Creative writing tutors often emphasise how the central character in a novel must make critical choices and take decisive actions. This, of course, is excellent advice.  No one wants to read about a passive character.

However, psychological drama allows for an alternative where the character doesn’t actively set out on a quest but at the same time doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming passive – drama that explores the character’s emotional journey, particularly their descent into chaos and despair.

I’m writing a psychological thriller based on a past crime.   Generally, the central character in a crime/thriller novel needs to take steps to solve the crisis in question.  Obstacles will rear up along the way, preventing the character from achieving whatever they’ve set out to achieve, but the character should stay active.  The descent option mentioned in the second paragraph sometimes works in psychological thrillers, but is particularly difficult to pull off effectively.

I think the key lies in the character’s decisions, and not things happening to them.  A case of poor decisions coming back to haunt the character, leaving them with few options, each of those options evading the character so that the character becomes almost powerless (though not passive).  

With the mechanics of the plot firmly established in the story, the writer can then go on to explore the central character’s psychology (conflicts, secrets, desires, fears), increasing the pressure on the character until something major happens.


7 thoughts on “Novel Writing: Central Character & Emotional Mayhem

  1. Hi Lawrence, I’d rather leave a comment here on your blog. That’s a very nice article, and I agree with you. Even when your character is seemingly passive, they are making decisions to overcome their next obstacle.

    My protagonist has been desperately looking for a way out of his situation, but instead of actively finding the way out, he actually stumbles upon it when he isn’t looking. However, in the end, the decision to move forward is his alone.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. That’s a good way of putting it, Lawrence — a character who makes decisions is being active, even if what they decide to do doesn’t necessarily come off the way they wanted it to.

  3. Thanks I’m now at the stage of the story where the central character begins to descend into emotional chaos. Hard going – neds a lot of pacing – but rewarding.

  4. Hi Lawrence, well reasoned. The impact of successive choices establishing a dynamic tension—essential for a psychological thriller, creates suspense. Interesting post. Hope your writing/ revising is going well. Cheers.

  5. Thanks Dustus. Hope all is well with yours. I’m at the stage in the story where the central character must do something or else begin to descend. It’s hard to know exactly how to proceed. I intend to read the first 53,000 words tonight and make notes.

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