A lot of people think that genre novels are all about plot and not about character. I would dispute that, particularly when it comes to mystery novels. Ian Rankin’s Rebus series is definitely character-driven, far more so than plot; the same can be said of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache. And Robert Rotenberg’s Ari Greene gets more complex with every book.
But these are not thrillers.
Action thrillers often have to sacrifice character. A page-turner can quickly get bogged down if the characters are constantly engaging in internal narrative, or wrestling with personal problems that aren’t linked to plot. And so a lot of the best known authors in the business stick to action-packed scenes and don’t worry too much about letting their characters evolve.
Lee Child is an example. We know who Jack Reacher is; his determination to go it alone doesn’t change. In the early part of the series (which I personally liked better) Jack Reacher was coming to terms with the lonely world he’d chosen for himself. He doesn’t ever question it anymore — he just rides into town and rescues people, then rides (or hitchhikes) off again. There is a great appeal to that: I grew up with the popular TV series known as The Littlest Hobo. We never knew where the dog came from or what he thought; only that he was there when he was needed, got the job done, and left. A lot of the Westerns rely on the same premise.
But hey, I can’t be critical of authors who earn megabucks writing great action characters: success speaks for itself.
For my part, though, the two authors that have most resonated with me are James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith. Their characters have evolved book to book; we grow with Dave Robicheaux and Arkady Renko; we get to know them more intimately with every new book. Yet both authors consistently pull off incredibly complicated and rich plots as well, which reassures me that one can have both plot and character development without sacrificing either.
I’ve finished writing my fourth novel, Umbrella Man. The challenge in the re-drafts will be to take what is fundamentally a thriller and find the places where I can introduce a few more introspective moments, in which the reader can be persuaded to wait a little longer for the action around the corner because what the characters are thinking or talking about is enlightening or important or profound.
The action writer wants to drive the plot forward; the character writer, I think, wants to draw the reader in more deeply. It’s a very fine balance.