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Serious Trouble: Writing Character Driven Thrillers

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Where do we begin as novelists? We set out to chronicle the story of a life—not just any life but a meaningful one, a person who matters to us. I don’t know about you, but every time I start a new novel it’s as if I’ve never written one before. I don’t have a clue how to do it. There I sit at my computer, staring at that blameless white rectangle, waiting. It can take a long time. Days, months, even years—a time of personal exile let’s call it, where you wander, somewhat aimlessly, in sweatpants and your favorite t-shirt, across the wasteland of your mind, agitated, confused, ashamed, with your pesky accomplice, Doubt, as your only guide. If only you had a good idea. I mean: a really good idea.

A little desperate, you begin at the very outskirts of your imagination, a flea market of cast away ideas you haven’t quite been ready to throw out, that old novel you started way back when—it seemed like such a good idea at the time, even though you know nothing about the intelligence business, or how to fire an assault rifle, or how to navigate a spaceship, or what you imagine might be the rather grisly consequences of a sister’s disappearance—of course you don’t want to write about your own life or anything close to it—that would be exceptionally boring. No—better to focus on something big, something really big. With so much action and stuff happening, you’ll have no trouble filling up all those pages….

And then, after a couple months trying to figure out your plot as it were, digging up rocks and snails and handfuls of worms, you inevitably run into someone you know at the supermarket—your neighbor, perhaps, who has all too often witnessed your questionable attire as you traipse from your office to the doormat to fetch your paper, or, worse, a fellow writer, who is smarter than you and has managed to avoid the slovenly, crumb-laced confusion you are now experiencing; a person who is privy to the fact that you’ve been holed up in your little room ostensibly producing a neat little stack of pages and asks that much dreaded and irresistible question: So what’s it about? 

Your reply is a blank stare.

Doctorow famously said that writing a novel is like driving through fog; you only need to see as far as your headlights to get to where you’re going. Other writers prefer to rely on GPS, otherwise known as an outline. Like Doctorow, whose book Loon Lake so dazzled me when I first read it back in college that I knew I wanted to become a writer, I too believe that you can’t always see the road ahead, that you must take your time as you set out in the fog, as your headlights gradually light your way. But what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the passenger sitting next to you who navigates the destiny of your book, that stranger you happen to notice standing along the roadside in the pouring rain with her thumb out. Nobody else is stopping, but, you, good soul that you are, pull over and open the door and tell her to get in, and then she’s sitting there next to you, big as life, wearing a smell you can’t quite place, dragging in all her stuff—the old mutt you didn’t see at first, the black garbage bags wet from the rain, full of god knows what—and she looks at you and gripes, What took you so long!

Your fingertips are burning as you shuffle to your computer. What is this person doing in your head?  You imagine her now, your passenger, inventing her face, her hands, what all she might be carrying in her bulky plastic bags, and together you set out on that dimly lit road. Feeling a little lost, you open the glove compartment and shake out a map, but she just rolls her eyes at you, because where she is taking you isn’t on any map. When she finally tells you her name, it strikes you as very right, no other would suit her, and as you creep along through the fog, she tells you why she’s come. You see she’s in a little trouble. In fact it’s pretty serious. Oh, she had her reasons, very good reasons in fact. But nobody’s going to believe her.

And that’s when she looks at you with those big haunted eyes. Nobody but you.

You feel lost; maybe you’ve gotten in over your head. You follow a series of back roads. Don’t worry, she assures you, it’s just down there. You have to trust me! See that house? She points with her dirty finger. And with some degree of trepidation, regretting this whole expedition, your chosen profession, the foolish pursuit of becoming a writer, assuming you have anything new or interesting to say, you pull over and cut the engine. It’s a ramshackle old place. Creepy even. The dark windows. The empty fields. And it occurs to you, rather viscerally, that stuff happened here, a whole lot of it, and none of it good. 

He’s in there, she says, and you nod, noticing now the old Cadillac in the barn, black as a hearse. She gathers her things, clutching the little dog (ah Chekhov you are never far) and her lumpy plastic bags, and then she looks right at you. You’re coming in, aren’t you?

And so begins your inquiry, your investigation of the facts of her story, its chronology, the sequence of events that led your character to right now, and it quickly becomes clear to you that you are far less interested in what she did than in why she did it. And this is important. It’s not the what that interests us—the what is for newspapers. It’s the why, the pathology of the mistake, the psychology that motivated it, that, like a match to gasoline, burns across every page of your novel. 

Knowing your character well is the key to unlocking your novel’s structure, the rope that foists you out of the dark pit. I used to say that writing any kind of novel is like digging out of prison with a spoon and I still believe that. It’s not for the tenderhearted. It’s a whole lot of isolation. And you have to be willing to do that—to be alone with these people in your head. You have to know your characters well—their likes and dislikes, their deepest fears, the things they might have dreamed about when they were little, or maybe the one time they won something, a raffle, a contest, a track meet, a gold fish, or what the scariest thing that ever happened to them was. When I’m sketching out a character I often write down some of the answers to these questions on index cards that I tack on a bulletin board over my desk along with photographs and postcards of paintings and anything that helps me conceptualize who they might be. You are creating a human being on the page—and what does that mean exactly? What does it mean to be human? It likely means that your character is flawed somehow, as we all are flawed. Your character has certain problems that, over the course of your novel, become meaningful to them, problems that need to be addressed in order for them to move on. I like the expression Action Talks because in fiction, as in life, it is a person’s actions, not their words, that truly reveal who they are. How are we shaped by our histories? How do we wear our histories on our bodies? Do we have birthmarks, scars, tattoos, health issues, allergies, what sort of drugs do we keep in our medicine chests, what sort of food, if any, fills the refrigerator. Who is paying the bills and how? Is the carpet stained in the house, or is it a trailer? When was the last time your character was kissed? Why is there an old trombone in the closet? Is your character content with their lot in life, or consumed with dissatisfaction? The answers to these questions are revealing—they are the landmarks along that dim road on your journey to knowing them.

Once you have a good grasp of your main character, or one of your main characters, it may be helpful to step back a moment with a wide-angle lens and view her from afar. It’s also a good idea to nurture your imagination with the context of your novel in mind. I like to give some thought to the before and after in your character’s life—before the thing happened—the inciting incident as it were—way before, and then immediately after and perhaps even far in the future. What does your character do for a living? How do they get by? If she works in a napkin factory, visit a napkin factory and get that sound in your ears. If she owns her own hedge fund, figure out what the heck that means. Talk to people. Take notes. Don’t rely on Google. You have to get out there and investigate in order to conjure that authenticity for your reader. And going a little further here, you may even want to consider, however vaguely, why a person might want to read your novel. What is it about your character that they may relate to, or not. The best novels are about regular people who, like so many of us, make mistakes or find themselves in the sort of trouble they never anticipated. Within that predicament is the tension that your novel requires, a kind of emotional riddle that needs to be solved, or at least addressed. Because everything we do in life, every action we take has a relevant history that informs it. And nearly every decision we make, good or bad, is connected to that history, the splinters of life-experience that remain just under the skin. 

I came around to the idea that the real terror arises in the most ordinary places, and usually around people we know. We can only guess at what we’re capable of in a given situation, and there’s a great deal of psychological tension in that, in the not knowing, in the speculation. When I was a kid, people were generally more private. You didn’t express yourself in public quite so much, and you maintained a “happy” superficiality that concealed the reality of your life. I learned early on that the truth was never quite said aloud—it languished in everything that was not said. The truth existed in behavior, in gesture, in the sudden shift of expression. I grew up with a somewhat tormented brother who found drugs in his early teens and there are sweeping scenes in my memory of the turmoil he caused my family. When you grow up with an intrinsic family dilemma it shapes your perspective on the world, and it shapes your work. You understand things about drama and the time lapse of conflict that eventually segues into something dangerous. I think that’s why my books are fairly dark. I was always conscious of the potential and looming violence in our household, how my brother was in fact a very dangerous person in close proximity, and I adapted to that tension to a certain degree, and learned to live with it.

If you want to be a writer you have to see everything. It took a long time for me to reckon with the after effects of my brother’s drug addiction on the whole family. And my new novel The Vanishing Point is perhaps a culmination of all of those thoughts and feelings, mixed with my own experiences as a parent in a drug-infused culture like ours.

I apparently write thrillers, but I never set out to write what is known as a thriller, let alone a literary one, for there is no genre that can contain my work. I set out to write about a person at a particular time in their life when something happens to create a shift in their world-view.  There it is right there, dear writer, all you need to know about structure. You can write about the smallest thing. Somebody trying to quit drinking, for example, who heads into his day feeling especially vulnerable, and has to deal with something out of the ordinary like finding a baby in an elevator (or a kitten, or a wallet, or a feather, or a gun). You get what I’m saying? Trust your character to bring you into the world of your novel and, if you do, you will be in that world and you will see it, and you will be able to write what you see. So, next time you glimpse one of your people standing on the roadside, and trust me you know who they are, pull over and let them in. You’ll be happy you did.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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