Casting the Thriller

For today’s Story Grid Bonus I’ll run down the core cast list of The Silence of the Lambs and analyze how they abide the cast requirements of The Thriller.

Here are the core Thriller archetypes in Harris’ novel:

  1. Hero
  2. Villain
  3. Mentor/Father/Mother Figure
  4. Love Interest
  5. The World
  6. Colleague
  7. Dead Bodies or Victims

The Hero is the Thriller’s lead character. She will make the ultimate sacrifice by the end of your story. She will sacrifice herself in order to save someone else. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is the hero. She puts her life on the line and sacrifices her own sanity in order to save the life of another, one she has no personal relationship to. She lets the most diabolical force of evil enter her inner most thoughts…in order to get the information she’ll need to successfully save another human life.

The Villain is Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill is a perfect villain because he counterbalances Clarice Starling. He is all of the things that Clarice Starling is but chooses to achieve his wants from the exact opposite of the psychological spectrum. He’s trying to change himself, literally from a man to a woman.

How is that the opposite of Starling’s change process?

Doesn’t Starling downplay her femininity in order to live and thrive in a man’s world, the FBI? Isn’t she trying to overcome a hillbilly upbringing and gain respectability in a very competitive profession? To change herself too?

Buffalo Bill is absolutely “crazy.” That is, he is living his life deeply invested in a bogus understanding of himself. He is behaving under the assumption that is a trans-sexual. But as Lecter later explains to Starling Buffalo Bill is not a trans-sexual. He is denying his inner truth, his schizophrenia. And he’ll kill others and even die himself to run away from that truth.

But Starling is living a bogus life too. She is investing everything she has in her own story…her own lie.

What is that lie?

If she does everything right and if she performs better than anyone else, she will be rewarded. She’ll get the accolades and pats on the back for being such a wonderful contributor to society. Something she believes her father wished for, but never attained.  And if she succeeds…not only will she personally win, she’ll redeem her family.

Starling wants to fix the failures of her father and expunge the shame of being “not more than one generation out of the mines.”  She’s lying to herself, investing so intently in her idea of what she should be and do to overcome her childhood victim-hood that she willingly dons internal blinders.

Hmm, that’s some pretty deep and universal stuff wrapped in a potboiler, eh? Haven’t we all done the same thing?

Until she realizes that her inner story is flawed, Starling will be unable to find the truth.

Starling ultimately does find her truth. And Buffalo Bill dies clinging to his lies.

The Mentor/Father/Mother figure is Jack Crawford. Crawford is that perfect amalgamation of those perfectly cerebral and rational among us who are utterly unenlightened. They know what they know and anything that threatens their routine must be ignored…or destroyed.

His outward persona is that of a very important/principled man and he is tremendously convincing in that role. In reality though, from the very first chapter, his true self is not what he presents to the world.He is not the even-tempered bureaucrat he portrays himself as. Rather he’s obsessed and monomaniacal in his quest to outsmart and outduel his white whale, Hannibal Lecter.

Remember that stuff I wrote about a couple of posts ago about Contradiction?

Crawford is a positive presence, you can’t help but like the guy, who is actually damning the hero of the story to a life of darkness. From the very first moment in the book, we know that Crawford is going to use the awkward beauty and innocent ambition—to want to improve upon the life work of your father/mother is an innocent albeit naive ambition—of a very young woman to titillate the most vicious killer in the history of the world.

This is not the action of a “good” man. Crawford (in the opposite case of Starling) is willing to sacrifice someone else’s sanity (if not life) not for the good of all mankind or to free any single person in captivity, but in order to satisfy his own ego.

Harris is so skilled, though, he knows that we as readers want so desperately to believe at the outset of the book that this authority figure is righteous that we won’t question his motives until much later on in the novel. If even then.

Again Crawford is using Starling to inflate his own ego. He wants to finally outwit the most brilliant man/killer in history who has been playing with Crawford like a cat plays with a mouse. He desperately wants to beat Lecter at his own game.

The way that Harris portrays Crawford though, using his other actions to mask his true character (an egotist who will do whatever is necessary to move his agenda forward) is a pitch perfect example of dimensionality. We relate to Crawford and feel for him from the start because Harris pulls back the curtain in his personal life to reveal a kind man administering to his dying wife. Crawford’s dedication and diligence working long hours and his clean cut and fatherly behavior is a simply brilliant mask for his inner monomania.

To top it all off, the only one who sees Crawford for who he really is, ironically, is the second mentor of the story, the devil himself, Hannibal Lecter.

Lecter is one of the finest creations in the history of fiction. I put him right up there with Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

It’s undeniable too, though, that Lecter is also directly out of central casting…bring in the diabolical sociopath stage left!

Harris’s innovation (remember that the way to beat a cliche is to innovate it) is that instead of creating a mustache twitching sadist, Harris makes Lecter a competing center of good for his protagonist.

Just a cursory analysis of Lecter and his actions in the novel reveals that he is the most pure and truthful character in the book.

How about that?  The seeming center of evil is actually the most ethical…says something about the world we’re living in, eh?

Unlike every other cast member, Lecter does not live a lie.

This is a man who fully embraces his inner truth. He is the perfect example of a two-dimensional character (his actions and his personal presentation are consistent…he does not “arc”) who is as compelling as any in the book. He’s an uberman who does not abide petty human hypocrisy. He literally feeds on human mendacity and makes no apologies for it.

The Romantic Love Interest is the nerdy moth specialist at the Smithsonian, Noble Pilcher.

While he doesn’t get a lot of stage time, he’s an essential figure in the book. He represents Starlings need to throw away her stupid quest to right her father’s tragic life and just be herself.

Like Lecter, Pilcher is authentic and Starling can’t help but be attracted to him because of that quality. He is unapologetic about being a nerd and he’s unafraid to approach and consistently charm a seemingly unattainable woman like Starling. You can’t help but love this guy and neither can Starling.

For every twisted freak in the world living out their sick fantasies, clinging to them and destroying other people’s lives to get what they want (not what they need), there are still people like the moth guy who walk around every day comfortable in their own skin.  They just don’t wish and want.  They do.  They reach out to form deep connections with others. That’s called Courage.

Without Pilcher, where would Starling turn at the end of the book?  Probably a bottle or a Beretta.

Again, The Romantic Love Interest is so overdone and so uninspiring in so many thrillers and just about every other genre too.  What Harris does with it here is simple, truthful, innovative, and the perfect vehicle to leave the reading with a warm global resolution.  Yeah, we’re all barely treading in pitch black water, but just when it seems we’ll go under, someone throws us a life preserver…  Pilcher is the perfect one to do that for Starling. And for us too.

The next cast member I call THE WORLD.

Some would call this setting and setting by definition is not “character” but I’m going to use it as a character anyway. The reason is that THE WORLD in a thriller is a crucial element, so crucial that there is no way that the hero could reveal themselves and make the ultimate sacrifice without the influence of THE WORLD on them.

And I also submit that THE WORLD changes from the beginning of a thriller to the end.

THE WORLD in The Silence of the Lambs is HELL.

It is life on earth in the most wretched and disgusting quarters. Inside the minds of psychopathic killers who use other human beings for their amusement, as clothing and even to eat. Remember that the whole concept of “Profiling” and the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit did not come out of thin air.

Thomas Harris was a journalist. He did the research to find this REAL WORLD and then did the work to convincingly portray it in a fictional context. By the end of the book, Starling chooses to change her WORLD, what surrounds her, from a dark, lonely horrifying place to an idyllic retreat in the woods with a potential lifelong companion and his extended family (the moth nerd).  If only for a weekend…

Another key cast member in a thriller is the colleague/friend.

Ardelia Mapp fills this role in The Silence of the Lambs. Having a fellow striver/partner in the story allows for comparisons and contrasts between the protagonist’s view of the world and a sympathetic and objective and concerned stable third party.

While Ardelia is ranked higher in the FBI class than Starling, she is not jealous of Starling for getting the call from Crawford to go on the “errand.” In fact, she behaves as if she pities Starling.

Mapp does not have the deep psychological troubles that Starling has. She wears her past on her sleeve and is unapologetic about it. She’s a full woman with the desires and eyes of one…she talks about the hotness of the men around her and then outperforms in them in the classroom.

She is a perfect sounding board and safety zone that Starling needs to decompress. And as Starling rests and regains her composure in Mapp’s presence, so does the reader.

The other figures in a thriller are dead bodies and/or victims.

These might seem of little import as they but they are crucial characters too. They must say something about the hero. That is, the hero must have some sort of personal connection to the people being killed, taken hostage etc. If they don’t dredge up stress and conflict internally in the hero, their presence will come off as overkill and/or spectacle. The dead and the victims spur the hero to commit themselves to getting the truth.

And the Truth is what will save the hero and the victims. What is brilliant, again, in The Silence of the Lambs is that Crawford and the psychiatrists are trying to figure out WHAT MAKES THE KILLER TICK? If they can figure out what motivates the killer, they believe they’ll be able to find him.

This strategy doesn’t pay off. What does pay off is Starling’s ability to identify with the victims.

There are all sorts of deep dives into the nature of Buffalo Bill in the quest to hunt him down, but little is made of the women he is killing. Crawford and company even forget their full names, “The Bimmel Girl.” And while the FBI is pursuing the case with vigor, there is no real sense that the women who have been killed matter more than evidence.

Harris makes this clear when he adds the clock element, again a very important device in a thriller. A clock is not and absolutely necessary convention, but a good one is irresistible.

When Buffalo Bill kidnaps a Senator’s daughter, the necessity to find him reaches a boiling point.

Is there any doubt that if Buffalo Bill hadn’t taken the daughter of a Senator, that he would have been successful making his girl suit? Would Crawford or the FBI have pressed so hard on the case if they weren’t getting major political pressure?   If the woman was just another low class West Virginia girl, like Starling, she’d be deader than a doornail.

What makes Starling so special is that she is the only one who walks away from the allure of plumbing the depths of insanity and psychopathology and actually thinks about and empathizes with the victims. Once she realizes that she is just like they were—susceptible to the allure of the unknown–and that the world she inhabits is unjust, she finds the key to getting Buffalo Bill.

By understanding the lives of the victims, Starling cracks the case and discovers deep truths about the world and herself. The dead bodies are critical cast members because they reflect the inner turmoil of the hero.

The story cast makes the hero and vice versa.

When you are casting your novel/screenplay make sure that everyone who gets a moment on stage amplifies the dimensionality and contradictions of the lead character.

Imagine those times in your own life where you longed for a father figure, a mentor, someone to challenge you (an antagonist in the making?), or a friend that you relied on who worked his own agenda behind your back.

If you do, you’ll find that creating these sorts of stock characters (Hero, Villain, Love Interest, the World, etc.) in a unique way is far from impossible.  There is no one in literature quite like your Uncle Lou or that guy who stole your first girlfriend.  I promise you.

In fact, picking and choosing the qualities and idiosyncrasies of those near and dear, and even those you spot pinching cantaloupes in the super market are one of the joys of storytelling.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.


11 comments on “Casting the Thriller

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for the thorough character analysis of SOTL. The more you write about this novel the greater appreciation I have for the masterful job Harris did. I’m trying to get the nerve up to read it again — it terrified me the first time I read it.

    By the way, how did you know about my Uncle Lou? That was his real name. He looked like Lyle Lovett and used to turn around to talk to whichever of us kids was in the back seat while he was driving – seriously, I’m lucky to be here. I’ve got to find a place for him in a future book.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      We all have an Uncle Lou! So glad I reminded you of yours. They are the Pilchers in life who make it all worthwhile. The ones who see the world in a way we never will and give us unforgettable experiences, reminding us that our only obligation is to just be ourselves.

  2. “When you are casting your novel/screenplay make sure that everyone who gets a moment on stage amplifies the dimensionality and contradictions of the lead character.”

    This, I should learn better. Thanks.

    And the guy who stole my first girlfriend. Boy is he going into a story. Best friend nice guy conservative ethical my foot.

  3. Tina Goodman says:

    Thank you for this and the rest of the bonus posts.

  4. Patrick Maher says:

    Serendipity strikes again. I was up till three this morning going through some genre tropes and setting up a page each for fantasy, thrillers, and mystery thrillers casts. I wake up this morning and discover you have done my homework for me on thrillers. I’m putting my feet up for ten minutes – again – with a decent latte Shawn, all because you keep anticipating my writing needs. Thanks Buddy! Champion. Guess I owe you a sarsaparilla at Christmas.
    Now there’s a thought – Mystery thrillers – SALT, LA CONFIDENTIAL, CHINATOWN, TRAINING DAY. What is the ideal cast list for this special set of mystery tropes? How many plot lines? What should happen at each of the turning points? How is a Mystery thriller different from a thriller and a mystery?

  5. Michael Beverly says:

    In case you were wondering, yes, the email with the word “thriller” worked. LOL.
    I never knew there were “bonus” posts.
    I guess I should be more aware of my surroundings.
    Ugggg….still editing, btw, 5 months in editing. 5 months.
    3 weeks to write, 6 or 7 months to rewrite and edit.
    I never knew.
    I’m going to be rich and famous, however, so it’s all worth it.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Great to see you coming up for air on your Edit. And yes, Editing is a much bigger animal than banging out the first draft. I know you’re getting better just going through the process. Rich and famous? For your sake, I hope you just get enough to keep going. The rich and famous stuff will really mess you up.

    2. My last book took me a month to write and two to edit. I actually had a clue when I started, which is why the short editing time.

      My current work was started, a whole draft written, a few years ago before the aforementioned clue. I read it again recently, ran it past my editor, and we agreed it was worth retrofitting with some clueage.

      Been editing THAT one for five or six months.

      I think the moral is to stop learning so I can set a lower bar for my effort, but I could be wrong.

      Nice to see you here again. Maybe you’ll have time to hit the forum again, eh?

  6. Vish Vishwanath says:

    Pure gold. Pure Shawn Coyne gold, this.

  7. Excellent timing! Many thanks. I’ve been revisiting my cast design as I rework my novel, and picked up on the hint that dimensionality can vary, depending on the character. In McKee’s “Story,” he makes this even more explicit – the protagonist is the most dimensional, and each supporting character she encounters helps reveal certain dimensions. His “solar system” diagram dovetails beautifully with what you’ve been saying about the cast as well. Really appreciate the advice to set up contradictions between trait and character, as revealed through action. I’m having a ball playing with the archetypes for a love story. Many thanks!

  8. Robin Young says:

    Just started the first draft of a thriller. This post is timely indeed. All these years I thought all I had to do was write down the stories in my head, left there by the story fairies at night, and someday I would be rich and able to sleep through the night. Who knew there was all this WORK involved? Thanks Shawn for hacking this path through the jungle.

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