As I mentioned in my introduction to the ThrillerFest recaps, I fully expected to learn a lot about plot, pacing and suspense. What I did NOT expect was that character development would be the central topic to just about every talk or panel I attended. Character development in a thriller? Actually, that idea is not that far off. Regardless of what genre you write, the most important components to your story are the characters. Without strong characters, you have no story.
As agent Donald Maass said in his great talk “Creating Depth of Character,” people might read for plot, but when they finish the book what they really remember are the characters. Anyone who’s read The Hunger Games might not be able to recite every last plot twist, but they can probably tell you minute details about the characters. Rue’s song. Katniss’ protective instinct over her sister, Prim. Peeta, the boy with the bread. Sure, The Hunger Games might be a plot-driven story, but what really draws the reader into that world are the protagonist and the compelling supporting cast.
Through a series of guided exercises, Maass helped writers in his workshop “open up the emotional landscape” of their books. As I learned during this talk, creating depth of character comes down to three things: secrets, mistakes and shame. As Maass explained in the workshop: “Secrets, mistakes and shame are powerful, powerful story tools.” Essentially, the message of this workshop was that by creating characters who have depth, writers are able to develop more compelling stories as well.
This emotional journey for character isn’t so much about building tension and suspense (though in a thriller, that is important too) but about building up on the character’s struggles. If a character gets what he or she wants easily, then there’s no struggle and the reader won’t care. When the character struggles, the reader cares. This technique works even for the most action-packed thrillers.
External vs. Internal Struggles
It all comes down to a character’s external and internal struggles. In some cases the external and internal struggles might support each other, while at other times these conflicts might be at odds. For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’ external goal–to win the games and survive–also serves her personal which is to care for and protect her family. As the story develops, and she builds relationships with Rue and Peeta, her goals become more complicated because in order to survive, it means her friends will have to die.
Another great example of an action-packed story that works on an emotional level is the movie Die Hard. You’re probably wondering: Die Hard has an emotional component? Stick with me for a second. First, not only does John McClane struggle to save a building of executives from terrorists, but he’s also struggling to save his marriage. While the external struggle to defeat the terrorists is what the audience is really rooting for, the struggle for McClane to save his marriage and get back together with his wife is what makes the story compelling and personal. This whole mess goes down on Christmas Eve of all nights in the year, a night that most people want to spend with family but McClane has to spend Christmas protecting his family from terrorists.
But that’s not all: McClane has to fight the terrorists single-handed (and there’s 12 of them!) and he has no shoes on. There’s broken glass everywhere because the bad guys are shooting up the building and breaking windows. Fighting twelve terrorists alone is high-stakes but it doesn’t make us relate to the character. It’s when McClane has to fight barefoot on broken glass (which is such a great visual metaphor for his relationship to his wife) that we connect with him on a personal level. It’s his emotional struggle to get through this situation and rescue his wife so they can patch up their marriage that makes the story resonate.
In the talk, Maass raised some great questions that writers can ask themselves about their work. I’ll share a few of those questions with you now:
- What does your main character (MC) want most? We’re not talking plot points here, but the MC’s personal goal. (i.e. not “to save the hostages from the terrorists” in Die Hard but “to rescue his wife and save his marriage.”)
- What’s the opposite of that want? Can the MC want that opposite thing, even if for just a moment?
- The way to write personally is to write from personal experience. What’s your biggest secret, mistake or source of shame? How can you make your MC (or another character) experience that on some level?
The Climax is A Struggle Between the Internal and External Goals
Finally, Maass also talked about the power of forgiveness and redemption for the main character, especially when it comes to reaching the readers on an emotional level. At the climax of the story, something has to happen so that the main character can either forgive or be forgiven. Since John McClane’s personal goal is to save his marriage, the main thing that must happen in the climax is that he must forgive his wife for leaving and forgive himself for letting her go. He also has to make sure not to make the same mistake twice.
It makes sense, then, that the most effective climax to the story would involve putting that marriage directly in jeopardy. The movie establishes that in the past McClane put his job before his family so McClane’s internal and external struggles will have the highest stakes if he has to choose between saving his wife and catching the terrorists.
When the villain realizes that McClane’s wife is among the hostages, he takes the wife with him to confront McClane and tries to use her against him. The climax of the movie occurs when McClane has to choose between capturing the terrorists and letting them go but saving his wife. Since his original mistake had been to let his wife go, it makes sense that in the climax he chooses to hold onto her. Don’t worry, McClane still manages to defeat the terrorists at the end, but the point is that at the climax of the movie, both the plot goal and the personal goal come together, and in that moment McClane he chooses his personal goal: his wife.
Characters ARE the Story
Without strong character development, a plot is nothing but a series of blips in time. “This happens… and then… and then…” and so forth. It’s when character and plot events come together–when the story reflects or enhances personal elements of a character’s struggle– that things get interesting. “This happens as a result of this and it causes that” makes for a much more compelling story than just a series of sequential events. This lesson doesn’t just apply to thrillers. All writers need to bridge that gap between character and plot.