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General Chat > Can a Thriller Have Truly Complex Characters?

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message 2: by Marie-Jo (new)

Marie-Jo Fortis | 118 comments I basically agree with your article. I center my plots around psychology. So, to me, that's the basis. It's not only action in the thriller, but what motivates that action. Of course, there are also psychological thrillers. It's a more literary, but just as exciting, genre.

message 3: by Bo (new)

Bo Brennan | 28 comments I believe a good thriller should be centered around the characters. What drives the characters is critical to the plot, and that can only be achieved on any solid level by understanding who they are. I'm happy to drop a beat of pace to make my characters 'whole,' and story complex. I think the thriller genre has suffered over the years from the very thing your article mentions. Many times I've picked up a 'thriller' to find myself reading 'action' and not much else.
Maybe it's time for a new genre - 'action thriller!'

message 4: by Lily (new)

Lily Gardner | 12 comments Larry wrote: "Read online article:"

Good question—I think Jo Nesbo writes vivid characters.

message 5: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Krueger | 23 comments People used to talk about "character driven" versus "plot driven" novels. I think what they were really saying was boring literary novels with deep characters versus action-packed, exciting novels. But what separates my ideal writer from the James Patterson types is the ability to portray a character without slowing the story. Harlan Coben is good at doing that.

message 6: by Feliks (last edited Jun 11, 2013 09:14AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) #3, Bo
But 'action thrillers' would not be a 'new' genre; they've been around at least as long as Alistair MaClean. Likely, you can start even earlier with John Buchan and Geoffrey Household in the 1930s. Or even (as Bakhtin says in his books) Greek myths.

Good, solid question by the OP which invokes some musing on the most fundamental elements of fiction writing. You could even take the same question and apply it--with profitable result--to any genre, really. Thrillers bring the issue to the fore though, in a way that no other genre will because they illustrate the most stubborn horns of the dilemma: what do we write about? Action ..'or' character? One more than the other? Both?

The issues get trickier the more you study it. Doing any kind of research reveals that authors and playwrights have always been struggling with these problems. Is there any one 'best' way to describe scenes and events, and their participants? With Dialog? Deeds only? Chains of cause-and-effect? In what measure? How often should one rely on 3rd person omniscient voice, providing lengthy character background and story exposition? Or should action writing depend (as Elmore Leonard did) on a terse economy, with no 'asides'? Are there ways to write character which at the same time, imply, contain, or unfold action (such as Aristotle's 'unity' concept)?

I think almost any project--even if writing a children's fable--will force an author to grapple with issues like this. Novelists have the most freedom, of course; they can start out by describing a character about to open a closet door and --while the hand is still resting on the knob--take us on a detour covering just about anything. The character's actual past, their memories of their past, their dreams, their fears; their relationships; their blind spots; the sensation of their tongue on the roof of their mouth; juxtapositions in time and place.

An action writer usually avoids all this and just deals with the simple, prosaic, opening of the closet door. Action authors are striving for a specific effect--excitement and anticipation; (similar to horror authors who strive to implant sensations of dread) in their readers. Pacing is paramount. A lot has to be sacrificed and jettisoned to achieve 'breathless' or 'whirlwind' effects. There's a lot of simple, successive time/space cues. "Suddenly, ..." and "Just at that moment..." and "Meanwhile..". Compression and distillation; holding the reader's attention in-just-the- immediate-moment; the 'ticking' bomb and the 'dangling' man.

I don't know whether there is any one single answer; but I think (for me, anyway) at the very least good action writing is at all times, vivid and colorful enough so that, my interest is maintained even during descriptions of calm, uneventful sequences. I think when an author uses 'his' voice to narrate, its second-best. There are great novels of suspense written in 3rd person, but a real page-turner (for me) is usually written in 1rst-person. The reader being placed inside the character's experience as thoroughly as possible; rather than 'looking on' from outside. As corny as Alistair MacLean sometimes was; he showed the worth of this technique.

In 1rst-person voice, you get added value of idiom. Even when a character is only having a dialog with a supporting character, his speech, mannerism, habit, and deportment can imbue narrative with greater volume and depth; can impress the reader with 'personality' so that when the bare-bones action sequences start rolling--we don't get lost in the 'generic-ness' of action.

When action is described in the same vivid character voice throughout, its very effective. You can see this in something like Dashiell Hammett's 'Red Harvest'. Pages and pages of slaughter and murder happening at a very fast clip--but his detective is never lost. Its the best example I can name of the true 'can't turn the pages fast enough' experience.

Oh well. Just my 2 cents.

message 7: by Seeley (new)

Seeley James (seeleyjames) Feliks wrote: "#3, Bo
But 'action thrillers' would not be a 'new' genre; they've been around at least as long as Alistair MaClean. Likely, you can start even earlier with John Buchan and Geoffrey Household in the..."

I'd say, start with Odysseus, if you subscribe to the definition of thriller as a race to prevent a future crime (Penelope having to marrying one of the interlopers :)

Thrillers have always been the backbone of fiction.

Peace, Seeley

message 8: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Correct, 'adventure' goes back at least as far as Greek myths, which is why I mentioned Mikhail Bakhtin's theories. Thx..

message 9: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Land (goodreadscomanthony_land) | 4 comments

Feliks, I'd push the character/action issue back to the Gilgamesh cycle.

it's a character flaw--Gilgamesh's penchant for riveting any woman who strikes his fancy--that sets the story in motion. His exasperated subjects appeal to the. gods to send them a champion to defend their wives and daughters and to teach Gilgamesh a bit of humility. The gods create a hairy savage, Enkidu, who wrestles the king to his knees.

Gilgamesh responds to his humiliation by declaring Enkidu his bff and abandoning serial rape in favor of mighty quests, with Enkidu as his trusty sidekick. In the course of one of their adventures they manage to anger a goddess, who retaliates by killing Enkidu.

Enkidu's death makes Gilgamesh aware of his own inevitable demise and he spends the rest of the story trying, unsuccessfully, to finagle a grant of immortality.

The change from arrogant bully to man obsessed with his own mortality is the story, for which the action is essentially a catalyst.

message 10: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Land (goodreadscomanthony_land) | 4 comments Feliks, I agree with you that the first-person style is the way to build page-turning action. It permits the author to shine a very intense light, if desired, on the narrator's character, but the reader is obliged to accept the narrator's interpretation of the character of others. Frankly, I see that as an advantage. It dispenses with the digressions required to justify behavior from another character's viewpoint.

message 11: by D.R. (new)

D.R. Ransdell | 6 comments Larry, I think thrillers only work when they do have complex characters. Take Alex from "A Clockwork Orange," for example. You don't get anyone more complex than that--which perhaps is why I'm slightly on this terrible character's side. (Some might not consider this work a thriller.... but it's pretty thrilling to me.......)

message 12: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 239 comments We already have that complex character - his name is Jack Reacher! :)

message 13: by Martyn (new)

Martyn Halm (amsterdamassassinseries) | 103 comments Larry wrote: "Read online article:"

As I replied to your blog article:

Since my books are primarily character-driven, my characters tend to be more complex than my plots.

I make a distinction between ‘main’ characters and ‘minor’ characters, but I believe each character is the ‘main’ character in his ‘personal story’, so characters need to be well-rounded. Antagonists think about themselves as protagonists, so they shouldn’t be antagonistic just to make the protagonist look better.

About ‘plot’, since my books put the characters in the center, my plots tend to be less ‘structured’ and many reviewers like that, since they cannot ‘guess’ the outcome as easily as with many ‘plot-driven’ novels.

message 14: by Feliks (last edited Oct 23, 2013 09:48AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) R.M.F wrote: "We already have that complex character - his name is Jack Reacher! :)"

from Wikipedia: "Reacher is 6'5" tall (1.96 m) with a 50-inch chest, and weighing between 220 and 250 pounds (100–115 kg). He has ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. He has very little body fat, and his muscular physique is completely natural (he reveals in Persuader, he has never been an exercise enthusiast). He is exceptionally strong, has a high stamina, but is not a good runner."

Sorry, fail. That is not a complex character. When you're built like that, your problems are author-invented. :/

message 15: by S.B. (new)

S.B. Redstone (sbredstone) | 8 comments Replying to your article:

For me and my writing, my characters are the thrill not just the plot. It's their unique character and unpredictability that drives the reader to turn the next page. If a character bores me, like in Da vinci Code, I loss interest. But that's me.


message 16: by Mollydee (new)

Mollydee | 151 comments Larry wrote: "Read online article:"

great article! I totally agree. I look for character development. If I want no character, I will read splatterpunk. But in my other genres, I want to know about my main character, even more if possible! Very well written and you argued your point well.

Thank you I love when there is more to the group than just books. :)

message 17: by Sue (new)

Sue Perry | 28 comments I think all genres are in the same situation - character depth is optional. Fortunately and nonetheless, there are so many genre books with fascinating, full-fleshed characters.

message 18: by Sue (new)

Sue Perry | 28 comments Really like your blog. Hadn't come across it previously.

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