Crafting Real Characters: Breathing Life into Thrillers by Rachel Abbott | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Rachel Abbott

Rachel Abbott

In the world of thriller fiction, the stakes are high, the pace is rapid, and the tension is palpable, but however strong the plot with all its twists and turns, it’s the characters—their dreams, fears, strengths, and flaws—that breathe life into the story. Without compelling characters, the most suspenseful plot risks falling flat, and beyond that, they also give readers someone to care about.

One of the reasons readers pick up a thriller is because they want to experience a rush of emotions—from fear and anticipation to surprise and relief. These feelings are intensified when readers deeply connect with the characters. If they care about what happens to an individual, every threat or challenge becomes a personal journey, making the reading experience richer.

Thriller fiction often treads a fine line between reality and implausibility, but even the evil killers, stalkers and manipulators in stories should have strengths to offset their weaknesses. Together with believable motivations, characters ground the story, making even the most fantastical scenarios seem plausible. We need not only to care about the victim, but we also need to fear the perpetrator – and a multifaceted antagonist is far more scary than one who is a clear and obvious threat.

Predictable characters can lead to a predictable story. In contrast, rounded characters, with their myriad motivations and choices, make for unpredictable twists and turns. They allow a

deeper exploration of themes like morality, justice, and sacrifice. Their internal conflicts can mirror or contrast the broader conflicts in the story, adding layers of depth and meaning.

As a writer, when defining these characters I need to understand them to a deeper level than solely what appears on the page, and even though every small detail doesn’t make it to the final novel, understanding where they come from provides insight into their motivations. What was their life like growing up? How were they treated by their family? What major events have shaped their lives and the person they have now become? Such histories mould their current actions and internal conflicts. They must have a life off the page as well as on the page.

A hallmark of a fully-fleshed character is their inner turmoil – from moral dilemmas, personal fears, or internal battles that add layers to their personality. The reader may never see the detail, but the writer needs to understand how these characteristics have been formed.

Don’t Look AwayNancy, my protagonist in the latest Stephanie King novel, Don’t Look Away, is haunted by the fear that she is unlovable. She can’t shed the guilt that she carries around with her, and believes she is the cause of every problem within her family. To write her into the story, it was essential that I understood why she felt that way, so that as the book progresses, her character, and her understanding of the false perceptions she has about her life, can be further developed.

Characters shouldn’t be flawless. Their imperfections resonate with readers, so while Nancy needs to have strengths to help her navigate the treacherous waters of the plot, her weaknesses make her relatable and vulnerable. These flaws also served as obstacles, making her journey toward resolution more challenging. But the reader needs to see growth, to witness her overcoming a personal fear because there is something at stake which is far more important than her own safely and security. In short, as readers, we need to care deeply about what happens to Nancy.

But what about the antagonist? I’m unable to tell you who this is in Don’t Look Away, for obvious reasons! But like every other character in the story, the reader has to see a multi-faceted person. Even the most evil of characters often have redeeming features; psychopaths are known to be charming, as are many manipulators. So understanding what lies at the core of their character – both negative and positive – is crucial, as is the need for the writer to know what events in their life may have shaped their personalities. Regardless of whether a character is a hardened killer or a fearful victim, they should possess emotions and traits that readers can relate to —be it love, ambition, regret, fear, or a burning rage.

I am not a fan of long descriptive passages in books, but as well as having a deep understanding of backgrounds and motives, I do think it’s important that I have a complete picture of how each of my characters looks. I have an initial idea in my head at the planning stages of the book, and I scour the internet until I find an image that matches the person in my imagination. For Nancy, I knew she had red hair. I’ve no idea why – but she was a redhead from the first moment I thought of her. I wanted to find a picture of a woman who matched the Nancy in my mind, but one who also looked vulnerable. The resulting photo then served as a constant reminder throughout the writing process of her inner conflict as well as her outer image.

While it’s essential to provide readers with a sense of how a character looks, every description should serve a purpose, whether it’s the way a woman might let her hair fall forward to hide her face – and her insecurities, or the way a different woman dresses in startling colours, which indicates a flamboyant personality. Everything from the tone of a lipstick to the type of drink they prefer can tell us something about a person.

Characters drive the narrative, and on many occasions I have started a book with a clear plan for how the story ends. But then, as I write, I get to know my protagonist, and the story suddenly takes a different turn. She begins to drive the plot, and as I head towards my intended conclusion I say to myself: ‘No! She would never do that.’

The ending must be changed – to be something that is consistent with my character’s behaviour. And that’s when I realise that I truly understand the personalities at the core of my story.

A riveting plot can capture attention, but only multi-dimensional characters can capture hearts. Dedicating effort to character development ensures reader engagement and breathes life into the pages. For me, it is one of the most exciting stages of writing a thriller, and helps me to emotionally connect with the story from start to finish.

(c) Rachel Abbott

Author Photo (c) Andrew Crowley

Don’t Look Away by Rachel Abbott (Wildfire, £8.99)

About Don’t Look Away:

Don’t Look AwayFrom the moment I open my eyes, I know. Her bed is made, the wardrobe empty.
There was something she wanted to tell me, but I didn’t listen.
Now she’s gone.

Eleven years ago my sister Lola vanished from my aunt’s cottage in Cornwall. Now I’m back, and I’m no closer to understanding why she ran away. What secrets was she keeping?

Memories come to me in snippets, but something is still missing. Then a body is discovered in a cave below the cliffs. No one knows how long it’s been there. Is it Lola?

The next night I wake, knowing someone is there, standing by my bed. I can hear them breathing. What do they want? Am I getting too close to the truth?

Did Lola ever leave?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Rachel Abbott began her career as an independent author in 2011, with Only the Innocent, which became a No.1 bestseller on Kindle, topping the chart for four weeks. Since then, she has published ten further psychological thrillers, plus a novella, and sold over 4 million copies in the English language. She is one of the top-selling authors of all time in the UK Kindle store (published and self-published), and her novels have been translated into 21 languages.

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