Thrillers, Part 3 of 4: Villains

The villain in a thriller is generally not your run-of-the-mill murderer. He is someone with a goal in mind, and he is driving toward that goal, regardless of the damage he causes along the way. While he may enjoy that destruction, whether human (serial killer, assassin, strong-man dictator) or property (arsonist, bomber, unscrupulous land baron) he could just as easily be someone who reluctantly sees the damage he leaves in his wake as an inevitable cost to the good he thinks he's doing (religious fanatic, environmental extremist, patriot assassin). While she may be evil, to me it is much more fascinating to read about the villain who thinks she is the hero of the story, who is a true believer in a cause she has either lost perspective on or has just gone too far in support of.

Either way, his plans are greater than a single act, usually building to some larger, ultimate goal that our protagonist must prevent. In the book Silence of The Lambs, [SPOILER STARTS] Buffalo Bill is building himself a lady-suit [SPOILER ENDS]. In the film Taken, [SPOILER STARTS] Marko is seeking to keep a steady supply of fresh flesh for his human trafficking operation [SPOILER ENDS]. In my own book, Presence of Malice, [SPOILER STARTS] Gerald Gannery is determined to gaslight his partner for the embezzlement of which he, himself, is guilty in order to free himself up to take a lucrative development deal for cable TV [SPOILER ENDS].

The villain's evil usually comes not just from his own selfishness, but from his willingness, even eagerness, to accede the pain and suffering of others in order to meet his aims. Even if she agonizes over each and every life taken, she takes it anyway because to her, the end will justify whatever means she sees necessary to apply.

In a thriller there is the concept of the ticking clock, which I will explain in more detail in the next and final part to this post, but I wanted to mention here (and will most likely repeat next month) that the ticking clock doesn't necessarily have to be a literal clock. In many cases it is the deadline for the fruition of the villain's plans, whether arbitrarily set by him or by his own need for urgency due to other schedules being enforced upon him (the president's plane departs, a shipment to be hijacked is en route, the laundry truck departs the prison, etc.).

As I mentioned before, my favorite villain is the one who thinks she is ultimately doing good, or better yet the one who is besieged by guilt over her own actions but compelled to do them anyway. But there is also something to be said for the gleefully evil - the serial killer, the psycho musician convinced he is a soldier for Satan, the unhinged skinhead with a hidden lair full of torture victims, etc. Whatever your taste, always remember that to keep the tension, either the villain must not be redeemed, or if she is, it must already be too late to stop the events she has put in motion (or seemingly so, until our hero takes action).

I wanted to spend time on henchmen and other companions of the villain who must be defeated on the way to the villain himself, but that will have to wait for another, longer discussion on villains.

Meanwhile, what are your favorite villains? What bad guys do you love to hate? Let me know in the comments, below.

Thrillers, Part 2 of 4: Heroes

HeroHeroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.

A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.

Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.

I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.

What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.

Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.

Thrillers, Part 1 of 4

In my four-part blog series on the Thriller genre, I'm going to discuss the core nature of the thriller and what sets it apart from other forms of fiction. In three future segments, I plan to discuss the hero(es), the villain(s) and plotting and pacing. My intent is to offer some insights to fellow thriller-writers and perhaps learn something myself along the way.

The primary thing that sets the thriller apart from its cousin, the mystery, is that most often there is no whodunit. For the most part, the bad guy (or guys...assume hereafter I mean both singular and plural, masculine and feminine) is revealed fairly early on in the plot, if not the very first page.

This leads to a temptation for many aspiring thriller writers to open their book with a prologue, in which the villain incites the story through some nefarious act that sets his plans in motion. Please resist the urge. Most editors do not like prologues and neither do I. There are justifications for prologues, but they should be the exception, not the rule. Prologues are a whole other blog article.

While the primary question in a mystery is 'who?" the big question in a thriller is 'how?' How is the villain planning to accomplish his goal? This is critical for the hero to know how to stop the villain. In a mystery, on the road to finding out who committed the crime (usually murder), finding the 'why?' or motive goes a long way toward helping the protagonist sleuth to finding the culprit. In a thriller, similar but different is the 'what?" Finding out what the villain plans to do helps our hero know how to thwart him.

Which brings us to another difference. In a mystery, finding the perp is usually the end of the story, sometimes after a brief pursuit and/or capture scene. In a thriller, finding the answer to 'how' only kicks the thriller into high gear. Our daring protag still needs to execute a spectacular plan to dismantle the villain's plans. And of course when has a plan ever come off exactly as laid out? Therein lies more fun.

Your audience for a mystery is those who like the process of uncovering secrets and following obscure evidence trails to uncover even more. In many cases, the more shocking the secrets revealed the better they love it. I know that's part of what makes me love a good mystery. Your audience for a thriller are those who like action, adventure and daring do. The pitching of two enemies against each other until one comes out on top. Where a mystery is like the old card game Concentration - uncovering clues and remembering them, matching connections when they appear - a thriller is like chess - opponents making moves in attempts to misdirect and outwit each other and win the day.

Of course, like all attempts to define something complex, these definitions (mystery vs. thriller) are not all-encompassing or true in all cases. For example, I haven't mentioned how many mysteries and most thrillers include elements of romance, or how either can take place within the realm of historical fiction or SciFi, etc. As with all forms of fiction, there is overlap. I've only attempted here to lay out the broad strokes of what makes a thriller. Your results may vary.