Robert McKee Thriller Day – part 2

So, in the previous post I only got as far as the introduction in my summary of the McKee Thriller day. Here is part 2, in which the crime is committed and the protagonist victimised . . .

Antagonist is key

When writing crime stories, it turns out you always start by creating the perfect crime (and then work backwards). And when you’re talking about the psychological thriller, that means beginning with the antagonist ­– who turns out to be the most important character of all.

McKee advocates that the antagonist’s character, motive and goal need to be defined first, because the antagonist (who holds the balance of power, remember) dictates how events will unfold. Thus the thriller antagonist (often a sociopath) gets everything in the attribute stakes: mental prowess (typically high intelligence, strong willpower and no conscience), physical or institutional prowess, and the spirit of evil*. Also, quite often, a degree of natural charm.

But to this despicable creature, violence is divine, a transcendent experience – albeit a means to an end. The cold-blooded antagonist typically has a Great Project, the perfect crime, greater than themselves. They cannot be bought off; their price is the victim’s soul. They often like to brag about their proclivities, convinced of their divine right to inflict terror.

* The ‘spirit of evil’ was defined as the capacity for doing harm and taking pleasure in suffering; also the desire to reverse nature and make the victim beg for death/hell/damnation.

Creating the crime

Once the antagonist is created and their motives and goals defined, it is time to invent the crime(s). This needs to be a ‘perfect’ crime, that can’t be figured out, that you could conceivably get away with. Then you need to try to outsmart yourself and find a flaw in the perfection. (The flaw should never be built in, because that would be too obvious.)

Alas, McKee didn’t tell us how to find the flaw – I guess that comes with experience and a lot of reading – but he did give some tips on how to create and plant the clues (including a comprehensive checklist of how information can be gathered, sifted, used and concealed):

  • Write out all the aspects of the crime (means, motive, execution etc) and break them into clues.
  • The clues need to be distributed in the story out of sequence, with any causal and temporal relationships concealed.
  • Each clue should encourage misinterpretation the first time it is discovered; the true meaning of the clue should be hidden and inconspicuous.
  • Even when the right meaning of the clue is discovered, create red herrings to mislead the audience.

The key to a good clue/crime is the plausibility of all possible clue meanings, and a sense of inevitability and/or revelation when the truth is finally discovered.

Pushing the protagonist to the edge

The other key character in the mix is the underdog protagonist. Here it’s a matter of stacking as much conflict against them as possible:

  • External conflict – The antagonist preys upon the protagonist using lies, deception and violence, intending to incite terror (extreme fear) and horror (extreme revulsion). (There may also be natural/incidental physical and social obstacles unrelated to the antagonist.)
  • Internal conflict – The protagonist may already have issues they’re trying to deal with; these may be related to the general trauma of life.
  • Psychological conflict – The various pressures inflicted start to play havoc with the protagonist/victim’s mind and they begin to doubt. They may start questioning reality, their judgement, the meaning of life, their identity and purpose . . . right up to the point they start to question morality (right v wrong).

Ultimately the protagonist (and the value at stake) needs to be pushed to the edge, to the very limit of human experience.

To achieve this, the character of the protagonist needs to have great capacity to be hurt. It was suggested that characters with large imaginations can be made to suffer more than those who don’t. The writer needs to establish the potential for great depth and breadth of suffering, and then inflict it on the protagonist. (This takes ‘hurt your characters’ to a new level . . .)

The greater, more complex and powerful the forces of antagonism, then the greater the protagonist must become in order to rise above. The protagonist ultimately has to choose between conscience and survival, and often must be moved to commit violence – to use evil to escape evil.

The most powerful stories are those involving ‘the negation of the negation’. If the protagonist represents a positive charge towards the value at stake (e.g. survival), then the antagonist represents a negative charge. If the negative of survival is death, then the negation of the negation would be damned (for example). The antagonist should push the story – and the protagonist – towards this for greatest impact.


Links to part 1 and part 3 in this series.


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