How To Write a Suspense Novel: Character Archetypes
Updated: Feb 24
I talked about the differences between crime, suspense, and thrillers last week, but this time I wanted to go into a little more detail specifically focusing on how to write a suspense novel.
In the next few weeks I'll be focusing on one of the aspects below in the "what you'll need" section.
What you'll need:
A few specific character archetypes
A strict timeline
Heightening stakes and a way to always be making the same problem worse
A few helpful points of view (POVs)
An incredibly strong reason for your main character (MC) to be involved
We'll start with the character archetypes.
In order to write a suspense novel, your main character (let's call them your Hero) needs to have a pretty solid skillset. Generally, you'll want them to come from a background as a private investigator, detective, professional body guard, military, or some other reason that justifies their skillset.
That skillset should probably include weaponry, lock-picking (or some other way to get into places they "shouldn't" have access to, such as access to warrants), and some sort of martial arts.
Granted, your Hero doesn't have to have those skills, they could be more mentally focused, observant, or great at puzzles and chess.
Whichever you choose for your Hero to be focused on, you'll need them to have an Assistant type of character. This is the Watson to your Holmes, the Ron Stoppable to your Kim Possible. Whatever your Hero is good at this Assistant likely isn't. They need to compliment each other so that together, as a team, they can take down the villain.
This is vital to the story because if these two get separated, they can't win. That becomes a good goal for your villain and can help raise the stakes—but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Your Assistant is often shown as the "Guy in the Chair" (thanks Spiderman), and they provide access or information the Hero can't get to on their own without their Assistant's help. They could also be their partner on the police force or just a really good family friend who helps your Hero survive the ordeal of the suspense novel.
As rule, your Villain should want the opposite of what your Hero wants. This will lead to natural conflict. If your Hero is of the brainy variety, it could be good to have a Villain of the brute force variety. If your Hero is of the brute force mentality, the Villain should consistently outsmart them.
It is possible to end up with both a Hero and a Villain that have similar skillsets, and that can create for a lot of intrigue. If you're going to do this, though, the Villain's motivation should be extremely clear and extremely different than the Hero's.
The fun part of a suspense novel comes in when the Villain intentionally targets the Hero. (Again, this doesn't have to happen. The Hero can be pulled in at random, the detective assigned to the job, the private investigator hired to find and save the Leverage [we'll get to them in a moment]. But it's really fun when the Hero's been specifically targeted. They're immediately pulled into the riptide of the Villain's plan. And, again, I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that later.)
Your Villain controls the pace of the story. They can speed up or slow down the timeline. They can change the deadline they gave the Hero. They are the one who makes everything worse for the Hero. Because of this, they have to be a worthy opponent for your Hero, or it won't be believable and people won't read the book.
Lastly, you'll need leverage. This is the answer to the question, "What's at stake if my Hero fails?" Your Leverage can look like a hostage situation (this is probably my personal favorite) or it can look like a bomb threat, an international incident, or chemical warfare. This Leverage will force the Hero into the game, whether or not they want to play.
I love the possibilities that come with hostage situations in fiction because they allow me to create a specific threat to someone the Hero cares about. Love is a powerful emotion and can create a blindness and a recklessness, pushing characters to do things they wouldn't normally do.
Your Leverage should be at the mercy of the Villain and connected strongly enough to the Hero to drag them into the game. It doesn't hurt if the Leverage is also connected to the Assistant, but it's not as vital.
With these four character archetypes you'll be able to create the plot elements of a suspense novel with no problem. Once you master these, you can play by mixing them up. Add two villains, pull the Hero in opposite directions, create a villain so intense it takes many Heroes to take them down, create a team of support Assistants around the Hero, play around with different types of Leverage.
You can shuffle their roles as long as you have one of each. You can even merge roles. There's nothing stopping you from making the Assistant the Villain. Their motive would just have to be believable.
Stay tuned for next week's post on how a strict timeline creates suspense and why it's vital to suspense novels, as well as how a deadline can help raise the stakes.
J. J. Hanna is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. In her spare time she creates YouTube Videos and Comics, and practices Karate at a local dojo. If you have a writing question, she'd love to hear from you! She is also looking for freelancing work, so if you have editing, beta reading, or writing needs, or would simply like to chat in a consultation, please let her know. Like what you see and want to get more content like this, or have your specific questions answered? Check out how you can support her on Patreon for as little as $3 a month.
In this week's YouTube video I talked a little about how to write a novel (in general):