooks, and even the comic books referenced in the show. Media tie-ins often get the rap of being glorified fanfiction, but anyone who spends rampant amounts of time delving into fandoms will wind up telling you that fanfiction’s got a place in the world. That’s a topic of conversation for another day, but the point is that even if they are, some media tie-ins are definitely worth the time. The fantastic part about Richard Castle’s books is that they actually stand alone from the show. While knowing Castle will get you insight into where certain lines or situations come from, the characters of the books only bear a resemblance to those on the show and come with their own histories and personalities. You don’t need to know Castle in order to understand what’s happening and that’s one of the great aspects of the books.

Recently, I finished reading Storm Front, a Derrick Storm novel available, and rereading Naked Heat along with listening to an audiobook format of Heat Rises, both of which are Nikki Heat novels.

Both series of books are murder mysteries. However, Storm Front sees Derek Storm coming back as a private investigator turned CIA operative while Nikki Heat remains a NYPD homicide detective in her books so far (I have yet to get to Frozen Heat). They share quite a few characteristics–both characters are driven, resourceful, and intelligent, but Heat’s got a leg up on Storm. Storm’s attitude, mannerisms, and behavior come off as a blunt caricature of the man’s man best-spy-there-is-besides-007. In Storm Front, he’s impersonal with everyone but the Chinese Agent Ling Xi Bang. While the ghost writer attempts to make Storm more likable–looks, he’s fallen in love with a beautiful woman inside of two seconds, hey also look he cares about these orphans–Storm comes off entirely flat. Storm never changes as a person. He is as he was at the beginning of the book and despite his actions, he winds up barely scratched himself. Even the great budding ‘romance’ he had with Ling Xi Bang getting cut off abruptly by her death does nothing to sway his overall attitudes.

On the other hand, Nikki Heat is an individual. The ghost writer(s) for her, especially in Naked Heat and Heat Rises, has shown that Nikki is a full person. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s a quick-thinker, but she’s angry, outraged, and frightened at times too. At points she runs into an aspect in her personal life that reminds her what she’s doing wrong in a case, or she’ll chastise herself for the kind of thoughts that everyone gets from time to time. Nikki Heat is never a machine running from one plot point to the next. Every moment of Nikki’s has a clear motivation and emotional connection, whether it’s approval and support as she delegates tasks to her squad or anger and wanting to forgive when Rook finally has a chance to explain where he’s been. Nikki is human first and a cop second, and that makes all the difference in the text.

These two sleuths share another same character background piece: both of them have the dead woman trope in their stories. You know the trope well, a woman must die so the plot can advance and/or the hero has motivation to fight the good fight. Once again, the handling’s done completely different between Storm Front and the Heat series. As mentioned, Derrick entangles himself with the mysterious foreign agent Ling Xi Bang (which the book says to pronounce ‘she bang’) and from the moment he’s laid eyes on her, he wants her. And of course he gets her, despite him working for the CIA and her working for the Chinese government, they hook up, because who can resist Derrick Storm, right? (This isn’t just my ranting, it’s hinted at in the book with some of the other men’s attitudes towards Derrick having no trouble picking up women). To top off the incredulous hook-up, and Derrick’s massive passionate feelings that have blossomed overnight, the bad guy Valkov takes out Xi Bang during a shootout that’s not even on the page. Derrick comes up after the violence is done to see that she won’t survive her injuries–one of which is the classic gut wound, of course. While she’s painted as a somewhat novice in her field, there’s no real reason why Xi Bang had to die in that scene, except to take her out of the picture for Derrick’s other love, Clara Strike (who, btw, had apparently faked her death at one point and left Derrick to mourn her for a while. Also, Derrick’s mother passed away when he was young. I’m all for the rule of three’s in writing when it makes sense, but this one’s ridiculous.) You can’t even argue that Xi Bang’s death was motivation for Storm hunting down Valkov (he was already determined because of their past), or that her death caused him to learn a valuable lesson about rushing in (he chases down a plane and climbs onto the freaking landing gear.) Her death, basically, was only to try and keep a not-even-flagging sense of danger going.

On the other hand, we see the same dead woman trope in Nikki’s background, but the treatment’s different. It’s mentioned a few times in Heat Rises and Naked Heat that her mother was a murder victim. The murder of a loved one carried a strong emotional punch in Nikki’s life and drove her to become a cop–but that’s not where the treatment of the trope ends. Nikki’s past motivates not only her life’s goals, but also her attitudes and behaviors. She does everything in her power to ensure that respect is given to the victim and to the families of her cases–including reminders to her squad and even visiting detectives that they need to have that respect too. When her mother’s death is talked about, the pain is an old emotional scar that still affects her psyche, so instead of falling into the chasm of cliche, the ghost writer(s) used the trope to make Nikki more of a human being by instilling emotions and behavior alongside the motivation.

In the end, Nikki Heat is far more believable and convincing a hero than Derrick Storm of Storm Front. She’s human and he’s an obnoxious stereotype. If you’ve only got so much time for novels, put Heat on your list first, especially if you’re looking for a well-rounded lead character and/or to be welcomed into a world-setting that’s vibrant and enjoyable.