A good thriller should be brimming with suspense, high stakes, plot twists and heart-stopping moments, but with all that going on, it’s easy to sacrifice depth of character in favour of plot. For your story to work, though, your reader has to be invested in the protagonist, or they won’t care how tense your plot is or what’s at stake. Winning or losing only matters if the reader is rooting for the good guy.
Depending on the type of thriller you’re writing, your main character needs certain qualities to get the reader on their side, yet still have the wherewithal to come off as a believable thriller protagonist. The list below is not comprehensive, and doesn’t necessarily apply to all types of thriller characters, but it does serve as a good place to start.
Unless you’re writing a spoof, a thriller hero needs to be intelligent and resourceful. They should be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, and resourceful enough to get out of trouble if they need to. Then, when they find themselves in jams that seem impossible to escape from, they’ll be ingenious enough to think of something, and resourceful enough to pull it off.
Provide evidence at the beginning that they have the skills they need for the task ahead,
or when it comes into play the reader won’t believe it. Whether it’s part of their background, such as a current or former job, a hobby, training or experience, they should have the skills to hand. Current or ex-military or police are the usual suspects for an action thriller, but you don’t have to stick to that somewhat cliche character trait (think Dr Richard Kimball from Fugitive).
If they’re going to need any amount of physical prowess, they’ll work out, or train in martial arts or participate in some other physical activity at the outset, so they’re fit enough for the task.The everyman/woman thriller protagonist still needs some kind of training or skill. A desk jockey, for instance, might not seem a likely candidate for scaling a sky-scraper, but if they’re a week-end rock climber, the reader will be less skeptical should they have to do it. The kid who stumbles into a terrorist plot might get out of trouble, preferably over the roof-tops, because they do parkour with their mates. A shop assistant who dabbles in stocks and shares can believably know enough to recognise corporate fraud. A computer nerd might just know enough about programming to hack through a government firewall.
You can be imaginative about how their background training impacts on the story, but be sure to demonstrate it up front, so when it’s brought into play your reader isn’t thinking, “Oh, come on!”
The odds are likely overwhelming, the chance of failure or death probable, yet your character will have to keep going, no matter what. They need the determination to keep at it, despite fear, fatigue or injury. Courage, and your protagonist’s relationship with it, can create an interesting development arc. Your character might not see themselves as brave enough to face the challenges they meet, or they may be courageous from the outset. The course of the story can test that courage to its limits and change their core beliefs about themselves. Dealing with fear, whether it be from failure or imminent death – facing it, thwarting it, makes your character more human, and far more interesting. Ignoring it runs the danger of making your character seem reckless or lacking in human failings.
Thriller characters cover a vast range; school teacher, billionaire playboy, corporate executive, off-duty cop, Special Forces elite or any number of other ‘types’. To appeal to
the reader they need something which doesn’t stem from their looks, money or job. They don’t have to be film-star gorgeous, always say the right thing, or be good at relationships, but they have enough charisma to make the reader want to spend time with them. Enigmatic, forthright, confident – you choose, but make sure they’re not overly cocky or too abrasive. They have to be likable and intriguing.
Your thriller plot is likely to take unexpected twists and turns which compel the reader to turn the next page. Throw into this a character who turns left instead of right when you least expect it, then that reader will always be tempted to read ‘just one more page’ to see what they do next. An unpredictable character, one who thinks outside the box, who throws as many spanners into the works as the villain, will provide even more complexity to an already complex situation. Naturally, be wary of making them so random they’re downright reckless, or potentially insane, or (worse) so unpredictable it’s hard to figure out their motivations. It’s the villain they’re trying to foil, not the reader.
He/she needs strength of conviction. They’re about to face something which calls for them to dig deep and carry on. Without determination and the motivation to see it through, their involvement in the plot can seem baffling. Your character needs a reason to keep going in the face of danger or imminent failure and they’ll stick to that reason up to and including obsession. Selfless idealist or self-serving narcissist, they’ll believe in what they’re doing and be ready to take on the world to do it. Motive can cover any number of things – vengeance, self-promotion, serving the greater good, or even saving the world, and anything in between, but your character has it in spades.
Your character doesn’t always do things right. They may have self-doubts and make mistakes. They might even do things morally questionable, especially if you’ve opted for an anti-hero. If they’re too clever, too adept, never fail and always make the right choices, the antagonist can’t possibly win. The resulting denouement is a foregone conclusion, which makes for an unsatisfying ending. Beware, however. Your character’s flaws might make them more interesting and the ending uncertain, but be sure they’re not too flawed, or they run the danger of being unlikable.
The character should have a sense of honour (even if it’s skewed) and be prepared to do
anything to satisfy it, even self-sacrifice. Convicted criminals, liars, cheats and even hit-men can separate themselves from antagonists by putting others’ safety, or the greater good, above their personal needs. Whichever side of the law your protagonist comes from, thwarting terrorists or kidnappers, or saving others’ lives at risk of their own, changes them from a villain into a flawed hero.
If your hero has a weak spot, it can be exploited in the story. This Achilles heel can take the form of family, innocent bystanders, enclosed spaces, aeroplanes, or something else entirely. Remember Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes? Or any number of protagonists who have put down their gun to save the innocent? At some point in the story your character will be confronted by their weak spot, and somehow they will have to get past it or fail.