Monday, 4 April 2011

Writing The Thriller # 2: Characters - Protagonist & Antagonist

Last time we considered the “Primal Premise” and how the notion of The Universal Fear – that "something" *everyone* does NOT want to happen to them – is at the root of all good Thrillers.

Now it is time to consider the characters within Thrillers and how they differ not only to each other in terms of traits, but in terms of characters in OTHER genres.

The Thriller protagonist can be male OR female, much like in the Horror genre (and in comparison to say, the Comedy genre, which focuses very much on the male protagonist, even in the Rom-Com post Frat Pack/Judd Apatow). The first thing to consider in your Thriller’s protagonist then is not their gender, but rather their “goodness”.

In comparison to many other genres that may offer us a protagonist who is deeply flawed and even has unlikable character traits, the Thriller protagonist is frequently what can be described as a “good person” or “upstanding citizen”. This is not to say they have never made mistakes in their lives, but rather, in their hearts, they have something “good” that drives them – an uncompromising sense of right/wrong; formidable self preservation skills; or the ceaseless protection of an innocent or even society itself.

The Thriller protagonist needs this “good” element to them to make an audience believe not only in them as a character, but in their journey within the plot: what is the point of a Thriller protagonist going up against a sinister organisation to expose their shady practices, if we think he is a cynical and pessimistic person? How can we believe a Thriller protagonist will fight burglars, violent partners or strangers, if we think of her as a victim who is more likely to roll over and die instead?

Amber in DEVIATION has this “good” quality: she is a young wife and mother, keen to get back to her family after a long shift at the hospital where she works as a nurse. It’s important to note however Amber is no whiter-than-white saint and her life is far from “rosy”: like many working Mums, she has a lot of pressure on her, not least her partner Joe’s depression which she references in the film later when antagonist Frankie quizzes her. Amber is a three–dimensional character and no victim. She does not fall back on limited Hollywood stereotypes either: she HATES the situation she finds herself in and never once starts to empathise with her abductor Frankie. She does all she can to get away, he is “The Enemy”.

It's basic screenwriting to suppose every protagonist needs an antagonist, regardless of the story a writer is telling. However, what differs in the Thriller is HOW these characters relate to each other. In many genres, the protagonist has a goal they want to fulfill by the end of the movie and the antagonist's counter goal is to stop the protagonist achieving it by whatever means possible.

Conversely, protagonists in Thrillers are very often living their *ordinary* lives and are "pulled in" to the orbit of the antagonist's mission instead. If you recall, Amber in DEVIATION is in the "wrong place, wrong time" when it comes to running into our antagonist Frankie. In other words, it is wise to think of the antagonist's mission FIRST and *then* work out how the protagonist fits in.

The antagonist in the Thriller genre is predictably as “bad” as the protagonist is “good” - and Frankie is in lots of ways Amber's polar opposite. There are fewer shades of grey to Thriller antagonists than in other genres, like Horror or Action Adventure which often suggests “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” when it comes to antagonists’ motivations. In ALIEN and ALIENS, first Ash and then Burke are “only” following company orders; in JURASSIC PARK, Hammond wanted to create something wonderful, but instead creates a living nightmare.

Thriller antagonists then are frequently much darker, with much simpler and more selfish motivations. The sinister organisation wants to protect their own interests and will do anything – including murder – to silence whistle-blowers; home invaders want money or goods in the house. Frankie in DEVIATION snatches Amber because *he* wants to evade the authorities and escape the country; he doesn’t care about her, her life & the people in it or what she wants. He has no remorse for his previous crimes and little empathy for Amber or her fear. She is “just” the hostage.

Crucially however it is also important to recognise Frankie and his ilk are not “comic book villains”. None of them wake up in the morning with an EVIL PLAN and none look in the mirror and see “the antagonist”: instead, they all believe THEY are the protagonist! Frankie insists to Amber throughout their nightmare journey none of it is his fault and her abduction is “nothing personal”. In the same way, the Boss of the sinister organisation may express regret certain people “had” to be killed during the cover up in conspiracy Thrillers, or burglars rail against the fact the protagonist moved just days earlier into the previously empty building where the money or contraband is stored.

In short, when it comes to the protagonist and antagonist, we’re broadly speaking “good versus evil”… But whilst Thriller protagonists and antagonists may well be more “good” or more “evil” than other genres’ leading characters, it’s not wise to consider their role functions as simply “black and white” either.

NEXT: Secondary characters in the Thriller


  1. the notion of The Universal Fear – that "something" *everyone* does NOT want to happen to them – is at the root of all good Thrillers.

    Fantastic breakdown.