A Killer Guide to Writing Thriller Characters

Doug Landsborough
June 28, 2023

Creating Thriller Characters that Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

With all their twists and turns and, quite frankly, incredibly stressful situations, thriller novels are rollercoasters in novel forms. But it wouldn’t have the sudden drops and loopty-loops of a true rollercoaster if not for all the grumpy detectives, FBI recruits, mastermind serial killers, and everyone else that thriller readers long for in this genre.

That’s because it’s the characters in a good thriller novel that make the plot so suspenseful. It’s the estranged sister looking into her brother’s death that the whole town seems to have written off. It’s the rookie cop going toe-to-toe with a serial killer from decades ago. It’s a college student recruited to unravel a plot against the president.

Yes, the plots in these stories matter—and they really matter—but they are nothing without interesting, relatable, and complex characters to drive them forward.

Whether it’s the protagonist fighting against the odds and the clock to save another life or the back and forth between the hero and antagonist, you need to become an expert in creating thriller characters if you want to write a thriller in this genre.

But hey, that’s why we’re here, right? In this article, we’re going to talk about:

  • Understanding character development in thrillers
  • The key traits of thriller characters
  • Thriller character arcs
  • Motivation and psychological depth
  • Creating suspense and foreshadowing with characters
  • Twisting and turning the plot with your characters

And by the time we’re done, you’re going to be an expert at writing detectives, serial killers, and tragic victims. No suspense here, let’s get going.

Understanding Character Development in the Thriller Genre

Character development plays a crucial role in crafting a gripping thriller. It is the process of breathing life into the characters that populate your story, making them relatable, multi-dimensional, and intriguing.

But getting character development right is easier said than done. So let’s dive into it a little.

Why character development is important in thrillers

While thrilling plot twists and suspenseful moments are what we crave as both writers and readers, it’s the characters that truly drive these stories forward.

Strongly developed characters not only captivate readers but also provide the emotional anchor that grounds the plot.

When readers become emotionally invested in the characters, their journey becomes more compelling. They care about the characters' successes and failures, their fears and aspirations, and empathize with their struggles, dilemmas, and triumphs.

Elements of good character development

Character development takes place throughout your entire story, adding a tiny piece of the puzzle through every scene your fictional people do or say something in. It’s not just a switch you can flick and be done with.

To create memorable and engaging thriller characters, consider some of these elements of character development:

Backstory - A character's backstory is the history, experiences, and events that have shaped them. It adds depth and complexity, revealing their motivations, fears, and vulnerabilities, which you can then weave into your thriller. By carefully crafting a character's backstory, you provide readers with insights that make the character more relatable and human. For help creating a backstory, click here.

Believable traits - Thriller characters should possess traits that are believable within the context of the story. While they can have extraordinary skills or abilities, it’s important to ground them in reality. This allows readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level and enhances the plausibility of their actions and decisions.

Flaws and strengths - Characters with flaws and strengths feel more authentic and relatable. Their flaws humanize them, making them susceptible to mistakes and providing you with opportunities to push them and make them grow. On the other hand, their strengths make them capable of overcoming those challenges. Balancing flaws and strengths creates well-rounded characters that resonate with readers.

Examples of strong character development in popular thriller novels

Here are a couple examples of strong character development in popular thrillers to understand how well-developed characters enhance the reading experience:

Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Lisbeth Salander is a complex and enigmatic character with a troubled past. Larsson skillfully reveals her traumatic backstory, which fuels her motivations and actions throughout the story.

Jack Reacher from Lee Child's Killing Floor - Jack Reacher is a former military police officer turned drifter who finds himself embroiled in dangerous situations. Child masterfully crafts Reacher's character by emphasizing his strong sense of justice, analytical mind, and lone-wolf nature.

The Key Traits of Thriller Characters

In addition to effective character development, there are certain key traits that successful psychological thriller characters often possess.

These traits contribute to their distinctiveness, making them stand out in readers' minds. The trick is integrating these ideas and attributes without coming off as formulaic and boring.

As you read about these traits—and everything else in this article—think about how you can take this information and make your characters unique when using it all.

Common traits of successful thriller characters

Determination and resilience - Thriller characters are often faced with daunting challenges, so their determination to overcome obstacles is a vital trait. They display resilience in the face of danger, refusing to give up even in the most dire circumstances. That’s why we keep rooting for them: we can’t bear to see them fail when they don’t consider failure as an option themselves.

Resourcefulness and intelligence – To survive in your book of plot twists and nefarious actors, your fictional people need to be quick-witted and resourceful to navigate complex situations. Their ability to think on their feet, solve problems, and strategize is what sets them apart. Intelligent characters bring an added layer of intrigue, allowing readers to enjoy following their clever tactics and deductions.

Morally ambiguous nature - Many thriller characters operate in morally gray areas. They may be driven by revenge, personal vendettas, or a willingness to bend the rules for the greater good. This moral ambiguity lets them do things your readers never could in the pursuit of justice and shows just how far someone can be pushed for what they believe is right.

How to create distinctive character traits that stand out

When writing thriller characters, you need to infuse them with unique and memorable traits that differentiate them from others the reader has seen before. Here are some techniques to create distinctive character traits:

Unconventional skills or expertise - Give your characters specialized knowledge or skills that are unusual or unexpected. This can be a technical proficiency, an obscure hobby, or an expertise in a particular field. Don’t make this overpowered or ridiculous, but have it become useful in the third act.

Quirks and idiosyncrasies - Introduce quirks and idiosyncrasies that make your characters stand out. These can be physical mannerisms, habits, or unique ways of thinking. It’s the strange and really unique things that will make a character linger in your readers’ minds.

Conflicting traits - Explore conflicting traits within your characters. They might possess qualities that seem contradictory, such as being introverted yet exceptionally charismatic or have a fear of guns while being a proficient sharpshooter when push comes to shove. Conflict makes everything juicier, so add it where you can.

Examples of thriller characters with unique and memorable traits

To illustrate the impact of distinctive character traits, let's look at some examples of thriller characters who stand out due to their unique traits:

Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs - Hannibal Lecter is a highly intelligent and sophisticated serial killer who possesses a refined taste for art and culture. His cannibalistic nature and ability to manipulate others are a stark contrast to this cultured look, cementing him as chillingly unforgettable.

Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho - Patrick Bateman is a wealthy investment banker who leads a double life as a sadistic serial killer. His obsession with material possessions, meticulous attention to grooming, and extreme acts of violence create a chilling and unforgettable character.

Character Arcs in the Thriller Genre

Ever heard about a thing called a character arc? All the best imaginary people have one.

It depicts the transformation, growth, or regression of characters throughout the story. It’s the journey your characters go through, the result of the trials they overcome or succumb to. And in a thriller novel, there’s a whole lot of high-stake challenges our characters face.

The role of character arcs in developing a compelling thriller

Character arcs provide the emotional and psychological journey that readers experience alongside the characters. They bring dynamism to the narrative, allowing characters to evolve and change as the plot progresses.

In psychological thrillers, character arcs can heighten the tension, create internal conflicts, and deepen the reader's engagement.

A compelling character arc can be a transformation from weakness to strength, a descent into darkness, or a redemption from past mistakes. These arcs contribute to the suspense and unpredictability of the story, keeping readers engrossed in the characters' journeys.

How to craft effective character arcs for your thriller characters

Crafting effective character arcs requires careful planning and consideration of the story's themes and the characters' motivations. Here are some steps to help you craft compelling character arcs:

  1. Establish the starting point - Begin by understanding where your character stands at the start of the story. What are their strengths, weaknesses, fears, and desires? This starting point will provide a foundation for their arc.
  2. Define the arc's direction - Determine the trajectory of your character's arc. Will they undergo positive growth, facing their fears and overcoming obstacles? Or will they descend into darkness, succumbing to their flaws and making morally questionable choices? Clearly define the direction of the arc to guide your character's development.
  3. Introduce catalysts and challenges - Characters need catalysts and challenges to drive their arc. These can be external events or internal conflicts that force them to confront their fears, make difficult choices, or question their beliefs. Like I said, in a thriller there is no end to the high-stakes challenges that will force change onto your character. The more personal, the better.
  4. Show gradual change - A compelling character arc should show gradual change rather than sudden transformations. Portray the progression of your character's growth or regression through their actions, choices, and internal reflections. Allow readers to witness the evolution or deterioration of the character over time and they’ll never forget it.

Want a guide to crafting a character arc (including a template)? Click here.

Examples of thriller characters with interesting and well-executed character arcs

Let's explore examples of other thriller writers' characters with well-executed character arcs to gain insights into how to craft effective arcs for your own thriller characters:

Walter White from the TV series Breaking Bad – One of my favorite series of all time, Breaking Bad’s Walter White starts as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and transforms into a ruthless drug lord. His arc depicts the descent into darkness and the corrupting influence of power, which started as a means to provide for his family. The gradual transformation of Walter White's character has hooked millions of viewers over the years.

Rachel Watson from Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train - Rachel Watson is an alcoholic struggling with personal demons. As the story unfolds, she goes through a redemption arc, facing her addiction and uncovering the truth about a crime (no spoilers here).

Motivations and Psychological Depth

More than most genres, motivations and psychological depth are integral aspects of bringing your thrilling thriller characters to life.

Why does the villain feel the need to kill? What trauma motivates the protagonist to obsess over a cold case? How broken can characters become in their pursuit of their goals?

You know, normal, everyday questions. At least if you're writing a thriller novel.

The importance of character motivation in thrillers

Motivation drives the actions and choices of your thriller characters. It provides a deeper understanding of why characters behave the way they do, adding complexity and realism to their portrayal. Well-defined motivations create believable characters and ensure that their actions align with their internal drives.

In thrillers, motivation often revolves around desires for justice, revenge, survival, or uncovering the truth. Motivated characters become more compelling as readers connect with their goals and empathize with their struggles.

How to develop complex and layered motivations for your thriller characters

To develop complex and layered motivations for your thriller characters, consider the following strategies:

Understand their past - Explore your characters' past experiences, traumas, or defining moments that shape their motivations. Delve into their backstories to uncover significant events or relationships that have influenced their desires and fears. This understanding will inform their present motivations.

Establish conflicting motivations - Create internal conflicts by giving your characters conflicting motivations. This adds depth to their decision-making process and creates tension within their character. Conflicting motivations can stem from personal beliefs, moral dilemmas, or competing desires. If you want some info on internal conflicts, click here.

Connect motivations to external factors - Consider how external factors, such as societal pressures, family dynamics, or environmental circumstances, influence your characters' motivations. Characters may be driven by a need to protect loved ones, seek justice for societal injustices, or escape oppressive situations. How do these tie into their goals, specifically when framed against the villain’s actions?

Looking for a whole lot of motivation examples to get inspired? We got you.

Examples of thriller characters with deep and nuanced psychological profiles

Here are a couple examples of thriller characters with deep and nuanced psychological profiles to understand how psychological depth enhances character development:

Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series - Holmes's unwavering dedication to solving mysteries is driven by his intellectual prowess and a deep need for mental stimulation. His obsession with solving puzzles and mysteries reflects a complex psychological makeup that fascinates readers.

Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl - Amy Dunne's motivations are deeply rooted in her psychological manipulation and desire for control. Her intricate schemes and calculated actions stem from a complex mix of insecurity, resentment, and a need for revenge. Flynn's exploration of Amy's psychological depth keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

Creating Suspense, Plot Twists, and Foreshadowing with Characters

Thriller suspense novels thrive on suspense and foreshadowing, keeping readers on the edge of their seats as they unravel your mysteries.

But it’s not just the plot twists and red herrings that add to the thrills. You, as the maniacal author you are, can use your characters to up the ante for your readers, too.

Using characters to create suspense and foreshadowing

By strategically crafting your characters’ actions, dialogue, and interactions, you can create an atmosphere of tension and anticipation while setting things up for a masterful reveal.

Here are some techniques to use your characters to generate suspense:

Unreliable narrators - Unreliable narrators can be powerful tools for creating suspense and foreshadowing. By presenting the story through a character with questionable reliability or a hidden agenda, you generate doubt and uncertainty, keeping readers guessing about the true nature of events.

Clues and subtle hints - Scatter clues and subtle hints throughout the narrative, dropped by both protagonists and antagonists. Characters may unknowingly or intentionally reveal pieces of information that hint at upcoming twists or reveal hidden motives. Make them so small they only get picked up on a second readthrough.

Foreshadowing through character behavior - Use characters' behaviors and choices to foreshadow future events. A character's suspicious actions, ambiguous dialogue, or unexplained motivations can serve as hints of what's to come.

Here’s a guide to building suspense in your thriller story.

Building anticipation through pacing and revelations

The pacing of your thriller is crucial in building anticipation and suspense. By strategically structuring the timing of character revelations and plot twists, you can keep readers engaged and eager to uncover the next piece of the puzzle.

Consider the following techniques:

Strategic information withholding - Control the flow of information by strategically withholding key details. By keeping readers in the dark about certain aspects of the story or the main characters' true intentions, you amp up the tension and the impact of the reveal.

Timed revelations - Time your character revelations and plot twists to maximize their impact. Strategic placement of revelations at critical points in the narrative, such as at cliffhangers or turning points, can create a heightened sense of anticipation and keep readers eagerly turning the pages.

Tension-building scenes - Craft scenes that build tension and suspense, utilizing characters' interactions and confrontations. These scenes can escalate conflicts, reveal hidden agendas, or unveil shocking truths. Be intentional about these moments and you can drastically heighten anticipation and intensify the suspense.

Thrill Your Readers With Your Well-Crafted Characters

I don’t want you to end this article on a cliffhanger. Instead, I want to provide you with all the tools you need when coming up with your thriller characters.

So here are a whole bunch of articles and resources to perfect your character game:

There’s one more tool to toss in there, though. A writing tool that helps you write your thriller.

That’s where Dabble comes in. With tools to help manage your plot twists, red herrings, and places to keep all your character info just one click away from your thriller novel, Dabble makes writing easier (and, quite frankly, more fun).

The best part? Those and all the other Dabble features are free to use, no credit card required, for fourteen days. So click here and start crafting your mysteries.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.