Five Qualities That The Main Character In Your Thriller Story Should Have

2015 Artwork Qualities Thriller Protagonists Should Have sketch

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 🙂

Four Basic Tips For Writing Criminal Protagonists

In the spirit of things, the idea for this drawing was shamelessly stolen from the famous "Fantômas" book cover/poster from 1911.

In the spirit of things, the idea for this drawing was shamelessly stolen from the famous “Fantômas” book cover/poster from 1911.

Throughout the past couple of centuries (in Britain, mainland Europe and America at least), criminals have been a surprisingly popular choice for heroic characters in stories, movies and TV shows.

In late 19th Century Britain, readers were scandalised and delighted by stories with such rogueish main characters as E. W. Hornung’s “Raffles” (in fact, even the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton” was inspired by “Raffles”, since E. W. Hornung was actually Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law ).

Not to mention that Robin Hood and Dick Turpin have been popular characters in traditional British folklore and fiction for many, many years.

Likewise, in early 20th century France, readers were thrilled and horrified by the exploits of the master criminal Fantômas (hell, he even got his own theme song).

There are too many modern examples of these kinds of characters to list here, but one of the best examples I’ve found recently is an old BBC drama series called “Hustle”, which follows a group of professional con artists in London. It’s funny, it’s ingenious, it’s well-written and it’s probably the most glamourous show that I’ve seen since I watched “Burn Notice”.

But, at the same time, these types of characters are still criminals. They’re still bank robbers, highwaymen, con artists and/or murderers. So, how do you write these kinds of main characters in a way that will make the audience actually like them? Here are a few tips:

1) A moral code: This is the most important thing to remember when you’re writing a main character who is also a criminal. Although a criminal protagonist might break thousands of laws, they almost always have a moral code of their own that they stick to rigidly.

A very old example of this is probably Robin Hood, who although he led a gang of thieves, also had a very strict rule of “steal from the rich and give to the poor”.

A more modern example of this can be seen in Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels (and the TV series based on them), where the main character is actually a serial killer. However, he follows a very strict moral code that his father gave him, which means that he only murders other serious criminals who have not been caught by the police.

So, why is this so important? Although readers might like the romanticised idea of an “outlaw”, most of them would probably recoil in horror at a sympathetic portrayal of a genuinely evil criminal.

Although the popularity of stories with criminal protagonists might imply that most people are amoral sociopaths, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people still have a fairly good idea of right and wrong, regardless of how many crime stories they read.

So, in order to make your criminal protagonist acceptable to the majoirty of your readers, you have to show that your main character is still an essentially “good” person – even if they also happen to be a criminal.

2) Underdog: One of the other reasons why criminal protagonists are so popular is because they are underdogs. They’re a single person (or a small group of people) who constantly manage to outwit, outsmart and stick two fingers up at the forces of law, order and authority.

And, well, many people like to see themsleves as “rebels” at heart. So, stories with criminal protagonists give readers a “safe” way to revel in this and to laugh at those in authority.

So, what does this mean in terms of storytelling? Well, what it means is that your criminal protagonist shouldn’t be someone in authority. Yes, there are plenty of real criminals in positions of authority around the world – but fictional criminals should never be part of the establishment that your readers want them to rebel against.

3) Some crimes are “beyond the pale”: This one should be really obvious, but even if you have the most well-written criminal protagonist in the history of fiction, your readers will still end up absolutely hating him or her if your main character commits certain crimes that are quite rightly seen as “beyond the pale” – even for a fictional character.

4) Intelligence: There’s a reason why heist movies thrill people and online articles about “the world’s dumbest criminals” constantly make people laugh. Criminals only really have any kind of dramatic value in stories – either as protagonists or villains – if they are very intelligent.

Why? Well, intelligence is one of the few “superpowers” that people can realistically have. Not only that, making your protagonists smarter than most people turns what would otherwise be a rather boring story into a thrilling puzzle that your readers are constantly wondering how your main character (or characters) will solve.

For example, a bank heist story where the intelligent main characters have to carefully work out a sneaky way to get past all sorts of high-tech security systems is far more thrilling than a story about a group of slightly stupid criminals who just burst into the bank with sawn-off shotguns and demand all of the money in the vaults.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Reasons Why “Loser” Protagonists Are Awesome

2014 Artwork Loser Protagonists Sketch

Usually, the main characters in novels, movies, comics etc… are either stylised “ordinary” characters or almost-superhuman heroic characters.

There’s a reason for this, since writers either like to think that the audience will relate to the “ordinary” characters or that they will aspire to be more like the heroic characters.

And, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great stories that use these types of main characters – but there’s one brilliant type of protagonist that is often overlooked. I am, of course, talking about stories where the main characters are – for want of a better word – complete and utter “losers”.

They’re failures, drop-outs, f**k-ups, freaks, wierdos etc.. And they often end up making great main characters.

Whilst this type of main character is most common in the comedy genre, I’d argue that these types of main characters can also work really well in other genres too.

Why? Well, here are two reasons:

1) They’re reassuring: One of the absolutely brilliant things about stories with “loser” protagonists is that they can actually be surprisingly reassuring because they make us feel that, even if everything goes wrong or we don’t measure up to the “perfect” standards of modern society, then our stories are still worthy to be told.

In addition to this, another great thing about “loser” protagonists is that they’re often slightly exaggerated characters and, therefore, they’re usually more of a “loser” than 99% of the audience is.

So, if you read a story with a loser protagonist, then there’s a good chance that your life will be more “successful” than theirs – so, these kinds of story can make you feel better about yourself by comparison.

Finally, if your life is similar to that of a “loser” main character, then it can always be great to see a character similar to you being portrayed as a main character rather than as a joke, a villain or just a background character.

So, “loser” main characters make everyone feel better about themselves. Whereas “ordinary” or “perfect” main characters only make part of the audience feel better about themselves.

2) They’re subversive: Although there are a few “loser” protagonists in mainstream movies, novels, TV shows – they often only really tend to appear in the comedy genre in mainstream stuff.

This is, in part, because people often expect protagonists to be “successful” or “ordinary” – so making the main character a complete and utter loser can be a very amusing subversion of this.

But, when it comes to non-comedy stuff, loser protagonists are something of a rarity in the mainstream. Why? Well, because mainstream stuff is often aspirational – it wants to “sell” the audience the fantasy that they too can be as amazingly strong, beautiful, rich, intelligent etc.. as the main characters. And, yes, this sort of stuff sells very well.

But, at the same time, it’s also fairly conservative. Whilst I don’t want to get into politics too much here, it’s no coincidence that almost all of these “successful” main characters all happen to fit into what society considers to be “ordinary”.

Yes, some of them might have superpowers or cool jobs – but they still, essentially fit into society’s definition of what is “ordinary” when it comes to things like appearence, interests, aspirations etc…

So, making the protagonist of your story into someone who society considers to be “unsuccessful” is a refeshing change from all of this stuff and it can make your story stand out from the crowd relatively easily. It’s also a great symbolic way to stick two fingers up at many of the stifling expectations that society has of us.


Sorry for the badly-written article, but I hope that it was interesting 🙂

Find The Main Characters That Work For You

2014 Artwork Best Type Of Protagonists Article Sketch

Well, a while after I wrote yesterday’s article, there was one line from it that still stuck in my mind. It was a line about how my writing changed for the better when I was twenty and it reads: ” I finally realised that I vastly preferred, and was mildly better at, writing female protagonists“.

Apart from exaggerated male protagonists in comedy stories (like this one), I’m just better at writing stories with female protagonists. Or, more specifically – I’m best at writing a particular type of female protagonist.

The ideal type of protagonists for me to write are slightly cynical, slightly tomboyish, know lots of random stuff and are often either detectives, eccentrics, outlaws or rebels of some kind or another.

I don’t know, this might just be a transgender thing. Since I find it difficult (if not impossible) to express myself fully in real life, I guess that all of these gigantic hidden parts of who I am just kind of joyously emerge onto the page on the rare occasions that I write fiction. This probably also explains why I didn’t really write any stories featuring female protagonists until I was about twenty, given how hard I tried to ignore, minimise and repress myself before then.

For me, knowing which kinds of protagonists I was best at writing was an even larger revelation than when I suddenly realised that I was vastly better at writing stories from a first-person perspective than I was at writing stories from a third-person perspective.

So, although I don’t really write much (if any) fiction these days – I know that, when I finally get back into writing again, I’ll probably end up writing something from a first person perspective with a female protagonist. And, in a strange way, this is kind of reassuring.

Anyway, enough about me. I’m sure that you’ve probably seen other writers who always seem to have the same type of main character in most of their stories. One great example of this would probably be Billy Martin – a retired horror/gothic/romance novelist (who now seems to be working as an artist) who wrote under the name of “Poppy Z. Brite”.

Anyway, almost all of the protagonists in his novels are all surprisingly handsome gay men and I can’t really imagine him writing at length with any other type of protagonist than this – he’s just so good at writing these types of characters.

Plus, some writers just use the same main character in all of their stories. I mean, take a look at Lee Child – literally all of the many thriller novels that he’s written feature the same main character. He’s an American guy called Jack Reacher who is a six-foot tall retired military policeman. And, despite the lack of different main characters, Lee Child’s novels are still extremely readable and fun.

So, I guess that some writers have an ideal “type” of protagonist and some writers just have an ideal protagonist. Still, it can be very useful to find the kinds of protagonists who really “click” with you because it can really make your writing come to life and – most importantly- make your really enjoy writing.

Of course, there are also those magical writers (like Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman) who seem perfectly comfortable with writing a vast variety of radically different protagonists and I’ve never quite understood this, but I have a huge amount of respect for any writer who can do this.

Still, if you find that your stories feel like they’re “lacking something”, then it might be worth looking at your main characters and seeing if you can change them in any way. Although it can sometimes take a lot of introspection and trial-and-error to find the right kind of protagonist for your stories, it’s certainly worth doing because it can make a shocking difference in the quality of your writing.


Sorry that this article was so short, but I hope it was useful 🙂