January 2012

Thriller Characters: A Handy Field Guide

Cliches.  Love them.  Hey, I write thrillers, and we thriller writers are nothing if not enthusiastic about revisiting plotlines.  In fact, sometimes I think every thriller character can fit into a template.  Here's what I've come up with so far:  


Detectives Who Are Haunted By Old Cases.  This is usually the detective’s first case, or a case involving a missing or murdered child (whose picture the detective still carries in his wallet).  The detective will still have all the old case files and is in regular touch with survivors/witnesses.  The case remains unsolved. 


Women Who Are Lawyers.  They are divorced.  They may or may not still be in love with their ex-husbands.  These women have cats, or alternative pets, like turtles or ferrets.  They eat sweets when they are anxious, but do not gain weight.  Men find these women very, very attractive.  Women Who Are Lawyers have girlfriends in useful professions (cop, reporter, medical examiner).  


Vicars.  If there’s a vicar, you can be sure that there’s a body in the bog.


People Who Are Hiding Something About Their Past.  Usually men.  Usually brooding.  Their past commonly involves a stint in special ops.  Now “the company” is looking for them.  These people know fifty ways to kill you with a letter opener, and they usually go by their last names. 


People Who Have to Come Out of Retirement to Take Care of Business.  These people used to be judges or cops and now they are finally out of the game and living on the beach in Baja when something comes up that forces them back to “the city” where they must clean up some mess that everyone else is incapable of addressing.  


People Who Live On Boats.  Why do so many characters in thrillers live on boats?  No one knows. 


Women Who Are Forensic Experts And Have Complicated Relationships With Their Fathers.  Oh, these women are tough and pretty.  They know their livor mortis.  They are famous in their field, and their fathers are retired cops.  They date, but their boyfriends usually turn out to be murderers.  


Women Who Have Been Raped And Are Mad About It.  Sometimes these women are cops.  Sometimes they are district attorneys.  It doesn’t matter.  Revenge will be sought. 


Hobbyists.  These people do not have jobs.  They are independently wealthy or have recently come into a financial windfall due to some sort of legal settlement.  This gives them a lot of free time to get involved in other people’s business. 


People With Massive Chemical Dependency Issues.  These characters used to be satisfied just hitting the bottle, but in recent years they have embraced pain pills, anxiety meds, antidepressants, marijuana, cocaine, and even heroin.  Somehow, they remain excellent at their jobs in law enforcement.   


Cops Whose Partners Have Been Murdered.  Hello, survivor’s guilt.  These characters now have new partners who must be scorned before finally emerging as trustworthy allies.  Sometimes the new partners are then murdered, which is a real drag. 


People Who Are Recovering From Injuries Sustained In The Previous Book.  Limps.  Scars.  Bandages.  Physical therapy.  These hobbled characters are slowed down just long enough to solve a hospital related mystery. 


Cops Whose Whole Families Have Been Murdered.  These cops are almost always men, and they are not happy at all about the fact that their families have been murdered.  They blame themselves.  They should have been home.  They should have avoided the ire of that psychopathic serial killer.  They do not like to talk about it.   


Innocent Bystanders.  These people have regular jobs and yet always seem to be stumbling across dead bodies.  They use their skills as chefs/accountants/librarians/horticulturists to help solve the crimes.


Women of a Certain Age.  These women are menopausal and unmarried or divorced.  They work in law enforcement and do not have children.  Excellent at catching killers, these women often struggle with the jerky men they work with.  These women have a surprising amount of casual sex.  They usually live in Canada.


Scandinavians.  They are smart and droll and their land is overcast.  Also, terrible things seem to happen to them.  


Bad Guys Who Are Good Guys.  These protagonists are on the gray side of the law: hackers, cat burglars, con artists, and killers who kill killers. 


People We Want To See Kiss Each Other.  These characters work in law enforcement and tend to be brought together with another law enforcement professional or consultant to solve cases.  Guess what?  They totally love that person.  And that person loves them back.  But neither one will admit it because they are both workaholics and emotionally retarded.  Just kiss already!


Journalists.  Once a popular thriller character, these days, journalists are more likely to be secondary characters whose grisly murders are secretly applauded by the reader.  


Parents Whose Children Have Been Threatened.  Luckily, the parents in question often have highly specialized training that allows them to hunt down and assassinate the people who have menaced their young.   


People Who Are Trying To Escape.  These characters have been kidnapped and spend the book trying to get away.   


People with PhDs.  Clinical psychologists.  Lesbian academics.  Criminology professors.  People with PhDs usually team up with law enforcement professionals and work as consultants on their cases.  (See People We Want To See Kiss Each Other.)   


Novelists.  Almost always true crime writers or thriller writers, these characters inevitably get caught up in a real life homicide investigation, which they solve, write-up, and publish to great acclaim.  They usually live alone and are almost always inexplicably irritating.