A complex protagonist whose difficult choices thicken and stir the plot is the one ingredient that turns a good thriller into a compelling read that stays in the reader’s imagination after the story has ended.
(5 Tips for Building Suspense in a Spy Thriller.)
Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, John le Carré’s Alex Leamus, Frederick Forsythe’s The Jackal, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are all examples of this haunting type of character. Hamlet isn’t usually thought of as a thriller, but it has all the hallmarks: seven murders, a climatic action scene, betrayal, revenge, unscrupulous conniving. Compelled to avenge his father’s death creates a terrible conflict for Hamlet—he is asked to commit the cardinal sin of murder, which is antithetical to his Christian faith. As he says, “Oh, cursed spite that I was ever born to set it right.”
A few highly-regarded thriller writers take a different view of the importance of character. Steve Berry, a New York Times bestselling author, who speaks to audiences of aspiring writers, has said, “Plot trumps character every time.” James Patterson, in an interview, reflected on his successful writing style: “My strength is that I keep people turning pages and that’s my greatest weakness because I don’t go deep.”
Competent thrillers become memorable page turners when the reader is deeply engaged with the characters. I try to develop compelling characters who live on in the reader’s imagination long after the novel has been set down by spending time getting to know my characters and introducing them like old friends. I make sure I bring them to life.
I start with setting, which might seem counterintuitive, but setting establishes a place at a certain time—the stage. Setting begs the questions: Why is a character there, what brings them to that place? It establishes the novel’s trajectory. For example, le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Comes in From the Cold, opens with American and British officers at a Berlin Wall border crossing waiting for an East German spy to bicycle to the West. In one deft brush stroke, le Carré creates the grim, claustrophobic atmosphere in which the protagonist, Alec Leamus, operates.
Knowing the novel’s setting makes it easier to know the character. It requires that you answer the questions: Why here? Why now? I operate on the principle that the more I get to know a character, the longer I spend with them, the more likely they’ll have the complexity, humanity, intelligence, and cleverness that will engage the reader.
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Before I start writing I create a dossier for each character: name, age, birthplace, work habits, religious beliefs, favorite drink, family history, desires, fears, tics, speech habits, education, motivations, and vulnerabilities. I visualize a character’s entire life. Most of what I develop never appears in the novel, but knowing it allows me to give a character depth and gravity. Characters in a novel are like strangers we meet in life—we get to know them through the telling surface details that make us curious about who they are. Hints and suggestions often work better than flat observations, but to credibly hint and suggest, you need to know the deeper person.
Character descriptions help the reader ‘see’ a character, but writers often make the mistake of overly describing their characters, pointing out hair color, tone of voice, clothes worn, and irrelevant details of mood and manner. As the adjectives pile up, the character is lost in a distracting amalgam of unnecessary words. My approach, to paraphrase James Baldwin, is to write a description that is ‘as clean as a bone.’
Speech brings a character to life. Give a character something to say, and you’ll reveal them in two or three lines. Accents and speech patterns help make a character stand out. Language, for me, is a bit like terroir for wine. Where a character comes from helps define who they arevalues and sensibility. A Scotsman speaks differently and has a different outlook than an Englishman. Cadence, phrasing, accent are helpful tools to distinguish one character from another and give each personality.
Conflict, choice, and interiority help bring a character to life. Flat characters who react to situations are stereotypes, but the character who confronts a crisis and struggles with it, feeling a tug on her conscience, becomes sympathetic. Interiority gives a character wholeness and dimension. Hamlet’s interiority comes in each of his seven soliloquies and through his thoughts we understand his struggle.
I don’t draw portraits of spies, but I draw portraits of people who happen to work as spies. The choices they make in their lives emerge from who they are, and those choices might conflict with the requirements of their spy work. The spy’s job may be to suborn friends, lie to adversaries, betray a trust, but it is the spy’s nagging, perhaps inconvenient, humanity that makes them suffer their choices, and excites the reader’s empathy.
Ultimately, when writing character, I always try to keep in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless admonition: “Character is plot. Plot is character.”