Nov. 28, 2020
Loss, self-esteem, and determination
You’re barreling down the road through a dark forest at night. You should be home by now, and that’s making everything worse. The ominous forest changes into a smudge as you press the gas pedal—an absolute blackness ready to swallow you if the car slows down.
A chill runs down your spine and your cold-sweaty palms tighten around the steering wheel. Why would you care about the forest? You’re safe in the car, after all. And then you see it—a huge log blocking the road, making it impassable.
You stop the car and curse under your breath; that’s the only way to your hometown. Should you call for help? But perhaps you can handle moving the log yourself? You hesitate before you get out of the car. The forest seems even more sinister now; its darkness almost engulfing the road and you together with it. Stupid, you tell yourself, and leave the only safe place behind.
The log turns out to be lighter than you thought, and you quickly pull it aside. You straighten up, proud of yourself, and see some lights in front of you.
It’s a truck. But the driver acts strangely—he’s flashing his headlights in such a speed as though the breaks didn’t work, and he was bound to run you over. You spring to the verge, but the headlight flashing doesn’t stop, and you finally see the driver waving his hands frantically, pointing at something behind your back, terror on his face.
Every thriller has its obligatory element—there’s some kind of danger hovering over the protagonist, like in the story above. But what about the characters? What kind of personality do they tend to have? Are there any commonalities?
Let’s take three supernatural thrillers under the magnifying glass:
1) The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld,
2) The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton,
3) Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti.
Apparently unclear past of the protagonist can strengthen a thriller story, as the main characters from the three books mentioned above share this aspect.
Noemi from The Child Finder—when we meet this skillful investigator who specializes in finding missing children, it soon becomes clear she used to be a lost child herself—taken and held captive. By whom? And why? What exactly happened? We don’t know that. Nor does Noemi. We merely know she managed to escape and was found by traveling immigrants to be eventually placed in a foster house. Intriguing.
Hannah from Girls of Brackenhill—after reading the first pages, Hannah may come across as someone ordinary—a fiancée, a dog, and a job—and yet we soon find out the woman has some dark secret she’s afraid her future husband might discover. Bit by bit, we learn the mystery has something to do with the dramatic events that took place when Hannah was a teenager, and her sister disappeared under strange circumstances from a most likely hunted castle.
Aiden from The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle—that’s the most vivid example of unclear past, since we don’t know the identity of the main character for a meaningful chunk of the chapters. Every day Aiden wakes up in a different host from among the people in Blackheath House, an old manor, forced to discover who killed Evelyn. The thing is, when Aiden regains consciousness for the first time, he has no recollection of his true identity. Nor do we.
Unclear past makes the protagonists pensive and a bit nebulous which perfectly fits the genre.
Thrillers aren’t the cozy and light readings that can take us to a pleasant world, which is why the protagonists aren’t carefree either, and have their own daemons. Low self-esteem can be one of them.
Noemi from The Child Finder —Noemi is hunted by her own past which, though forgotten, leaves a mark on her behavior and self-esteem. Withdrawn and distrustful, the woman is distancing herself not only from people in general but also from the man she loves. Noemi thinks of Jerome that he always sees the beauty in everything, and, as she states, he “can find the beauty even in her”. The word “even” is merely one of many sad indications of Noemi’s opinion about herself.
Hannah from Girls of Brackenhill—Hannah is engaged to Huck, who seems to be a kind-hearted, perfect man–maybe too perfect for Hannah, as she ponders a lot over that fact, reaching the conclusion that she doesn’t deserve him. Also, the woman keeps comparing herself to her sister, Julia.
Aiden from The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle—as mentioned earlier, analyzing Aiden might be challenging, for he enters the bodies of eight different hosts which influences his personality. There are a few character traits, however, that are always present, no matter whose body he inhabits. We can thus assume those are Aiden’s true traits. The protagonist keeps criticizing every single host, concentrating on their weaknesses so much it almost eclipses his investigation. Many psychologists claim the people who tend to point out flaws of others, have in fact a problem with their own low self-esteem. One of Aiden’s hosts is Lord Ravencourt, an obese man who is smart and intelligent. Thanks to that, Aiden’s process of thinking is sharper and faster, and yet almost the only thing Aiden can think of is how repulsive Ravencourt is due to his weight.
No matter how you slice it, protagonists of a thriller novel always face some kind of danger, and so they can’t just lounge on their sofa and ignore the predicament—they need to act. With that in mind, determination seems an inevitable character trait. Being determined when you have no choice, however, is obviously easier, so let’s take a closer look at the situations when our protagonists did have a choice. (attention, spoilers!)
Noemi from The Child Finder—Noemi takes the hopeless case of finding the child that went missing three years earlier, swallowed by the ever-snowy forest. Impressive, I must say. As we follow the investigator, we discover she’s famous not only for her unique skills but also for the fact she could spend months searching for children while others had lost hope. A laudable example of determination, isn’t it?
Hannah from Girls of Brackenhill—Hannah leads a peaceful, normal life–pursuing her carrier and having her mysterious past dug deep under the ground. And yet, when she’s forced to get back to the spooky castle she’s been running away from to deal with the funeral of her aunt, Hannah decides to stay there much longer to finally discover the truth about the mansion and her relatives, even though that means putting her beloved normal life and carrier on the line.
Aiden from The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle—Once Aiden finds out what kind of task he has to do, his prime goal becomes getting out of Blackheath either by completing the mission or… without doing so. He refuses to follow the guidelines, but as he befriends Anna, who has the same task to do, Aiden wishes to help her. The catch is that only one person can win the freedom. Undaunted, our rebel chooses to risk his liberation even during the last critical moments. Aiden is determined not only to save himself but his friend on the way as well.
Can you imagine a perfectly fine and always cheerful character as a protagonist of a thriller? Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but a dramatic loss definitely contributes to suspenseful vibes. (attention, spoilers!)
What’s surprising about Noemi, Hannah, and Aiden, is that they all lost the same kind of relative: a sister.
Noemi from The Child Finder—even though Noemi doesn’t remember what happened during the first nine or ten years of her life, she can’t shake a feeling of a grievous loss. It hunts her through the entire book, and eventually we learn that Noemi didn’t escape alone but with her little sister, who got lost on the way. It is even more devastating to the protagonist when she remembers she chose not to run back to look for her sister out of fear.
Hannah from Girls of Brackenhill—Julia was everything Hannah has never been—prettier, smarter, and go-getting. During the course of the novel, however, we gain more and more puzzle pieces of how traumatic the loss was to Hannah and how strong the sisterly bond used to be.
Aiden from The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle—after accompanying Aiden during his journey through frustration over getting stuck at Blackheath, it’s truly remarkable news that… Aiden entered Blackheath voluntarily to get his sister’s murderer. Aiden might not have recollection of his beloved sister, but he keeps catching himself missing someone anyway, and that also helps him endure the task.
Losing a sister has taken its toll on the protagonists’ mental health. Even though they all try to focus on the present moment and on the things that must be done, the poignant pain keeps pestering them every now and then.
The list of the commonalities could be longer, but I guess the ones mentioned so far are the most striking similarities between our three characters, creating a riveting and obscure mixture.
About the Author
C.Iron spent her childhood immersed in fantasy and mystery stories. Later on she graduated in English Philology and continued doing what she likes most – writing. When she is not dealing with her passion, she can be found at the archery range by an enormous lake, practicing traditional archery and wielding a longbow. Currently she teaches adults as she loves spending time with people. C.Iron is the author of The Lost Truth of April Dark.