What makes a great character or hero in a thriller? It goes without saying that if we knew the answer to that question we wouldn’t be writing or reading blogs – we’d be lying by our swimming pool with a banana daiquiri, feeling sorry for all those poor people out there. Of course, all those who write or read thrillers have their own ideas and we’ve got plenty of examples over the years to help answer the question. From Sam Spade and onto Jack Reacher, and on the big screen Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in ‘Alien’, heroes are all very different. But is it possible to find a common thread?
For those of us who write thrillers, this is more than a theoretical question, we have to get it right. You can develop the most ingenious plot based on the most original premise but if your characters don’t do it for the reader, it’s going back on the shelf. And there isn’t an easy answer to it; nothing’s more frustrating for a writer than seeing another author breaking all the supposed rules and then coming up trumps anyway (although that in itself should be a pointer). But if we can’t actually spot the ball, we can at least identify the ballpark.
One common feature is that we have to be on our hero’s side and they have to be basically sympathetic even, or especially, when they’re up to no good. It won’t work if we go into the final showdown and the reader’s thinking, “I hope the villain kills the hero, he’s got it coming…” In my new novel ‘Vendetta’, our hero Mac, breaks all the police officer’s rules and I hope the reader understand why. I want the reader whispering, “Yes, I get it; I’d do the same in his position…” Some thrillers take the reader by the arm and make them complicit in the murder and mayhem. There are of course gentle and self effacing investigators in the genre but I tend not to gravitate towards them as a reader.
And heroes can’t simply be heroic; they need their human and vulnerable side if readers are going to buy into them. Yes, of course, we want them to be able to flatten a half dozen bad guys waiting to attack them in a dark alley. But at the same time if they’ve got the perfect family, their pension all sorted out and no vices of any kind, it’s hard to get into them. Many readers are now getting a little fed up with the alcoholic cop ‘on the edge’ but there’s a very good reason why they became so popular in the first place. And there’s a very good reason why our characters tend to suffer a long, dark night of the soul. We want real people not cardboard cut-outs. In ‘Vendetta’, Mac has got his problems but hey who hasn’t? We want exaggerated versions of real life but we want real life in there too.
What goes for heroes is also true of villains. There are still a few evil masterminds who are planning to destroy the planet – in 24 hours of course – but they’re rare now. The charming serial killer, the morally ambiguous criminal, the murderer who did it for understandable reasons, tend to be the rule these days. Indeed the convergence of heroes and villains has become one of the features of 21st century thriller writing.
But ultimately, what’s the test of the real deal when it comes to thriller characters? Well, if you’re sitting next to someone on the bus and they’re reading your book and they look up in horror because they’ve missed their stop, then you’ve got it right. And all the theorising about characters in the world isn’t going to change that.
VENDETTA by Dreda Say Mitchell is out now in paperback and eBook, published by Hodder, £6.99. For more information visit www.dredasaymitchell.com and follow Dreda on twitter @DredaMitchell