Well, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I’ve been watching a TV show called “24” quite a lot recently. Although I don’t plan to review any of it, it’s probably the closest televised equivalent to a well-written series of thriller novels (such as Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels) that I’ve ever seen.
And, as anyone who has watched “24” knows – the show revolves around a protagonist called Jack Bauer who is, in many ways, something of a traditional “action hero” character. Yes, he’s a little bit more morally grey than traditional heroic characters – but he’s a handsome, muscular, ex-military character who is (mostly, but not completely) emotionless.
But, as anyone with any experience of the genre will probably know – good thriller protagonists don’t necessarily have to be action heroes. In fact, a good thriller protagonist can be literally anyone, as long as they have at least one or two of these qualities. Some of these qualities might even surprise you:
1) Individualism: Thriller novels are at their most thrilling when the protagonist is essentially on their own. This goes back a long way and it can be seen in one of the first modern thriller novels ever written – “The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan, where the protagonist (Richard Hannay) is on the run from the police for most of the novel, after being falsely accused of murder.
In Dan Brown’s more recent thriller novels – his protagonist (Robert Langdon) is a university professor. He isn’t a member of any organisation and sometimes even ends up being chased by the authorities. Likewise, in Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, the eponymous Mr. Reacher is essentially just a hobo who wanders around America.
Whilst there are plenty of thriller stories where the main character is part of a team or an organisation (and, technically, “24” falls into this category), a good thriller protagonist will usually find themselves completely alone against the world.
So, why do thriller writers do this?
As well as adding more suspense to the story, it’s also because of the emotional payoff at the end of the story. Basically, it’s a lot more satisfying to see one person defeat a hundred villains than it is to see a hundred people defeat one villain.
2) Intelligence: Even if the main character in your thriller novel is a muscle-bound action hero, then they can’t be an idiot.
Yes, action movies and first-person shooter games might have cemented the idea that heroic characters in thrilling stories should be slightly stupid – but this is most emphatically not the case in the thriller genre.
Why? Because having a stupid protagonist in a thriller story is hilariously unrealistic. If someone was being pursued by a group of powerful villains and/or by the authorities, then they wouldn’t last long if they weren’t intelligent.
Likewise, if your main character is trying to solve a crime or uncover a conspiracy, then they’re probably going to have to be fairly smart in order to do this.
So, brains can often count for far more than brawn in a good thriller story. Not only is it more realistic, but it’s also a lot more satisfying for your audience to see your main character outsmarting the villains occasionally, than it is for them to see your main character fighting the villains again and again.
3) Courage: This one should be fairly self-explanatory, but most people enjoy the thriller genre because thriller stories allow us to vicariously feel like badasses. So, it goes without saying that a good thriller protagonist should be courageous.
However, be very careful not to confuse courage with foolishness. In other words, if your main character is going to do something dangerous, then they better have a good reason for doing it. And they should probably also be smart enough to know if there’s a less dangerous way to do the same thing.
4) An Outlaw: If your thriller story is set in even a vague approximation of the real world, then it’s important to remember that no-one in your story is above the law. This includes your main character too. Generally speaking, the kinds of things that thriller protagonists do tend to be very legally questionable in the real world.
Even if your main character lives in a country with extremely lax weapons and self-defence laws (eg: America), then they’re probably still going to have to answer to the police if they even so much as get into a fist-fight, let alone a gun fight, with anyone.
Likewise, if your protagonist breaks into somewhere in order to gather evidence – then there’s a good chance that they might have to explain their actions in court if they get caught. Plus, the evidence they’ve collected may not even be admissable in court.
In effect, most thriller story protagonists are criminals. But, they’re often very good criminals with good motivations. What this means is that they can’t take a conservative attitude towards authority, rules, regulations and laws. They have to be willing to rebel against authority and break the rules when they feel that it is the right thing to do.
5) Non-aggression: This sounds counterintuitive but, as anyone who has ever taken any martial arts lessons will probably tell you – even half-speed free fights in the safety of a dojo can be painful, exhausting and unpredictable things.
So, imagine how much worse an actual fight (where both people actually intend to injure each other) would probably be.
When I studied martial arts for a while when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I remember the sensei (who was a retired policeman) once pointing out that most real fights only last for something like ten or fifteen seconds. He also pointed out that if the other person is carrying a knife then, regardless of how well-practiced you are at disarming techniques, you’re probably still going to get injured. So, yes, real fights of any kind are something to be avoided at all costs.
Likewise, if you’ve ever been paintballing, then you’ll probably know how unpredictable and painful even a safe simulation of a gun fight can be. How, unlike in the movies, you have just as much of a chance of being shot as you do of shooting anyone on the other team.
There’s a reason why people who have done anything even vaguely close to real combat usually don’t tend to be aggressive people who like to start fights.
Violent conflicts are unpredictable things that – at the very least- tend to result in a lot of pain for everyone involved. So, if the main character in your thriller story is ex-military, ex-police or anything like that and has had actual experience of violence, then they’re probably going to be sensible enough to know not to start any fights unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so.
In other words, a good thriller protagonist should only use violence reluctantly and/or in genuine self-defence (eg: when there’s no way to quickly retreat from the situation or resolve it peacefully).
Yes, hyper-aggressive “action hero” characters might look cool but they’re also hilariously unrealistic – and are probably very likely to spend most of their time in hospitals, graveyards and/or prisons.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂