In most dramatic films, the main character and the antagonist are psychologically linked. The antagonist is the personification of the main character’s shadow. In thrillers, the hero and antagonist are clearly defined as separate characters, but they are connected in a unique way:
The weakness of the main character is linked to the type of crime that the antagonist is committing; and the type of crime is a monstrous exaggeration of that weakness.
To understand this better, let’s take a closer look at the thriller main character.
Thriller main characters have a dual nature: they are split between their core virtues, or resources, and their core vulnerabilities, or weaknesses. Your thriller main character must have the resources to match wits with the evil nature of the antagonist. But their weaknesses, a result of their primal fears, create blind spots.
In “North by Northwest,” Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a clever, successful, womanizing Madison Avenue advertising executive, who seems to have his life under control. Walking with his secretary, Thornhill lies to a stranger on the street so he can usurp his taxicab. When his secretary asks why he lied, Thornhill says: “There’s no such thing as a lie in advertising. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.”
The monstrous exaggeration of the Thornhill’s weakness, telling lies to make money, is connected to Van Damm’s crime, stealing state secrets, selling them to “the enemy”, and endangering the lives of a nation.
Clarice Starling’s weakness or vulnerability in “Silence of the Lambs” is feeling helpless amidst powerful men. This is revealed visually when she gets on the elevator in the FBI building and looks tiny surrounded by the big men around her.
The monstrous exaggeration of Clarice’s weakness – feeling helpless with the opposite sex – is connected to Buffalo Bill’s evil crimes, skinning women and wearing their skins.
“Sixth Sense” main character Dr. Crowe’s (Bruce Willis) virtue is his dedication to his career as a child psychologist. Unfortunately, his passion for success and recognition creates a blind spot or vulnerability: he is not there for his wife Anna (Olivia Williams). This is revealed in the opening when we see that Dr. Crowe has been given an award by the city for his meritorious service helping children. Drunken, Crowe acts silly and nonchalant until Anna points out the price that they paid for this: their marriage. Because of his blind spot, Crowe’s past comes back to haunt him: Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), a child he didn’t listen carefully to in a session, shoots Crowe, then kills himself.
Dr. Crowe’s blind spot is that he is not paying careful attention to what is happening around him. The monstrous exaggeration of this is when he and Cole (Haley Joel Osment) discover that a mother has covertly and systematically poisoned her daughter, making it look like she had a fatal disease.
In “Se7en,” the dual nature split is expressed through the two buddies or partners, Detective Lt. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Mills (Brad Pitt). Somerset embodies the virtues of the wise experienced veteran. He contemplates, studies, and looks at the big picture to put the pieces of crime puzzle together.
Somerset’s partner Detective Mills expresses the weakness or vulnerability aspect of the dual nature. He cares about justice but is impulsive, breaks the rules, and is self-righteous. He thinks he knows how to apprehend criminals better than anyone else, and sacrifices his private life with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) to do this.
What is the monstrous exaggeration of being self-righteous? Someone who is the judge, jury and executioner, and who tortures and kills people who he believes are committing the Seven Deadly Sins. John Doe is a one man Inquisition.
In light of the antagonist being the driving force of the story, and the main character’s dual nature, we can say that:
The thriller main character’s goal is to realize their blind spot, discover the secret plans of the antagonist, and face their primal fears on behalf of their societies.
Next time, we will explore the Core Triangle of characters in thrillers and the Four Levels of Exposition that will help you plot your thrillers.
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