On Likable Psychopaths

In fiction, generally, your protagonist should be likable.  You want to draw your readers into his or her drama.  No one’s really driven to follow or care about a character for whom they have no sympathy.  In most cases, your readers have to root for your protagonist.  A totally depraved protagonist, for example, is not inherently appealing — unless, of course, the author offers an appropriate context for a protagonist’s repulsiveness or antisocial behavior.  Dexter is a terrific example of a sympathetic, yet antisocial, protagonist — a charming serial killer with a certain moral code.

Even Hannibal Lector has a peculiar charm.  We follow a protagonist like that because he fascinates us — he has a twisted sort of a “likability quotient,” but an appeal nonetheless.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, perhaps, features an unlikable protagonist, but we read because we know he’s going to get his comeuppance.  Even Holden Caulfield isn’t especially likable, but there’s that slim chance there that he might win at the end.  Nevertheless, it’s a razor’s edge: it becomes impossible to keep a reader involved in your story when he or she has turned on the protagonist.

You can have a killer be sympathetic, of course, but then you need to carefully set forth his moral reasoning and logic.  Moreover, this has to be plausible and effective enough for your readers to buy into it.  Most of us don’t root for straight-up psychopaths.

Character Overload

Sometimes novelists, short story writers or memoirists make the mistake of introducing too many characters — specifically too many minor or walk-on characters — at the opening of their narratives.  Of course, more complex stories tend to rely on numerous characters.  Nevertheless, they each have to be ladled into the narrative soup, so to speak, at the appropriate times.  It’s one thing if an opening includes a walk-on character who will never reappear and is so obviously wallpaper — a waiter serving your two main characters, for example — but then don’t develop that waiter’s personality or “character.”  As readers, we’re looking from the first page to make an emotional connection to the protagonist and any other major character who appears at the start of the narrative.  Accordingly, we get confused, or even upset, when we connect to someone right from the top who we later find out will never reappear and didn’t really matter.  Establish your protagonist and your major characters first, and, in general, don’t crowd your opening pages with the development of other, less important, individuals.

How To Write a Thriller

I had an opportunity recently to chat with a fellow writer about the elements of a terrific thriller.  We  both agreed on the following points, and that all of these ought to be present:

Get right into the action, and explain later what happened and why; make sure the structure incorporates cliffhangers, a race against time, and danger always lurking near the protagonist; give the protagonist the initiative to solve the problem; make sure the protagonist’s personal stakes are high; make your protagonist plausible and heroic, but not a superhero; and outline very carefully before you start to write.  Of course, as with all great writing, each sentence should be exquisitely written.  The joy of thriller writing is found not only in suspenseful plot but also in the beauty of words in perfect context.