Monday, 30 July 2012

Chiller Thrillers for humans!

Chiller Thrillers to die for.

Intriguing plots, suspense, dreadful predicaments, breakneck pace, ‘out of this world’ events even... These are all elements of a good fiction thriller novel. Of course, you can also break thrillers down into lots of sub genres and start including spy/terrorist, swash-buckling adventure, horror, and supernatural. Maybe the key ingredient of thrillers is that they should have you breathlessly hanging onto your hollyhocks to see what will happen next. The stakes are high and layer after layer of ‘can it possibly get any worse?’ is superseded only by the hero/heroine’s attempts to come good, which conversely just gets him/her into further disasters... I just love these plots…
But wait there is more to it than this...

As a thriller writer I’m always fascinated by human behaviour in extremis. When the chips are down (forgive the cliché) all bets are off! Because, much more than the exciting plot lines, there must be a strong human interest that readers can relate to. And that, I believe, is what makes a thriller story so believable and engaging. It is the hero/heroine suffering and struggling and yet overcoming adversity – eventually - that makes readers empathise with them.

One of the main faults I had when I first started writing thrillers was that I did not understand the power of empathy. I focused on the multi-layered plot making it as full of chills and frights as I could. I made my main character a bit of a bitch and apart from overcoming the threat to her and her family I never made her particularly likeable. After this criticism of my story came from more than a few quarters, I looked afresh at other stories, comparing them to my own and realised they were right. Mostly main characters should be likeable even if they do some not so good things.

None of us know how we’d react if we were put in a life or death situation or were faced by a dreadful choice but we can’t help but wonder how we’d cope and that emotion – empathy - is the engine of all good fiction, not just thrillers. Of course it does mean that the heroine/hero characters must be likeable so we can root for them to succeed. Even superheroes and star trek characters have to have some human frailties for us to feel for them.

Thrillers may be fast paced, exciting reads but they still need to conform to basic story telling rules and the main characters need to connect with us, the readers.

Do you think empathetic charcters are key ingredients in good fiction? 


  1. I like (some) thrillers, mostly because they get my heart rate up, allowing me to skip aerobic exercise for the day (-:

    I think characters, that I empathize with, connect me to the story more than those I don't.

  2. Thanks for this post, Pat. As soon as I've completed my nonfiction manuscripts, I'll start working on the thrillers. I have the plots for my thrillers but the action scenes are still in the making. I can't believe I could think of such deadly things, but for fiction, I guess I can get away with them. Stephen King made it possible.

    I'll get "The Afterlife..." and The Witcheye..." later.

  3. This is so important, yet you don't want all characters to be sweet and cookie cutter. But if the reader can't understand why they are making any of the decisions they are making or feel like they might make similar decisions it can be hard. I just finished reading a book that made me feel this way. I couldn't get my head wrapped around this character.

  4. This is a great post and its so true. The choices have to stay real to the characters or we lose something in the story.

    Followed you over here from Jen's blog! So glad I found you :)

  5. Yes, yes, and yes! No matter how good or twisty the plot is, if I haven't connected to the characters, I will get bored. I think you just have to have the empathy factor or you'll lose readers!

  6. My characters are always on the snarky side, but I have learned to temper that a bit! :) I think empathy is important, yes, but I also do quite enjoy reading about interesting characters.