Ordinary Amid the Extreme

Writing a thriller leads to constant attempts to inject mystery and/or suspense. A scheme of opposites is devised at the beginning, and those forces are then set in motion. Because the author has likely read many other thrillers, he knows that his story has to be extraordinary in its own way: plot stakes, setting, tech devices, and so on. What happens, though, when the characters enacting this drama seem cartoonish: good for action but too robotic?

In the journey to unknown heights, the author can forget that warmth in a character stems from her interactions with other characters. Not only that, but the feelings a character has must be shared by readers, at least in a vicarious sense. More to the point, they must be understood: oh, that’s how I would feel.

Locking the reader in requires a strategy at odds with grand designs. The character must, no matter what amazing thing he is doing, sally forth through each moment of it as though he will barely manage to come out intact on the other side. That’s what people do. When you don’t know what is going on, you wing it. You are the same jasper, trying to handle a new situation.

How does this two-level strategy operate in practical terms? You pick out familiar relationships and have the heroine interact with those characters as though they’re riding to the grocery store. A mother who has just been interviewed by the police about a crime she didn’t commit will still call her children when she returns to her motel room. She is not going to shriek in dismay to her kids. She’ll ask if they did their homework.

Don’t mistake me: I don’t want to be bored. You’d better bring it in terms of excitement. Yet you need silence in order to build a crescendo, and a thriller oscillates in the same way. You want outsized characters in bizarre situations, but you need the milk of human interaction to fully engage the reader. So you neglect at your peril characters who perform the function of making the lead character fully rounded.

That is why you encounter hard-bitten heroes who make sardonic wisecracks. That’s why women warriors have sisters with babies. Without such touchstones the character may become as alien to the reader as the situations. Then we’re no longer participating; we’re not inside the hero’s head. We’re just waiting, metaphorically, to click off the show.

Exercise: Pick out one or two characters with whom the lead character interacts like you would in a normal situation. Alongside your grand schemes, allot a plot skein of 7-10 scenes in which the characters have a more standard problem: what to do about the nanny, how to get the husband to stop drinking, etc. Then drop them into the book after peaks of suspense, a temporary lull in the storm.

“Many people—when they think about North Korea and the dictatorship, or the military or nuclear weapons, nuclear missiles, those things—tend to forget ordinary citizens are living there.”
—Lee Hyeon-seo

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.