There is a basic recipe to creating the ideal character set for a thriller novel. Your character set must be multidimensional for your story to make an impact on your reader. Your main characters must have inner conflict, larger than life character qualities, and personal stakes. They must be clever, and courageous. Your hero’s must be charismatic and likable, while your villain should be evil, cunning, and determined to win.
Your secondary characters should not be forgettable. They should be just as complex as your main characters. If you’re worried your secondary characters may over shadow your hero or villain, don’t be. They aren’t the focus of the story and less time on page means less impact, but still a valued character in the story.
In this fourth post in the thriller outlining series, we are going to check off every element your character set needs to deliver a strong cast for your next thriller. This post can be used as a guideline for your current and future works in progress.
FREE DOWNLOADS: Before we begin, I recommend you download the character worksheet and the character arc template. Both are free and found in the vault. Each will assist you to create multi-dimensional characters, while maintaining focus on their external story and internal character struggles.
Do you know the difference between a protagonist and a hero?
A protagonist is the main character in a story. They are the character who changes internally over the course of the story. They often want something at the beginning of the story only to discover they need something else by the end.
The hero is also the main character in a story. A hero in its most basic definition is a character the reader hopes to see “win”. Hero’s are defined by their heroic qualities. They confront danger. They take risks with little regard to their own safety. They lead the charge and defeat the villain’s in the story. They are everything readers want to experience in the safety of their own minds and then some.
A great thriller has both a protagonist and a hero. Your job as the author, and quite frankly your ultimate goal as far as characters are concerned, is to combine the protagonist and the hero into one memorable main character. Don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as it seems and in the next few paragraphs I will show you how you can create both with as little difficulty as possible.
From Protagonist to Hero
As I mentioned before, the protagonist changes over the course of the story. They start off in their normal day to day life who are then pulled into an adventure, eventually ending with a completely different outlook. This is usually an internal change from one belief to another.
Step #1: If you haven’t already, download the character worksheet in the vault. The worksheet walks you through a series of questions and identities for your main character. If you take your time with this exercise, and by the way you should, you will finish with a three dimensional character. You will finish with a person who is both ordinary and real. So real, you could write a biography outline on their life with relative ease. This creation is this basis of your protagonist.
Step #2: Earlier I mentioned your protagonist should go through an internal change in your story. The second step of the character creation and motivations checklist involves the concept of internal change and how to go about creating and developing the circumstances around the change. Essentially, people change when they are faced with a difficult situation. Just as you would change if you were faced with a life or death scenario, so too must your protagonist. The challenge is deciding on what type of change your character should exhibit.
To help you create this internal change as quickly as possible, I am fully recommending Creating Character Arcs Workbook, by K.M. Weiland. (In full transparency this is an affiliate link and I will earn a small commission if you purchase) In my opinion, this book has everything a writer needs to create one of five character arcs you may need for your protagonist. K.M. Weiland’s Positive Change Arc is my go to for creating internal change within my protagonist and in fact, it’s the basis for the handout I’ve created for this post. I used what she has taught and combined it with Larry Brooks story structure to help visualize story from beginning to end.
A Word of Caution: At this point in creating your protagonist/hero in conjunction with K.M. Weiland’s workbook, you should only decide which of the five character arc’s best fit your character as they are now, and your story. Read the basics of each of the five character arch’s as she describes them and make a decision. Because we use a different story structure than K.M. Weiland, I do not recommend you read the entire book as it walks you her version of story structure and it may become confusing as it relates to the process we’re learning here.
Step #3: Define your Hero’s Attributes: Once you have completed the character worksheet and have decided on one of five character arcs, it’s time to start making the transition from protagonist to hero.
Earlier I provided a basic definition of a hero. Now, with the help of some basic attributes and questions we’re going to turn your protagonist into the hero your readers want to read about.
Your hero needs to be:
Resourceful: Your hero needs to use everything they can to help catch the villain. They need secondary characters, ingenuity, and whatever else is at his disposal to defeat the villain.
Courageous: Your hero needs to be brave. If there is a gunfight and someone needs to make life and death decision to survive, that should be your hero.
Special Skill: If you create your villain to be unstoppable, than you’d better give your hero a special skill to help defeat them. Think Jason Bourne’s physical skill or Clarice Starling’s mental toughness.
Charismatic: Your hero needs to be attractive. Maybe not Brad Pitt or Gwyneth Paltrow sexy, but attractive in some fashion. Witty, exciting, appealing.
Unpredictable: As you will learn from the question later on, unpredictability is a big win win if you can deliver it to your readers. Mark Dawson’s character, John Milton is totally unpredictable. Vince Flynn’s character Mitch Rapp is one of the most unpredictable characters in the political thriller genre.
Step #4: Creating Heroic Qualities. This is the final step to creating your protagonist. A few years ago I spent a lot of time learning how to create heroic characters. Courage, loyalty, determination are all qualities of a heroic character.
In researching this post for both the hero and the villain, I opened several files from years past and ran across two questions and two steps that helped me created heroic qualities. Unfortunately, my record keeping wasn’t the best back in 2012, so I’m not sure who created these questions. If I ever find out, I’ll be sure to list them as the resource. Until then, use these questions and steps to build the heroic qualities in your protagonist.
- Who are your personal heroes?
- What makes this person a hero to you? What is his greatest heroic quality?
- Assign that quality to your protagonist. Find a way for him actively to demonstrate that quality, even in a small way, in his first scene.
- Prior to your stories climax sequence of your novel, find five more points at which you protagonist can demonstrate, even in a small way, some heroic quality.
That is the final series of steps to create your protagonist and turn that ordinary character into a hero. As you can see, it’s not too difficult to come up with a working outline for your hero. As you complete this thriller outlining series and begin writing your first draft, the ideas you’ve come up with in this series, will lead you to the development of even more for your character. But for now, this should suffice.
For a complete how to guide on character arc. Download the e-book version of Creating Character Arcs Workbook: The Writer’s Reference to Exceptional Character Development and Creative Writing (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 8)
Villain Character Creation
Villains are people too. Despite what most writers think and feel of a villain, there is always some good to be found. As you go about the following process to create your villain, try to keep in mind some positives. It’s true readers want the villain to be crushed beyond crushed to receive the satisfaction they are looking for in a story, but if you do not have a well-rounded and multidimensional villain then you run the risk of a character who doesn’t surprise, frighten, or linger in your readers memory long after the story is over. Don’t let that happen to you. To create a memorable villain the process is very similar to creating the memorable hero.
Step #1: Download (if you haven’t already) the character worksheet from the vault. Use that worksheet to create a history around your villain. As you fill out the worksheet think about what happened to make your villain the way he is. Was he born into a bad situation? Was there some traumatic event early in his life that caused him to go off the rails? If your villain has a problem with society, why?
Keep those questions close by when you’re filling out the character worksheet. They will help you when you are making decisions about your villains history. You will notice that I’ve mentioned this more than once, but it bears repeating. Make sure to include the positives in your villain’s life.
Step #2: (optional) As an optional step after you have created the character worksheet, consider writing a series of first-person diary entries that backup your villain’s history. Write down all the things that happened to cause such resentment and pain. This exercise is especially helpful to get in the mind of your villain. Once you are in the mind of your villain and can articulate his thoughts into actions within your story, with the appropriate story related motivations, you will have a three-dimensional character.
Step #3: To ensure you have a multidimensional villain answer the following questions.
- Write down your villain’s defining quality. Write down the opposite of that.
- Write down what your villain wants the most. Write down the opposite of that. How can this character want both of these things simultaneously? How can they be mutually exclusive?
- Create larger-than-life qualities: (include at least two positives) Write down six things your character would never say, do, or think. Find places where this character can and must say, do, and think those things.
- Personal stakes: What is your villains main problem, conflict, or goal? What would make this problem matter even more?
- What are the five most important steps toward your villain’s goal or toward resolving his problem or conflict? Write them down in order from beginning to end.
After completing the above steps, you should have enough information to fill in your outline as we progress through the outlining series. As you likely have noticed, I didn’t spend as much time on villain creation as I did the hero. That is not to show a villain is not as important as the hero. In many ways they are more complex and open to change as your plot is fleshed out. I found that defining a solid back story with sufficient motivations and larger-than-life qualities is sufficient to complete an outline and a rough draft from your villains perspective.
Secondary Character Creation
Secondary characters are used to advance the plot. That said, you need to spend time developing these characters. It’s not enough to use these characters to advance the story and aid the hero or villain and then have them drop out of the story with their job complete. Readers today want to have secondary characters engage us just as much as the main characters. Yes, it’s tough to do, but it’s not impossible.
Step #1: For each of the secondary characters, fill in basic information using the character worksheet download. Unless you are particularly excited and have the time, you do not need to fill out the entire worksheet for a secondary character. Using what you have created so far about the character, fill-in what is necessary on the worksheet, but only the information that will be used to advance the plot.
Step #2: Answer the following questions to flesh out your secondary characters.
- Write down your characters defining quality. Write down the opposite of that. Now, write a paragraph where your character demonstrates that quality.
- Write down what your characters wants the most. Write down the opposite of that. How can this character want both of these things simultaneously? How can they be mutually exclusive?
- Create larger-than-life qualities: Write down six things your character would never say, do, or think. Find places in your story where this character can and must say, do, and think those things.
As I mentioned before, the purpose and usefulness of a secondary character is to move the plot forward. When the need arises to use a secondary character in your story, refer back to the questions and paragraph you listed in step two. You should be able to use at least one of the larger-than-life qualities, character wants and opposites, and/or a defining quality or opposite, within each major scene where your character appears.
Character creation is difficult. It’s also time consuming. It can also be a time suck when it’s not totally necessary. At this stage of your story creation if you find you cannot answer all of the questions I’ve put forth, do not worry. You’ll get there. We’re still fleshing out a story here and although the questions I’ve listed are important and need to be answered, sometimes the answer doesn’t reveal itself until later. Do the best you can in the most appropriate amount of time and move on.
In the next post, we’re moving onto story structure. In that post, titled “Understanding Story Structure” we’ll examine at a high level the most important elements of story structure and how we can begin putting all the pieces we’ve created so far into the puzzle.
If you’re new to story structure. I recommend you enroll (for free) in my online course, “Story Structure 101” to become more comfortable with structure and the language.