I ghostwrite a lot of thrillers for my valued clients. (Surprised? Don’t be!) Naturally they often ask questions about the writing process and the relative importance of various elements including character development.
Generally in thrillers you don’t spend much time on character development outside of revealing the character as he or she works their way through various challenges. The best character development happens without the reader being aware of it… you just form an impression as the pages unfold. For example, in a scene we might show that our hero is a very skilled driver and knows a lot about cars. We don’t tell the reader this; we show the reader by letting the reader watch him or her in action.
For example, if you read the four Gospels–which read like thrillers as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and betrayal–nowhere will you find a physical description of Jesus, or of anyone else for that matter. You find only the bare minimum of description necessary to make the story clear.
For a more recent example, if you read James Bond novels, Ian Fleming’s physical description of him is very sketchy. He has a scar on his cheek, and his hair curls over one side of his forehead… and that’s about it! We learn about Bond’s character by watching him in action. Generally, you want the reader to be able to imagine your hero the way they want to imagine them. If your reader is black, you want him or her to imagine the hero is black too. In fact, if they ever decide to cast a black actor as James Bond, I don’t think you’ll find anything in the books to directly contradict that choice.
In thrillers, every moment that’s lacking in tension is a moment when the reader may lose interest. Tension is key. Non-essential descriptions of anything tend to dissipate tension.
Having said that, until the day it’s published a novel is a work in progress, and revisions, subtractions, and additions are a normal part of the process! At any time an author could add scenes that reveal the hero’s personality, but they may not be tied to the plot.
Thomas Hauck is a published author, ghostwriter, and book editor.