reading, writing technique

On characters, thrills and getting laid


I’ve been trying to figure something out. Thrillers. More precisely, why they don’t thrill me enough. Or rather, yes, they thrill me but don’t satisfy me. So I’ve been pondering the reasons for that.

Is it my fault or theirs? It could be mine. I mean, they really are page-turners, most of them. But often what happens is that around page 216, I lose interest. Which is odd, really, considering that it’s precisely the point where the tension is ramped up, the hero’s in real trouble, and the perpetrator / villain / psychopath is about to be discovered. But at that point, I stop caring.

Let me take a couple of examples. No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay and Live to Tell by Lisa Gardner. Gripping situations, both of them, and despite the differences, a similar starting point. Barclay’s book has Cynthia waking in the morning to find her family missing. Gardner’s has Danielle waking in the night to find her family dead.

Now, both these books are bestsellers. They both have 46 chapters of 3 to 4 pages, with the reader left, maybe not always hanging over a cliff, but at least suspended somewhere in mid-air. So in that respect they work. You turn the pages. And yet, after a while, they don’t thrill.

My first thought was, it’s the characters. The first person narrator of Barclay’s book displays all the complexity of a wooden marionette. While after reading Live To Tell, I knew nothing of Gardner’s detective heroine other than that she eats a lot and would really like to get laid.

But of course we don’t go to genre fiction for psychological depth. If we did, Ian Fleming would never have had the success he did. Nor James Patterson today. So I’ve reached a much simpler conclusion: these books are too long. If they ended on page 215, that would be fine. Why the extra 180 pages? I suspect it’s the Hollywood syndrome: the fight goes on a full 20 minutes, Tom Cruise finally knocks the baddy down and then – groan – the baddy’s up on his feet again and we’re into extra time. Maybe it’s a ploy to keep technicians and stuntmen in work, but to the viewer / reader it’s like being force fed when you already want to throw up.

Now Patterson, I can handle, because he knows when to stop (just before I get bored), but in a book 400 pages or more, I want characters that surprise me, intrigue me, characters who reveal a little of what it means to be human.

You might dismiss what I’m saying here as unreasonable. ‘What does he expect? It’s Linwood Barclay, not Dostoyevsky.’ Sure. I get that. It’s just that if I’m in for a marathon read, I need my interest to be sustained. And Dostoyevsky does that, Barclay doesn’t.

Or else you could say it’s sour grapes. ‘He’s griping because he’d really like to do what they do but he can’t.’ And actually, I confess you’d be closer the mark there. Not quite sour grapes, though, because otherwise I’d include Patterson in the gripe. I probably would have if I’d read him back when I was snooty, but now that I’ve seen what it takes, I begrudge no author their success. My attitude now is they must be doing something right, even if it’s just the marketing.

Imitation isn’t the way, I know. Nonetheless, given that I’m no Dostoyevsky myself, whenever I read Patterson (not that often in fact – maybe half a dozen so far), I go into analytical mode. Short chapters – yep, I can do that. Paragraphs, sentences, words – keep ’em simple and direct. And the book itself – to be devoured in about the same time as a chocolate Magnum. It takes a little practice, but all of that I can manage. Where I’ll always trip up, though, is with the characters. They will insist on having foibles, issues, qualms, dilemmas, contradictions. Why can’t they just be simple? Eat, go after the baddy and get laid. Isn’t that what life’s all about?



10 thoughts on “On characters, thrills and getting laid

  1. atthysgage says:

    There are certain formulas that seem to work pretty well for writing the so-called thriller, and you’ve hit them on the head. Short chapters, lots of quick action, fresh conflict on every page, impending peril, a race against the clock. It’s all designed to keep the pages turning. And part of this, as you already noted, is characters with easily definable motivations, because these offer the least resistance for the readers to keep on ploughing forward. Complications complicate, and (we are told) readers don’t want that. They want relatable characters who’s motivations are clear and understandable.

    Problem is, this isn’t very interesting, which probably explains your page 216 difficulties. By that time, you’ve seen all that character has to offer in terms of development, and now it’s just Go Time. (Another thing writers are told to do: Get your character conflict right up front. Make readers care about your protagonist on page one. Unfortunately, this front loading makes characters seem pretty one dimensional because you don’t see them change very much. And, since front loading is also info dumping, it’s often inelegant and unconvincing. (Oh, he resents the man who ruined his father’s life? Fine. Got it. Motivations accomplished.)

    I’m not trying to criticize anyone for writing something that millions of readers obviously enjoy. Nor the readers for enjoying it. I like my share of popular entertainment. But a formula is still a formula, and it’s pretty hard to see it as admirable or impressive. It’s no accident that James Patterson doesn’t do a whole lot of his own writing. He mostly created plots and characters and story material and then farms the work out to (credited) co-writers. Again, no criticism. It obviously brings pleasure to a lot of people. He also says, in his writing course, don’t worry about the writing, worry about the story, because that’s all that readers care about.

    Maybe. I’d say for the majority of readers, that’s basically true. But good writing gets noticed. A novel approach gets noticed. Complex characters get noticed. (At least they CAN, if your book gets READ, which is, alas, the rub.) There are probably even good and successful thrillers that do all those things, subverting the expectations of the genre conventions, while still pleasing the crowds who love and expect those conventions. I have to believe that’s so.

    Liked by 3 people

    • An excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the thriller approach. As you say there are probably good thrillers that do also allow for complexity – I just can’t think of any off the top of my head. But it’s possible to do, certainly. Maybe it’s what I’m aiming for in a hazy kind of way. Bottom line, though, which you also point out, is that whatever we write, thrillers or otherwise, we’re still going to struggle to find a readership.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mimispeike says:

    Curtis says: But of course we don’t go to genre fiction for psychological depth. That’s why I don’t read a lot of genre fiction. When I do read it, I read it rather grudgingly: your reviews, or a first paragraph, promise something interesting in terms of approach. You’d better deliver!

    What have I read lately that I call a real page turner? I just finished a bio of the writer Thomas De Quincey. I didn’t skim (as I often do). I read every blessed word. And found it fascinating. See? I’m hopeless.

    Foibles, issues, qualms, dilemmas, contradictions, that’s what entices me. Many of the writers promoting on Facebook promise, A quick read! An easy read! Nonstop action! That’s the sort of come-on that guarantees I’ll never look at your book.

    Liked by 3 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      “A quick read! An easy read! Nonstop action! That’s the sort of come-on that guarantees I’ll never look at your book.”
      – Right on! Mimi 🙂

      Hell, we can make that up in our heads, can’t we? I want to read something I never knew.

      Liked by 3 people

      • There’s very little originality in thrillers. As Atthys says, they follow a formula, which is why they pall quickly. Maybe the early Ken Follett? Or Frederick Forsyth. But there I think we are reading something we didn’t know – the context was well-researched.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, ha, Mimi, you must be the first person to call a biography of de Quincey a page turner! But you’re absolutely right. I don’t know that particular one but I read Michael Holroyd’s massive biography of Lytton Strachey years ago with just the same fascination. But I don’t mind a thriller every so often, just as I like the occasional chocolate Magnum.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Perry Palin says:

    This is a good post that has me thinking. I’m a poor reader of genre fiction. What I have read did not engage me with the characters. Some writers seem to grudgingly put characters into the book to advance the events of the story; I prefer the events of the story to work on the characters.

    My wife reads crime novels and mysteries. When I ask her what a book or a series of books is about, she describes the motivations and conflicts of the main characters. The events of the story are just stuff that happens to the characters, to which they must respond, each in his or her own way.

    My favorite classics include Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. I confess that a page turner for me is Moby Dick, not for the chapters and chapters of description, but for how the events of the story work on each of the characters in the ship.

    It’s okay if I am not in the target demographic of much genre literature. If (some) genre writers have a larger readership than I do, maybe I should take notice. That’s not going to change what I like or how I write. Maybe I should take notice of their marketing efforts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it’s a feature of most genre literature that plot takes precedence over character. I’ve only recently come round to a strategy of planning a plot, which does save a lot of time. But the real joy lies in then fleshing out the characters. In the end, I can but hope that the result I come up with appeals to a certain type of reader, who’s not looking exclusively for thrills and spills, with no character development.
      As for the marketing, genre may be easier to market as there’s a ready made target audience. But the challenge to reach them is still huge.


  4. mimispeike says:

    Needless to say, I agree with Perry. I mentioned some of this in the Writer Soapbox group on Facebook, and was accused of being a snob. What do you say to such people?

    I put characters into my story for a start-up reason, often a spur-of-the-moment start-up reason, then I let them find their own way, with their own logic.

    Liked by 1 person

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