Tuesday, May 30

When Life Strikes: Writing through the Unexpected

When Life Strikes: Writing through the Unexpected

Today I want to talk about what to do when life derails your plans.

Life derailed me yesterday! I planned to work on my book in the morning, visit my dentist in the early afternoon, write a blog post and publish it before dinner.

Well. At least I had a productive morning before everything fell apart. It turns out my dentist moved his office across town without telling me! Good to know.

SO. What to do? I made a slightly panicked phone call and a sympathetic receptionist pushed my appointment forward an hour. Great!

Not so much. It would have been great but it took me an HOUR AND A HALF to walk to the new location and then I had to wait for another hour!!

That’s a lot of lost writing time! I had to accept I wasn’t going to be able to write and publish my blog post. It was too complex, too long. I wouldn’t be able to complete it in time.

Which got me thinking about, first, how writers can try to plan for downtown in order to minimize the disruption and, second, how to minimize damage after something throws our meticulously arranged schedules into disarray.

3 Strategies to Help You Stay on Track When Your Schedule Is Thrown to the Dogs

Here’s how I try and plan for disaster.

1. Do not panic! Breathe. Remind yourself that life happens.

Some folks are optimists, others are pessimists. Optimists might he happier but pessimists are seldom surprised.

Still, life happens. Disruption occurs. It's okay. Really. You'll get through it. Realize that you'll look back on this in a few hours or a few days and be able to shrug it off.

It may seem corny or odd, but I highly recommend practicing some sort of relaxation technique such as meditation, a technique you can call on in times of high stress. It helps.

2. In the morning make a list.

2a. Write down the most important thing you want to accomplish today. 

If there’s something that absolutely MUST get done, then there’s no thinking involved, just write it down. I like to draw a little box beside the item so I can tick it off when I’ve accomplished it. There’s something fulfilling about seeing a ticked box, but that might just be me!

2b. Write down the second most important thing you want to accomplish today, then stop. 

Don’t write down anything else. Or, if you like (I find it can help ease anxiety) you can write down everything you’d like to get done today BUT make sure this list is distinct from your ‘must-do’ list.

The things you MUST do today are the first and second tasks you wrote down. That’s it. BUT if something unexpected comes up and destroys your carefully planned schedule, you already know the single most important thing you need to accomplish. Don’t worry about the second most important, let that go.

2c. Always work on the most important item first. 

I know that’s so obvious it seems silly to write it down, but still. It’s important. The first item on your list is the most important so make that your priority.

Sometimes I’ll complete tasks on my list quickly, in which case I make a new list. (But that rarely happens!)

A word of warning: Sometimes a task will be complex. In this case it’s important to break it down into smaller bits, each of which can be completed in a few hours. For instance, writing a book is a huge task that becomes doable when broken down into smaller bits.

3. Pad your schedule.

If you think a task will take you 30 minutes to accomplish, schedule 45. Even if you get through the task in 30 minutes there’s going to be other tasks that will take twice as long. Also—as I found out yesterday—one’s best laid plans are often completely derailed.

I should have given myself more of a margin for error. If I had I would have completed a rough draft of my post BEFORE I left for the dentist and would have suffered only a minor delay. So! Lesson learnt (hopefully).

The idea is that your day will have been successful and productive even if you only get that most important thing accomplished.

That’s it for today. I’d love to hear your strategies for avoiding and recovering from disaster!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending Dan Wells’ book, “I am not a serial killer.” His other books are terrific too, Wells is a wonderful writer and I love, love, LOVE the podcast he co-hosts with Mary Robinette Kowal and Brandon Sanderson: Writing Excuses.

From the blurb:
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.

He's spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He's obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn't want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he's written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don't demand or expect the empathy he's unable to offer. Perhaps that's what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there's something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat---and to appreciate what that difference means.

Friday, May 26

Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim

Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim

The first murder victim is unique.

Of course talking about a first victim assumes there will be more than one murder victim. True. But, these days, most murder mysteries DO include more than one victim.

And, honestly, I think it’s easier to structure a murder mystery that has more than one murder. I’ll talk more about story structure later on in this series. (By the way, this post is part of a series on How to Write a Murder Mystery.)

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

3 Things That Make the First Victim Special

1. The first victim brings the detective into the story.

The discovery of the first victim’s body CREATES the Inciting Incident. Regardless of the murderer’s motives, the first victim summons the detective and in this sense they are the reason for everything.

2. Usually, the relationship between the killer and the first victim ties the victims and the suspects together.

In traditional murder mysteries, killers kill for a reason. They have a motive. Since, often, the first victim is the only one the murderer intended to kill, the second, third, etc., victims are killed to tie up loose ends. In this sense, the killer’s motive for dispatching the first victim is either directly or indirectly responsible for all the other deaths.

3. Since the murderer is trying to tie up loose ends, subsequent murders are often more spontaneous than premeditated.

Often, the second and subsequent murders are committed because something went wrong with the first and the murderer is forced to improvise. Or if the first killing was a crime of passion—in other words, there was no plan, the killing was not at all premeditated—the subsequent murders would be done to cover the murderer’s tracks and so could be sloppy and rushed. And THIS—this lack of finesse—could itself be a clue.

Other factors:

The murderer plans for multiple victims rather than just one.

Granted, it isn’t always the case that the murderer begins his crime spree only intending to kill one person. Sometimes the murderer has a list of people who he feels either did him wrong or who harmed someone he loves. Or perhaps the murderer has a goal and to reach this goal he will have to kill more than one person.

A classic example of this often has to do with a tontine. With a tontine, a number of people contribute to a fund. As each of them die the fund grows larger. When the second to last person dies the final survivor controls the remaining capital. This provided the motive for no end of murders—at least in stories!

Also, although it didn’t have anything to do with a tontine, Agatha Christie’s most popular novel—And Then There Were None—features a murderer who intended to kill absolutely everyone, the entire cast of characters!

In this case the first murder victim isn’t as important, though the detective won’t know that. In this case sometimes the murderer intends the first murder to be a distraction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder Three Act Tragedy the first murder is a trial run. The murderer had nothing against the first victim—in fact, the first victim was randomly chosen!—he was simply testing out his murder method.

Wrap Up

I’ve found that in many murder mystery stories, the second, third, and so on, murders usually are a response to factors that unfold AFTER the initial crime.

Often, though not always.

Sometimes the murderer intends to kill two or more people, though even in these cases additional murders can occur as plans unravel and the murderer, panicked, tries to tie up loose ends.

Whatever the case, the murderer is changed by the first murder. He or she is now a different person. This can be shown in a number of ways. After this, the stakes are higher, they wonder if the police suspect them, their stress levels increase. Depending on how good the murderer is at dealing with stress, this could lead to them making mistakes, blurting out information they should have kept quiet about, or doing something rash because they're driven by fear.

In my next post I'll talk more about how to create a murder victim.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book, a murder mystery, I’ve read a number of times. Each time I discovered something new and valuable! I’m talking about Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mystery: And Then There Were None.

From the blurb: “The world's best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies sold! / Ten people, each with something to hide and something to fear, are invited to a lonely mansion on Indian Island by a host who, surprisingly, fails to appear. On the island they are cut off from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives. One by one, the guests share the darkest secrets of their wicked pasts. And one by one, they die…”

Wednesday, May 24

The M.I.C.E. Quotient and Mystery Stories

The M.I.C.E. Quotient and Mystery Stories

In a murder mystery the detective is usually the protagonist, but not always. For example, in the TV show Lucifer the detective’s sidekick is the main character. Today I want to talk about this delightful inversion of formula with reference to the M.I.C.E. Quotient.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

Lucifer and the M.I.C.E. Quotient

Before we get into this material let’s do a quick review of M.I.C.E. (For a more in-depth discussion listen to the podcast: Writing Excuses 6.10)

M.I.C.E. is a way to manage the various subplots in your story. It stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Each of these refers to a kind of story. Let’s do a quick review:

(BTW, I’ve discussed M.I.C.E. before: The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories and The MICE Quotient: How to Structure Your Story.)

A Quick review of the M.I.C.E. Quotient (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event)


“The milieu includes all the physical locations that are used—one city or many cities, one building or many buildings, a street, a bus, a farm, a clearing in the woods—with all the sights, smells, and sounds that come with the territory. The milieu also includes the culture—the customs, laws, social roles, and public expectations that limit and illuminate all that a character thinks and feels and says and does.” [1]

“The structure of the pure milieu story is simple: Get a character to the setting that the story is about, and then devise reasons for her to move through the world of the story, showing the reader all the interesting physical and social details of the milieu. When you've shown everything you want the reader to see, bring the character home.”[1]

Begins: When the character enters a particular physical setting/location.
Ends: When the character returns from the physical setting/location.


“The idea story has a simple structure. A problem or question is posed at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the tale the answer is revealed. Murder mysteries use this structure: Someone is found murdered, and the rest of the story is devoted to discovering who did it, why, and how.”[1]

Begins: With the posing of a question.
Ends: When the question is answered.


“The character story is about a person trying to change his role in life. It begins at the point when the main character finds his present situation intolerable and sets out to change; it ends when the character either finds a new role, willingly returns to the old one, or despairs of improving his lot.”[1]

Begins: When the protagonist finds his or her situation intolerable and sets out to change it.
Ends: When the protagonist either finds a) a new role, b) willingly returns to the old one, or c) despairs of improving his lot.


“Every story is an event story in the sense that from time to time something happens that has causes and results. But the story in which the events are the central concern follows a particular pattern: The world is somehow out of order—call it imbalance, injustice, breakdown, evil, decay, disease—and the story is about the effort to restore the old order or establish a new one. / The event story structure is simple: It begins when the main characters become involved in the effort to heal the world's disease, and ends when they either accomplish their goal or utterly fail to do so.”[1]

Begins: When the main characters become involved in the effort to prevent the disaster.
Ends: When the main characters succeed or fail.

Using M.I.C.E

A novel length story (80,000 words or so) often has all four kinds of stories (Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event) nested within each other. The uppermost, 'umbrella' story will be the main story arc. The first subplot (the B-story) will often have to do with the protagonist’s love interest or, more generally, it will be about a relationship the protagonist forms with another character.

So, for instance, a murder mystery might look like this:

Main arc: Idea story
->begin B-story (first subplot): Character story
-->begin C-story (second subplot): Event story
--->begin D-story (third subplot): Milieu story

Closing out:
--->end/resolve D-story.
-->end/resolve C-story.
->end/resolve B-story.
end/resolve A-story/main arc.

M.I.C.E. gives us a way of managing subplots by helping to expose the bones, the skeleton, of a story. In this sense, M.I.C.E. makes it easier to organize any story, but especially long complex ones with many nested subplots.

First, subplots/arcs need to be closed out in the same order they are introduced.

Second, the question that begins an arc, that spins one up, needs to be answered before that arc can be closed.

Third, it works best if the resolution of one subplot feeds into the closure, the resolution, of the next subplot (and/or the main arc).

Okay! I spent longer on M.I.C.E. than I'd intended, but it's a terrific tool to have in your writer's toolbox so I think that's fine. Moving on!

Lucifer (the TV show)

With M.I.C.E. in mind, let’s take a look at Lucifer[wikipedia].

Currently I’m watching the second season. It’s a light comedy populated with interesting, unique, quirky characters. The general structure of an episode is this:

A body is found which leads to the IDEA question: What is the identity of the murderer?

First subplot: This is often a CHARACTER story but it can also be another IDEA story.

For example, in season two episode eight, the main story, the wrapper, is an IDEA story: Who killed Maddie Howard?

This leads directly into the first subplot which is another IDEA story. For example, Lucifer has recognized that Maddie was killed with Azrael’s blade, a magical weapon. This is very bad news because this blade, when used by a human, will drive them to kill over trivial matters (e.g., leaving the toilet seat up, not taking out the garbage, etc.).

The goal (first subplot): Get Azrael’s blade back. So the question for the first subplot is: Will Lucifer get the blade back?

A brief digression ...

Every episode the characters active in that episode each have a story (a subplot) associated with them. Of course the main character's story isn't a subplot, it's the main plot. This is the story that is onscreen, that we—viewers—see played out. For the secondary characters, though, their stories often play out largely offscreen. It's only when their personal stories intersect with the main character's, with Lucifer's, that they come 'on-screen,' that viewers become aware of them.

I thought I'd mention that; it's a slightly different way of looking at exactly the same thing. (It's like this for written stories as well.)

I want to mention one more thing before we get back to the main thread of discussion ...

I've mentioned that each character with significant screentime has a story/subplot associated with them. Each of these subplots can be viewed as either a Milieu story, an Idea story, a Character story or an Event story. For example, Lucifer’s mom (played by the talented Tricia Helfer) is trying to change her role in life. This is why she released Azrael’s blade into the world. She was hoping to get the attention of her ex-husband (i.e., God!) through misbehaving. So, for this subplot to be wrapped up Lucifer’s mom has to either:

a) Find a new role.
b) Willingly return to the old role.
c) Despair and give up.

Further, the mother's subplot is intimately tied into the main arc because the mother finds a new role by hatching a new plot which sends the show off in another direction AND increases the stakes.

Back to the Episode

But the mother isn’t the main character in the inner plot, Lucifer is. So (as I see it) the first subplot is an IDEA story which revolves around the question of whether Lucifer will get the magical blade back.

Midway through Lucifer discovers the first murderer’s name: Duncan. But this doesn't close out the first/main story arc—if it did, that would be a problem—because now someone else has the blade and bodies are continuing to accumulate. All that has happened is that the question for the main arc has been changed/twisted: Who is the new murderer? And the stakes have increased. Now many were killed as opposed to just one.

Eventually the last wielder of the blade is tracked down: Dan Espinoza, Chloe’s ex-husband and someone who is definitely NOT Lucifer’s biggest fan. Lucifer disarms Dan and recovers the blade, thus closing out the main arc.

The Sidekick as Protagonist

One of the most interesting things about Lucifer is that in terms of the murder mystery arc, Lucifer is the detective's sidekick! Lucifer does what sidekicks do and unwittingly gives the detective the 'ah-ha' clue.

Also, when working with Chloe/the detective, Lucifer is usually not intellectually committed to solving the murder; he's busy with his own concerns. He doesn't notice much at the crime scene—not because he can't or he's dim—because he simply doesn't care (which is actually a core trait of the character).

Lucifer's story arc over the course of the episode usually is an IDEA story; specifically, it's a mystery of some sort, though often not a MURDER mystery. Though Lucifer's story arc will be closely related to the primary murder in some way.


M.I.C.E. is a terrific way of helping writers sort through their subplots/arcs. It helps to keep things from getting all tangled up like unruly balls of yarn.

If you want to write a detective story but have fallen in love with your sidekick it’s okay to make the detective’s sidekick your protagonist! The key is to give them their own arc, one distinct from but related to the murder.


1. Elements of Fiction Writing, by Orson Scott Card

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book I’ve read MANY times: Orson Scott Card’s Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint.

From the blurb: “Award-winning author Orson Scott Card explains in depth the techniques of inventing, developing and presenting characters, plus handling viewpoint in novels and short stories. With specific examples, he spells out your narrative options—the choices you'll make in creating fictional people so "real" that readers will feel they know them like members of their own families.”

Saturday, May 20

Differences between Murder Mystery and Fantasy Stories

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve recently read Deborah Chester’s excellent book, “The Fantasy Fiction Formula.”

Inevitably, I started to think about the differences between the fantasy genre and the murder mystery genre.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

5 Differences between a Fantasy and a Murder Mystery

1. The Protagonist’s Goal

Murder mystery. The main (external) goal of the detective is always to identify—to unmask—the murderer. Let me repeat that: The protagonist’s main goal in each and every murder mystery regardless of subgenre is to identify the murderer.

Fantasy. The main goal of the protagonist can be just about anything. Save the kingdom, rescue the princess, find the lost gems of Icondria, destroy the One Ring, and so on.

2. The Visibility of the Antagonist

Murder mystery. In a murder mystery, although the antagonist is (usually) onstage from the very beginning, he or she is hiding. They are masked. After all, discovering the identity of the murderer is the entire point of a whodunit!

Fantasy. In a fantasy story it’s usually clear, at least in broad terms, who the antagonist is from the start of the story. For example, consider Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yes, we don’t know that Saruman has been corrupted until later on, but for the most part we know who the good characters are and who the bad characters are. On the other hand, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Voldemort is the Big Bad but Professor Quirrell is the hidden antagonist. One of the terrific things about Rowling’s novels—I think it’s one of the things that made them so popular—is the mystery element.

By the way, if you want to read more about the difference between the Big Bad and the nemesis, see: Character Types And The Five-Bad Band.

3. Conflict Characters

Which leads to yet another difference between murder mysteries and other stories: the conflict character. (For more on this see: Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character.)

As you’ll recall, the main function of the antagonist is to oppose the protagonist, oppose his or her goal, and in so doing supply continuing, escalating, conflict. Since the antagonist/murderer in a murder mystery is hidden, cloaked, disguised, we need other characters to help create this conflict.

Although all stories have characters, characters who aren’t the antagonist, who help create conflict in a murder mystery there is often ONE character who has a story-long antagonistic arc with the detective, an arc that helps complicate the main storyline and increase the conflict. This is what I think of as the conflict character.

For instance, consider Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Though Lestrade takes on a number of roles, he often acts as a conflict character. Other conflict characters are Anderson and Sgt. Sally Donovan. Even Mycroft, when he’s not being a mentor, often steps into this role. (Of course the Moriarty episodes are an exception.)

4. The Missing Mentor

In a fantasy or action-adventure the hero often starts out as a wet-behind-the-ears innocent and, through his adventures, ends as a seasoned, experienced, hero. One of the characters that helps the protagonist begin/complete his journey is the mentor. (Think Star Wars.)

In a murder mystery the protagonist’s arc IS from ignorance to knowledge—namely, ignorance of the murderer’s identity to knowledge of the murderer’s identity. And, yes, in murder mysteries there is often a character—sometimes the sidekick—who he goes to for inspiration. But, generally speaking, the mentor isn’t of the ‘wise elder’ variety. If the sidekick acts as mentor often the crucial clue—what I like to call the ‘ah-ha’ clue—is given unconsciously.

5. A Minor Arc

The detective often has a more-or-less minor problem at the beginning of the story. Perhaps he hasn’t had an interesting case for a few days. Perhaps—this often happens in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories—the detective has been having the devil of a time finding a reliable person to help her around the house.

But this arc—though it spans the entire story—is a minor one. In Deborah Chester’s terminology, it’s a plate; a question put into play (Will the detective find a case deserving of his great intellect? Will lovely Miss Marple find someone who doesn’t break her prize china on a regular basis?)

But, again, this is a minor question that doesn’t involve a great deal of growth (or any growth!) on the part of the detective.

I bring this up in part to underscore the fact that many detective’s don’t have a mentor. Rather THEY are the wise old man or woman. When inspiration is needed often their sidekick supplies it without realizing it.

In this sense the detective in a whodunit is a bit like James Bond. Though Mr. Bond might have a relatively minor lesson to learn—something along the lines of: Don’t always trust blonds with long shapely legs!—there is relatively little character growth and audiences are fine with that!

One more thing ...

Is vs Ought

So far I’ve talked about the way many murder mysteries ARE, but is this how they SHOULD be? Or, better, is this the way they MUST be? After all, the genre has changed quite a bit over the years. (The POV character used to be the sidekick, the Watson. The detective was the focal character. Today this setup strikes many writers as counterintuitive.) Perhaps our protagonists, our brilliant detectives, should go on more of a personal journey?

Well, sometimes they do! Consider the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell. These books are deep, angst ridden, and beautiful. What they are NOT are cozys! Cozy’s are LIGHT entertainment. Part of the reason they are light entertainment is that the protagonist doesn’t do a whole lot of soul searching and—unless you’re one of the unfortunate victims—not a lot of tragic things happen. That’s one reason folks (myself included) love to read a good cozy!

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Sure, you could write a murder mystery where the protagonist has an arc more like a fantasy or action-adventure but it wouldn’t be what the average reader of a cozy is expecting.

The Truth to be Uncovered

One thing is sure, there needs to be a truth the detective must WORK FOR over the course of the novel. And he needs setbacks. He needs to be tricked by the murderer once or twice.

That’s it! My next post will be about the first victim and what makes them unique. Stay tuned! Have a terrific weekend and good writing!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (the Hobbit / the Fellowship of the Ring / the Two Towers / The Return Of The King), by J.R.R. Tolkien.

You've likely seen this clip from Stephen Colbert's and James Franco Tolkien Showdown (Parts 1 and 2), but I thought I would include it here because it always makes me laugh. I am in awe of that man's knowledge of Tolkien lore. Actually, I'm in awe of his memory full stop!

Wednesday, May 17

Let's Create a Sidekick!

Let's Create a Sidekick!
Let’s create a sidekick!

Over the past few posts I’ve talked quite a lot about theory, now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road and CREATE a sidekick (or at least begin the process).

(Index for this series: How to Write a Murder Mystery)

Please keep in mind that this is an experiment! I’m putting together this evolving story outline as I go (and please feel free to make suggestions).

At the end of this series of posts my plan is to have a completed outline for a traditional murder mystery. At that point I’ll bundle these posts up—including this character outline—and put it in a book for easier access.

(Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.)

Tip: If you’re creating your sidekick along with me and you find ideas aren’t flowing the way you’d like, try writing longhand. At least, that’s what (usually) works for me!

Note: I had wanted to publish this post yesterday, but I was too busy reading Deborah Chester’s excellent book, The Fantasy Fiction Formula. Although (as the title suggests) Chester’s work is focused on creating a fantasy story, many of the things she has to say—for example, about character creation—apply to murder mysteries as well. I just wanted to add this note and acknowledge my debt to her wonderful work. Deborah Chester also has a blog, one I’ve read for years and highly recommend: Chronicles of the Scribe.

1. The Character’s Role

We’re tackling the sidekick today.

As we’ve seen, in a murder mystery, the sidekick is the detective’s foil, they complement the detective and, in so doing—in their very ordinariness (they are more like you and I, but perhaps a wee bit dimmer)—they highlight, they accentuate, the detective’s exceptional qualities.

2. What does the sidekick look like?

Since I like to “see” my character, one of the first questions I try to answer is what they look like.

Which brings me to a dilemma. When I think about the sidekick I think of him as male, but I don’t have a lot of important, significant, characters who are female, so I thought I should make the sidekick female.

But—and I’m not sure whether this is fortunate or unfortunate—I don’t think I can. It seems the sidekick has formed enough in my mind that he has his own opinions!

He is about 5’7’’ tall and is thin. For some bizarre reason that hasn’t yet been revealed to me, he likes wearing brown corduroy pants (he’s hipster and likes all things retro) with some sort of checkered shirt. He has medium brown hair cut short but not mercilessly so.

He has a beard and likes to wear a plaid flat cap.

(As I write this I have a character sheet by my side and I’m filling it out as I answer each question.)

3. Names: First, Middle, Last. Nickname?

I want the sidekick’s name to be memorable. As Deborah Chester advises, I want the name to help shape the reader’s perception of the character. (I want the character’s name—or nickname—to be a tag; something that will tie one of the character’s dominant characteristics to their name.)

J.K. Rowling did this well! I’ve always admired the names she chose for her characters, at least the ones in the Harry Potter books. For example, Albus Dumbledore, Hagrid, Petunia Dursley, and Professor Quirrell.

With the sidekicks name, I have the opportunity to plant a characteristic, a suggestion, an idea, in a reader’s mind. For example, to me “Dumbledore” makes the character seem approachable. Friendly. Kind. It’s certainly not the name of a villain.

“Snodgrass” is a name I would give to a character who sits on strata boards and is a stickler for the rules.

Which brings me to another point; if you give a turncoat character—a traitor—one that is exposed (say) halfway through your story, you can give them a name that makes them feel friendly and approachable and in so doing subtly encourage your readers NOT to suspect them—that is, not until it’s too late!

Note: I find that the tag embedded in a name usually refers to that character’s mask, not their inner person. So, for instance, Dumbledore’s inner man wasn’t necessarily approachable and kind, but that’s okay because the primary purpose of the tag is to make the character more memorable.

Of course you could name your protagonist John Smith—and there might be good story reasons for this. Perhaps one of your character’s distinctive qualities is that they are bland, faceless, not in the least extraordinary or noticeable. Joe Beige. This might be a terrific quality for a spy or infiltrator.

As I wrote this the name “Dan” or “Daniel” came to me. I don’t know how memorable that is! But it does have the sort of overtones I’m looking for. I love the biblical story of Daniel and the Lions Den. My character has that kind of honesty and courage.

Now, what about the last name? “Daniel” gives me an idea; it would be nice if the last name reinforced the qualities the name evokes for me. How about “Daniel Lions”? A bit obvious? Oh well, I’ll keep the name until something better occurs to me.

4. How old is this character?

If I don’t have a clear idea of when the character was born I like to think of which astrological sign fits the character best. If that doesn’t work, I sometimes play with tarot cards and see which card seems to especially ‘fit’ the character best. Since each card is paired with an astrological sign, this is a way fixing the month.

I’m not sure about the exact year but I think Dan is around the same age as the detective which would put him in his early 30s.

Now for the difficult bit: in what month was Dan born? I like to go through my tarot deck, or look at Rider-Waite-Smith cards online. Usually a card will stand out.

Which is what just happened! I think the Four of Wands is Dan’s card.

Dan is going to be the relationship character (although, to be fair, I knew this before I fixed on that card!). The detective and sidekick are going to be buddies. This is a card of celebration, togetherness, harmony. Strength. It represents stability (especially in the Waite deck).

In any case, this means Dan was born sometime between April 11th and the 20th.

Further, it looks like the Four of Wands is on the cusp between pentacles and swords. Which makes sense! It’s been a while since I studied the tarot, but the suit of swords has to do with the intellect while pentacles has to do with grounded emotion—or at least that’s how I think of it. So, in a way, this could be a very balanced character.

Also, since Dan was born April 11th, he’s an Aries which fits with how I’ve been thinking of him. He’s a brave leader who prefers being in the thick of action. On the downside, Dan can be impulsive and stubborn.

5. Do you want readers to (overall) like or dislike this character? Why should readers like or dislike this character? Why should they root for him or her? Or, alternatively, why should readers boo the character and want him to crash and burn?

Since Dan’s the sidekick and one of my main characters, I would REALLY like readers to like Dan. Heck, I want them to love him! Which means I’ve got to give them reasons to love him.

Which brings us to Dan’s personality traits. If Dan has more positive traits than negative ones and these traits dominate his interactions with other characters, chances are readers will like him. On the other hand, if I gave Dan more negative traits than positive ones and I let these control his interactions with others, he’s NOT going to be liked, let alone loved!

6. What are this character’s personality traits?

Deborah Chester, in her wonderful, awesome, book, The Fantasy Fiction Formula, gives a list of positive and negative traits:

Positive: Intelligence, honesty, integrity, honor, loyalty, reliability, determination, competence.

Negative: Dishonesty, sneakiness, cheating, vagueness, indecision, betrayal, insincerity, tardiness, irresponsibility, cruelty, and timidity.

Chester didn’t intend these to be exhaustive lists, but I thought they were an excellent start! She suggests that primary characters have around 6 personality traits.

Since we want readers to root for the sidekick we’ll start by giving him 4 positive traits and 2 negative ones. If I had wanted readers to root against this character I would have done the opposite and given him 4 negative traits and 2 positive ones. Note that the numbers “4” and “2” are approximate, let your own sense of the character guide you.

If you’re drawing a blank, think about a person you respect. What is it about this person that led you to feel about them the way you do? Or perhaps think of one of your favorite characters from a book, TV show or movie. If you were to write up their character sheet what personality traits would you assign to them?

So what are Dan’s personality traits? I already know some of them but it’s not difficult to fill out the list: Dan is intelligent, honest, loyal and very determined. He can also be impulsive and stubborn.

7. What tags will demonstrate these personality traits?

Let’s take them one at a time:

a. Intelligent

I see this book as the first in a series. In this story the sidekick has his own agenda. He wants to get information about his sister’s death from the detective, information he can’t just ASK for. So he’s going to be sneaky. His intelligence comes into play as he schemes. That said, the detective is MORE intelligent than Dan so he knows what his sidekick is doing and, for whatever reason, leaves him to it.

Perhaps he knows Dan won’t believe him if the detective just hands the information over. The detective wants to make an ally of his late wife's brother, a true ally. Why? Because the detective suspects the brother knows all about his family's business, their secrets. Secrets that his wife, even though she was very much in love with him, took to her grave.

b. Honest

When the detective confronts the sidekick, Dan doesn’t lie—even though that would be the easiest thing to do.

c. Loyal

The detective is loyal to his sister, to her memory. Toward the end of the story, Dan is also loyal to the detective. They go from alienation to fraternity, from separateness to togetherness.

d. Determined

Dan is extraordinarily determined. This is his primary trait.

e. Impulsive

Before Dan connects with Alex, before they begin working together on the case, Dan is single-minded and decisive. But after he gets to know Alex, Dan begins to question his goals, his secret agenda and, as a result, does a few things on impulse with mixed results.

f. Stubborn

At the beginning of the story Dan has decided that his sister’s death was Alex’s fault and it takes a lot to dissuade him. He stubbornly holds to his theory. He is obstinate and refuses to give up his erroneous belief even in the face of good evidence to the contrary. (Kind of like Agent Scully.)

8. How often are you going to use each of these tags?

For now, I’ll pick two or three tags of behavior and appearance and use them when I introduce the character and every time, after that, they’re re-introduced after some time offstage.

10. What is the sidekick’s primary story goal?

The sidekick’s primary story goal is to help the detective unmask the murderer.

11. What is the sidekick’s personal goal?

While the sidekick’s personal goal hooks up to the main arc—that is, it needs to help the detective fulfill his story goal of identifying the murderer—it is a story all on its own. Which is to say that it’s a subplot.

Dan’s personal objective is to recover an object that would expose Alex, what he did, that got Dan’s sister (Alex’s wife) killed. (Alex isn’t directly responsible for his wife’s death, though his wife did give her life to protect him. Readers won’t find this out till later in the series.)

Dan is going to succeed in recovering the object (or whatever), but instead of incriminating Alex it will bond Dan and Alex. In future books, they will join together on a quest to uncover who was responsible for Alex’s wife’s death.

At least, that’s my idea. This may change.

12. Why does the sidekick have this particular personal goal?

Alex became overly curious about his late wife's family. He was warned to back off. When he didn’t, Alex’s wife defended him to her family and, ultimately, tried to leave. The family wouldn’t stand for that and had her killed. At least, that’s what Dan (her brother) believes.

Note: If what I just wrote doesn’t make sense go back and reread the post where I began creating the detective. Keep in mind, though, that some elements of the story may have evolved since then.

13. What other character is most important in Dan’s life? Why is this other character so important to Dan?

Apart from the detective, Dan’s late sister is the other character who is most important in his life. The only other person that comes close is his mother. There is no love lost between him and his father.

Lucy is important to Dan because she was family, but also because she stuck up for him when they were kids. His parents didn’t, but Lucy did.

20. Characterization through setting. We want a place that represents the character’s true self. It is their safe place. I think of such a place as their lair, their Batcave. Describe this place. How does it:

- Indicate the character’s personality?

Although intelligent, honest, loyal and determined Ben has trouble completing things. He is passionate and committed for awhile and then just moves on. As a result his apartment is littered with the husks of abandoned projects.

(I just noticed I wrote "Ben" rather than "Dan," above.  But you know what? I like "Ben" better, so I'm keeping it! The character's name will be "Benjamin 'Ben' Lions.")

- Indicate his or her habits?

Ben is NOT a neat-freak—far from it—though he’s not a complete slob either. I would describe his place as comfortably messy.

- Indicate his or her tastes?

Ben likes food, though he’s not a cook. He likes french fries, beer and burgers. If he really likes a girl he may try to cook for her, but when he does it looks like something exploded in the kitchen!

- Indicate his or her activities?

Unlike Alex, Ben doesn’t go in for extreme sports. Fishing is more his thing. His father fished and they spent many blissful days sitting in a rowboat, poles in the water, listening to waves lap against the hull.

Ben’s favorite fishing pole is mounted on the wall of the den he converted into a computer room. His tackle box—about the size of a breadbox and covered with dings and scratches—has pride of place on his bookshelf. It’s stocked with lures he crafted himself. The oldest ones were made by him and his dad and, though they’re not the best, they’re his favorite. (Ben’s dad passed away a few years ago.)

21. If Ben’s lair were on fire and he could only rescue one thing, what would it be?

I’m not sure if it’s Ben’s MOST prized possession, but he treasures the fishing rod his Dad gave him when he graduated from high school, the one that hangs on his wall.

22. What is this character’s special skill?

He fishes and ties his own lures.

He writes. Mostly it’s letters to the editor or scribblings in a journal. Occasionally, he writes a story, usually a short story, but doesn’t show it to anyone. His dad loved him and they were close but he never encouraged Ben to write. (The detective may give him the encouragement he needs.)

23. What is Ben’s superpower?

By “superpower” I mean something—for good or ill—that a person is great at. For instance, my superpower is losing things. Seriously. I’m great at it! Even as I child I quipped that my bedroom had a roving black hole which indiscriminately gobbled up all manner of things.

I know people whose superpower is putting others at ease in a social setting. Others have superb memories. Some folks are wonderful cooks: they can take any ingredients and create something delicious.

So, what is Ben’s superpower? What is the one thing he does exceptionally well? Provisionally, I’m going to say that his superpower is honesty. Ben doesn’t play games. He isn’t insultingly, brutally, honest, but if he says something you don’t have to search for hidden agendas. He says it simply because he means it. Of course, this can occasionally get him into trouble!

24. Why is Ben so honest?

I’m not sure. It’s the way he is. His dad and mom were honest with him, as were his friends.

26. How has being honest affected Ben’s life?

His honesty has gotten him fired a couple of times! Also, perhaps he was a whistleblower at one of his jobs. One of the tech companies he worked for was doing something that lined their pockets with cash but endangered lives. Ben blew the whistle. Even though he should have been protected, the company fired him and made sure he wouldn’t be able to find another job in tech.

Ben was making good money but, as a result of his firing, had to sell his flat in London and move to the small town of Meadowmead. Now he works as a laborer and drinks too much.

28. Describe any and all minions this character has. For example, Sherlock Holmes had the Irregulars.

As far as I know, this character doesn’t have minions.

31. Which character will be Ben’s foil?

The main character, the detective, is Ben’s foil. Just as Ben’s normality, his ‘ordinariness,’ accentuates Alex’s extreme oddity so Alex’s eccentricities highlight Ben’s normality.

34. What were Ben’s parents like?

I’ve described Ben’s relationship with his dad, I don’t quite know what his relationship was with his mom. Perhaps she passed away when Ben was a child.

35. What was Ben’s relationship like with his parents? Were they good to him or did they mistreat him?

Ben idolized his father and, in general, his dad treated him well.

There are more—many more!—questions than these, but I won’t include them here. This is (hopefully!) a decent beginning.

By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve skipped some numbers. I’ve created a master character sheet but didn’t post the questions I couldn’t yet answer.

What is your sidekick like? I’d love to know!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’d like to recommend: Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 1), by K.M. Weiland.

From the blurb: “Ms. Weiland presents a wonderful roadmap for writing while still encouraging you to take those sidetrips that will make your story better. I feel like I can walk the ‘high wire’ of my imagination because I have the safety net of my outline below it all.”

Wednesday, May 10

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

How do we create interesting characters, characters with depth and conflicting desires? Today I talk about 10 ways writers can communicate the essence of a character to readers.

I’ve gone over this before (see: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy and 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective) but what I want to talk about today is a bit different: 10 ways writers can communicate the essence of a character to readers.

But, before I get to the 10 ways, let’s take a look at direct vs indirect characterization.

Direct or Explicit Characterization

In direct characterization you, the writer, tell the audience—your readers—what a character is like.

This telling can be done in a number of ways: through the narrator, through another character or through the character themselves (see Characterization)

a. The Narrator

Example: Even though Johnny was 6’3’’ tall and had flaming red hair he was rarely noticed.
Here the narrator tells us what Johnny is like. Note: The narrator could be unreliable, so even in direct narration a reader can’t just take what they read at face value.

b. Another Character

Example: Dan said, “Hey, Sue! Have you seen Johnny? He’s tall, and with that head of red hair you’d think he’d be easy to spot. Not so much!”
Here a character in the story lets us know what Johnny is like. Generally these descriptions reflect the (possibly inaccurate) beliefs of the character who is speaking.

c. The Character Themselves

Example: I said, “Mark, I don’t understand it. All my life I’ve stood a head taller than all my friends. And I have this blazing red hair. You’d think I’d be easy to spot, but my parents lost me 63 times before I turned 9. I seem to be uniquely forgettable!”
Here the character themselves tells you the reader about what they’re like. That is, it is their INTENTION to tell you something about themselves. This isn’t necessarily so for indirect characterization.

Indirect/Implicit Characterization

In indirect characterization you let your audience infer what a particular character is like through ...

1. A physical description of the character.

In what follows I’m going to rely on quotations from Stephen King’s work because he is one of the authors I’ve studied the most.

What does the character look like?

This is the second paragraph in Stephen King's The Shining:
Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.
This is an amazing paragraph! It not only tells us what Ullman looks like (so, strictly speaking, this is direct characterization), but INDIRECTLY the narrator tells us about Jack Torrance, about his anger, his insecurity, his feelings of inferiority. (see: Free Indirect Discourse)

How does the character dress?

Again, from THE SHINING:
The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer.
Direct characterization: We’re told Ullman is wearing a dark suit.
Indirect characterization: Ullman is condescending.

2. A psychological description of the character.

This is from Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King:
Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand, sits down in the La-Z-Boy, and puts the can down on the little table to his left, next to the gun. It’s a .38 Smith & Wesson M&P revolver, M&P standing for Military and Police. He pats it absently, the way you’d pat an old dog...
From this I understand that Hodges is the kind of man who knows how to use a gun, has used one in the past to good effect, and feels he may need to do the same in the future. Although it’s only two and a half sentences, it gives a clear vision of one element of Hodges psychology.

3. The words a character uses.

Here is something Ullman said in “The Shining.” He’s speaking to Jack:
I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?
A couple of things: One has the feeling Ullman doesn’t approve of whisky and especially not CHEAP whisky. Also, it seems slightly hostile—patronizingly superior—that Ullman would ask Jack (who he knows used to be a teacher) if he knew the term “cabin fever.”

Also, I know we’re going to cover this explicitly in a minute, but look at HOW Ullman talks. Like a textbook. Controlled. A teacher doling out his wisdom.

4. The WAY the character talks. Through their accent, intonation, confidence level, speech impediments, and so on.

This is from Under the Dome, by Stephen King:
“I don’t know how to describe it. I never seen anything quite like it.” Gendron paused, scratching both cheeks, drawing his already long face down so he looked a little like the screamer in that Edvard Munch painting. “Yes I have. Once. Sorta. When I brought home a couple of goldfish for my daughter’s sixth birthday. Or maybe she was seven that year. I brought em home from the pet store in a plastic bag, and that’s what this looks like—water in the bottom of a plastic bag.
Notice the short sentences, the (relatively) simple, short, words. The speech has rhythm. Also, notice the speech is intentionally not grammatical (“I never seen anything...”). It communicates an image, a definite idea, of what the speaker is like. (Ullman would never, in a 1,000 years, say anything remotely like this!)

5. The character’s actions, what the character does.

From Misery by Stephen King:
“He lay back, looking at the ceiling, listening to the wind. He was near the top of the Great Divide in the heart of winter, he was with a woman who was not right in her head, a woman who had fed him with IV drips when he was unconscious, a woman who had an apparently never-ending supply of dope, a woman who had told no one he was here.
“These things were important, but he began to realize that something else was more important: the tide was going out again. He began to wait for the sound of her alarm clock upstairs. It would not go off for some long while yet, but it was time for him to start waiting for it to be time.
“She was crazy but he needed her.
“Oh I am in so much trouble he thought, and stared blindly up at the ceiling as the droplets of sweat began to gather on his forehead again.”
Here Paul Sheldon doesn’t DO anything terribly exciting, but through his thoughts we see his situation. We see—we FEEL—how truly desperate, truly awful, a situation he finds himself in. Here it isn’t what he does but what he doesn’t do, what he can’t do. He is the powerless captive of a mentally unbalanced woman. Not good!

But look at how Paul reacts to the realization of his dire situation. He is almost preternaturally calm. Yes, the sweat begins to bead on his forehead but part of that is because he’s in withdrawal from the opiates Annie Wilkes has been giving him.

6. What other characters say about him or her.

This is from “It” by Stephen King:
“Please, I got to talk to my mother,” Steve Dubay said for the third time. “I’ve got to get her to mellow out my stepfather, or there is going to be one hell of a punching-match when I get home.”
This short paragraph paints a grisly picture of Steve Dubay’s home life. We come to understand the violence of his father and his mother’s grudging acceptance of it, but we infer this. It’s never explicitly stated.

7. The character’s reactions to others, his or her behavior toward others.

Enough Stephen King quotes! That said, if anyone would like to send me a passage that nicely illustrates the below (it doesn’t have to be from a Stephen King novel!), please share it in a comment.

  • How does the character react to the people he/she works with.
  • How does the character react to his/her friends?
  • Think about the differences between how the character behaves toward these different groups: family, friends and acquaintances.

For example, if the character doesn’t feel safe visiting her family she is going to act differently than when she hangs out with her friends.

8. The character’s thoughts.

What are the character’s thoughts? Are they markedly different from what he says? Does the character lie to himself or just to others?

I know I said “No more Stephen King quotes!” but my favorite first line, ever, is from Stephen King’s The Shining: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

That sums up Jack Torrence and his anger, his bitterness. It gives us the character’s essence.

9. The character’s feelings.

What is the character feeling? Is what they are feeling consistent with how they are behaving? Are they in denial or trying to cover something up? Is how they are feeling consistent with what they are saying?

There is no right or wrong here. If what a character is feeling is consistent with how they act and what they say, fine! That communicates that the character is generally honest. A straight-shooter. But if it isn’t consistent, if she is sad or angry and not letting on, then that is conflict, and conflict is the awesome-sauce of life—at least in stories!

10.  The character’s environment.

Does the character have a lair, a place they go to recharge and feel safe? If so, how does the character react to their lair? How do they act here? Do they act differently than elsewhere (e.g., their work)? How do they feel? Is how they feel and how they act at variance.

(Is there art on the walls? Are there antiques or is everything new? Etc.)

How does the character react to the place where they work? Do they act differently than elsewhere? If so, in what way?

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Jim Butcher, author of the New York Times Best Selling series, the Dresden Files has given his wholehearted recommendation to The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. She taught him back in the day and he credits her with helping him succeed. He writes:

“So, aspiring writer, let me do you the favor I wish someone had done me. Shut up and do what Debbie tells you to do.”

I’ve read it and it’s wonderful! It’s geared toward writing either a traditional or urban fantasy, but the general structure she talks about is broadly applicable to any genre. In any case, highly recommended!

Monday, May 8

The Detective’s Sidekick: 3 Character Types

The Detective’s Sidekick: 3 Character Types

This post on how to create a sidekick for your detective is part of my How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery series.

Today I’m going to talk about three character types: The Brawn, the Heart, and the Fish out of Water. Let’s go over each of these.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

3 Character Types for the Detective’s Sidekick

I’m not saying that the detective’s sidekick needs to be one of these character types! These are just common types I’ve come across often enough that I thought I’d mention them in the context of creating a sidekick for your detective.

1. The Brawn

This character fights for the protagonist out of loyalty EVEN THOUGH he may not agree with the detective’s goals or the desirability of the consequences of the detectives actions.

Compare this with The Heart (see below), a character who won’t fight with the protagonist UNLESS she thinks the consequences of the detective’s actions is ethically sound.

Function: The Brawn character will get the job done without a lot of fussing over whether the actions the detective requires are ethical.

Drawback: If not enough attention is paid to the possible ramifications of the detective’s actions either or both characters could seem as shallow.

Examples: Arthur Hastings, John Watson, and Sergeant Troy.

2. The Heart

The Heart character is all about ethics and the endgame (as such, she’s the opposite of The Brawn). She WILL NOT do anything she believes will have ethically adverse consequences. But this doesn’t mean she’s disloyal. The Heart would sacrifice herself for the detective.

Function: The Heart character forces the detective to face the possible consequences of his actions.

Drawback: If too much emphasis is put on whether the detective’s actions are ethical, attention might shift away from the core story which is WHO committed the crimes and HOW they did it.

Examples: Xander and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who’s human companion, and Kaylee on Firefly.

3. Fish out of Water

There are many ways a character can be a fish out of water. They can find themselves in a different cultural setting, they could wander into a society where people have supernatural abilities, they could radically change their social status or they could travel in time. Just to name a few possibilities!

The fish out of water often plays up the comedic elements of the mismatch. Because of their radical change of circumstances the fish out of water is often lost, lonely. On the bright side, in protecting the sidekick the detective often learns something about himself.

Function: The fish out of water character gives the detective someone to protect, someone to steer through the complexities of their new environment. Also, helping the fish out of water can allow the detective to grow as a person.

Drawback: At some point the fish out of water must become accustomed to her new situation and this has to happen within a reasonable amount of time.

Examples: Castiel in Supernatural, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Teal'c in Stargate SG-1, and Simon Tam (the doctor) on Firefly.

Tomorrow I’m going to take a break from my series, How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery, and talk about 10 Ways to Build a Better Character.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a choose your own adventure (CYOA) book: Choose Your Own Story: The Minecraft Zombie Adventure, by John Diary. At the time I’m writing this, the ebook is on sale for $0.75!

From the blurb: “You wake up as a zombie, in the world of Minecraft! You can only make weird grumbly growl noises and hold your hands right out in front of your face! How did this happen?! Will you try to get home? Or are you enjoying scaring all the puny players? It's all up to you in this Choose Your Own Story book. You get to decide how the story goes, so it will be the most exciting story ever!”

Saturday, May 6

Make Your Sidekick Unique and Memorable: 5 Tags and Traits of the Sidekick

Make Your Sidekick Unique and Memorable: 5 Tags and Traits of the Sidekick

Yesterday we looked at the function of the sidekick in a murder mystery. Today I want to look at the sidekicks tag’s and traits, characteristics that go to the core of who the sidekick is, that are especially revealing of their personality, their fictional soul.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

1. Achilles heel. 

Sidekicks often have a foible or defect that has a comedic element. Sometimes they have zany theories, sometimes they have the opposite—a stanch refusal to accept certain kinds of explanations. Or they may have blindspots. Often a blind spot manifests as an obsession. For instance, Captain Hasting’s weakness for pretty auburn haired women. He would believe anything they told him, no matter how outlandish.

a) Zany theories. 

The sidekick has all sorts of wacky theories about the crime. Generally the detective indulges him unless he’s in a hurry or the idea is exceptionally ridiculous. Often the sidekick is oblivious to this flaw in themselves but sensitive to it in others.

For example, Constable George Crabtree on Murdoch Mysteries. George will think the culprits are little green aliens from Mars before a simpler and much more plausible explanation. It’s a bit like the Agent Scully trope in reverse. With Dana Scully from The X-Files, instead of refusing to accept the much simpler ‘alternative’ explanation, she stuck to her scientific guns even if that meant championing a bizarre explanation.

b) Has a blind spot. 

The sidekick often has a quirk that prevents him from recognizing certain sorts of deception. For example, Hastings was easily charmed by pretty auburn haired women. Because of this blind spot he was fooled into bringing false information to Hercule Poirot.

Poirot often chided Hastings’ for this particular weakness and his susceptibility to the charms of auburn haired women became a running gag.

You can see how a character’s blindspot can be valuable to a writer. The detective must have a major setback and, since he’s the hero of the story, we often don’t want him to be the sole cause of the setback. The sidekick’s blindspot can be used to slip him false information.

Possible blind spots: Age (even though I’m 40 I can pass for 20), fitness level (even though I haven’t worked out in a few months, I’m still in top physical condition), or weakness for a particular characteristic such a red hair or Lululemon workout clothes.

2. Intellectually average. 

a) The detective’s sidekick is usually not as intelligent as the detective. 

As we saw yesterday, having a sidekick who is intellectually average helps establish how brilliant the detective is. The sidekick is often teased by the detective for not being on his intellectual level, for not being able to see connections between clues, connections the detective feels are obvious. This adds another dimension to their relationship and helps the reader identify with your characters.

b) The sidekick, by being more intellectually similar to the murderer than the detective, can give the detective a peek into the murderer’s mind.

For example, Hastings was an enormous advantage to Poirot (or so the detective felt) because most murderers are (at least when compared to Poirot) of average intelligence. By listening to Hastings Poirot was able to understand how Hastings was being fooled. This was the effect. Having understood the effect it was easier for Poirot to work his way back to the cause: the murderer’s own thought processes. In a sense, Hastings was Poirot’s window into the murderer’s mind.

3. Virtuous. 

The overwhelming majority of sidekicks have at least one classical virtue—bravery, loyalty, honesty, integrity, decency, and so on—that endears him to the detective and (more importantly!) to readers.

For example, Arthur Hastings was brave and loyal and scrupulously honest. Poirot—while brave and loyal was far from scrupulously honest, at least when it came to solving a case! Hastings’ naively honest approach to life contrasts nicely with Poirot’s more utilitarian view of the appropriateness of telling the truth.

4. Has a conscience. 

Often the sidekick is a kind of Jiminy Cricket character, reminding your sleuth of what the average person would say or feel about what the detective is doing or how they’re doing it.

(See: The Conscience over at tvtropes.org)

That said, whether the detective has a strong conscience will depend on what the detective is like. Since the sidekick is the detective’s foil, whether they are The Conscience will depend on the detective. If the detective is highly ethical then the sidekick won’t be and vice versa.

For example, in Peril at End House, Hastings scolds Poirot for reading the love letters Michael Seton sent to Maggie. Poirot ignores Hastings’ objections and even gets Hastings to help read them! (Evidence that Hastings was patterned after the character type of the Brute. I’ll talk about character types in my next post.)

5. Skeptical. 

Sidekicks are often skeptical. Why?

a) The sidekick reflects the reader's skepticism. 

Part of the sidekick’s role is to represent the reader, to reflect how they would react in any particular situation.

Imagine meeting Sherlock Holmes in real life. How would you react if someone glanced at you and, from only the information gleaned from that one glance, told you all about yourself?

Personally I wouldn’t believe it! My first thought would be: Where’d he hide the cameras?! After all, how could someone know EVERYTHING about me without observing my day-to-day activities? If that’s what you, the writer, thinks/feels in that sort of situation then that’s what the sidekick needs to think/feel.

b) The writer needs a reason for the detective to explain their methods.

Another reason sidekicks are skeptical is the writer needs a reason for the detective to explain something. This CAN seem artificial or very natural—it just depends how it’s done.

Here’s a question I ask myself: Is the reader so curious that she WANTS TO KNOW how the detective works his magic? I think that’s the key. If the reader WANTS to know how the detective reached a certain conclusion then, sure, make the sidekick skeptical and nag the detective to explain his methods. That way, when the detective eventually does disclose how he reached a particular conclusion, it seems natural.

My rule of thumb is this: Make the detective’s deduction as extreme, as miraculous, as possible without shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

How do you know if you’ve gone too far, made the detective’s abilities too exaggerated, made the explanation of his deductions too baroque? Easy! Show your story—or even just that scene—to beta readers. Further, make sure your beta readers love to read the kind of murder mystery you’ve written.

Note: You could make your sidekick’s radical skepticism a blind spot in which case, no matter how outlandish the detective’s theory, readers might be more inclined to accept it.

“The Agent Scully is a sci-fi/fantasy character who insists that events can be interpreted according to mundane explanations,” no matter how far-fetched these ‘mundane explanations’ were! (TvTropes.org/AgentScully)

 c) Balance.

Imagine Mulder without Scully or Scully without Mulder. I loved the X-Files. The characters were addictive, but I think Mulder would seem like a complete lunatic without Scully and Scully would seem illogically intractable without Mulder. They balance each other.

The more ‘out there’ your detective, the more fanciful his theories, the more grounded the sidekick needs to be.

Traits the sidekick shares with the detective

So far I’ve written about how the sidekick is a foil for the detective but there also needs to be characteristics the two share. After all, we don’t want the detective and sidekick to be COMPLETE opposites!

Excellent memory. Often both the detective and sidekick have an excellent memory. In part, this is because it’s easier for the writer; you don’t have to get them to write down everything, they can simply remember it.

Simple deductions. Often the detective’s sidekick notices more than the police. Over time, they may even begin making accurate deductions from what they saw. They won’t do this often, but it is one way to show the sidekick’s character development.

Ability to hold their own in a fight. Often the sidekick is more physically engaged than the detective and so are often better able to protect themselves as well as the detective. That said, often the detective can hold their own against the bad guys and gals hoping to bash their head in.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m sharing a link to the Lifelong Writing Habit: The Secret to Writing Every Day: Write Faster, Write Smarter, by Chris Fox. I believe that writing regularly is necessary for writing success! I know my writing improved after I began writing every single day.

That’s it for today! Tomorrow I’ll wrap up talking about creating a sidekick for your detective and actual create one! As before, I’m not going into this with any pre-defined notions, I’ll just begin the creative process and see what I get! To be honest, this is my favorite part of writing.

Friday, May 5

6 Ways a Sidekick Can Enhance Your Story

6 Ways a Sidekick Can Enhance Your Story

Today I continue my series: How to Write a Murder Mystery.

Last time we started looking at how to create the perfect sidekick for your detective. Today I’m going to expand on that material.

Yesterday we saw that one of the sidekick's functions is to be a foil for the detective. In what follows I look at specific aspects of this and explore how to tailor him to your detective.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

6 Ways the Sidekick Enhances the Story

What are the functions of the detective's sidekick?

1. A way to give the reader information.

The sidekick is someone the detective can share his ideas with, someone he can talk to. Also, since the sidekick isn’t as smart as the detective, not as quick on the uptake, she is someone the detective can explain things to and, in so doing, reveal them to the reader.

2. A way to extend the capabilities of the detective.

The sidekick is able to give the detective information he wouldn’t be able to get for himself. Perhaps she has skills the detective lacks or simply doesn’t wish to acquire (eg, social skills). Often the sidekick is better than the detective at one thing (eg, ferreting out information).

PHYSICAL PROWESS. Perhaps the sidekick has served in the military and so knows about weapons and how to use them in a fight. Or perhaps she knows martial arts. Perhaps this is part of the sidekick’s backstory. Someone the sidekick cared about was attacked and she had been powerless to defend them. As a result the sidekick became an expert in self-defense and made sure that would never happen again.

Examples: Arthur Hastings, John Watson, the police officers Miss Marple teams up with and the various sidekicks DCI Barnaby has had with over the years.

TECHNICAL PROWESS. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s such a common skill for the sidekick that I thought it deserved its own point. Often the detective—perhaps because of time pressure or even disinterest—doesn’t wish to become a world-class hacker but likes having one on call.

Examples: Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bobby Singer from Supernatural, the playful hacker trope, and Mycroft from Sherlock to name only a few.

3. A link to your reader: audience surrogate.

The detective’s sidekick is often an AUDIENCE SURROGATE. TvTropes.org says it best:

“The Watson is the character whose job it is to ask questions the audience must be asking and let other characters explain what’s going on.” (tvtropes.org/TheWatson)

There’s two things here:

a) The sidekick asks the questions the reader wants to ask.
b) The sidekick does the things the reader would do, she responds to other characters in ways the reader would.

Examples: The first point is self-explanatory. As for the second, think of Sherlock from the TV show of the same name. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t act or react like a normal person but John Watson does. Watson provides the contrast. Without Watson, Holmes wouldn’t seem as extraordinary.

4. The sidekick often gives the detective the ah-ha clue.

The sidekick often gives the detective what I like to call the ah-ha clue, the clue that gets the detective to think about the evidence in a new way and, in so doing, realizes who the murderer is.

Examples: The ah-ha clue doesn’t actually have to be anything related to the case. For example, in Peril at End House, Hastings and Miss Lemon (this is the TV adaptation) give P the ah-ha clue when they talk about what nicknames come from which given names.

5. The sidekick can nudge the reader.

Often the sidekick will, unwittingly, make an observation that doesn’t seem to help the detective (perhaps it could have helped the detective IF he had taken notice) but is a hint to the reader. It foreshadows a realization the detective will have down the line. Other times the nudge comes from both the detective and his sidekick.

Examples: In The ABC Murders Arthur Hastings suggests that a particular clue was a red herring but the other characters brush him off.

6. The sidekick’s stability is opposite that of the detective.

If the detective is tortured or a bit unstable at times, the sidekick is often a vision of stability.

Examples: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Mr. Monk and Natalie Teeger.

On the other hand, if the detective is a vision of wisdom and stability, the sidekick is often a bit of a mess.

Examples: DCI Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy, Detective William Murdoch and Constable Henry Higgins (Higgins isn’t Murdoch’s usual sidekick, but when he is, this is the dynamic).

That's it for today! Tomorrow we'll look at possible tags and traits for the sidekick. Till then, good writing!

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending one of my favorite adaptations of Agatha Christie's novel, Dumb Witness. (David Suchet plays Poirot.)

From the blurb: "Miss Emily was old, rich, and afraid—and now, she's dead. ... All that's left is a house full of greedy heirs, and a very strange letter that could solve the mystery—or add to it."

Thursday, May 4

Tips for Creating the Perfect Sidekick for Your Detective, Part 1 of 2

Tips for Creating the Perfect Sidekick for Your Detective, Part 1 of 2

Let’s talk about the detective’s sidekick!

In this post I’m going to begin talking about the general and specific functions of the sidekick in a murder mystery.

After we’re done with the theory I’ll step through the creation of a sidekick for the murder mystery we’ve been outlining: Murder in Meadowmead.

Let’s get started!

(This post is part of a series: Writing a Murder Mystery.)

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

What is the general function of the detective’s sidekick in a murder mystery?

That's easy! The function of the sidekick in a murder mystery is to be the detective’s foil.
“The word 'foil' comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil in order to make them shine more brightly.” (Wikipedia) 
As you’ll recall, a foil is a character designed to stand in stark contrast to the detective for the purpose of highlighting the detective’s tags and traits, his peculiar qualities. That’s one thing.

Another (closely related) function is to make the detective seem interesting by way of contrast.

For instance, to show that my detective is intelligent I’ll need to put him in a scene with a character who isn’t as intelligent as him. And, yes, that’s why The Watson is generally not very bright! Also, though, this process is interesting in and of itself. The process, the comparison, increases reader's interest in the characters.

Relational Qualities

Many—most!—tags and traits are relative. For example, Sherlock is brilliant compared to John Watson, but average when compared to Mycroft. Another way of saying this is that when Sherlock is with Mycroft HE becomes the Watson!

The rule of thumb is that to show your character’s beauty, intelligence, compassion, and so on, you need to compare and contrast that quality across characters. For example, take intelligence. If you have three characters in a scene, one could be brilliant, one could be average and one could be a few fries short of a happy meal.

Or if you have at least two characters in a scene and one of them is a cynic, to SHOW they’re a cynic make sure one of the other characters is an optimist. But don’t stop there! Create the scene so that these qualities are brought to the fore. Cast them as antagonist and protagonist and give them each diametrically opposed goals—a dilemma, a problem—that will bring out the one’s optimism and the other’s pessimism. (Or you could go positively baroque and put all four types in the scene: the cynic, the realist, the optimist and the apathetic!)

A Scene Outline

I'll talk more about scenes and story structure in another post, but here's a short example.

Say you have two politicians. One has seen it all, he’s jaded, while the other is a newcomer full of optimism, full of hope. One is a pessimist, the other an optimist.

Now give them diametrically opposed goals. This means that although they both could fail to achieve their respective goals, if one of them does the other can’t.

For instance, let’s say the newcomer wants open government and the pessimist wants the opposite (I’m drawing from Yes Minister!). So that’s the GENERAL GOAL. (The general desire would be to have the best government possible, a desire they both share—they just have very different ideas about what that would look like).

Specifically, let’s say that during the party’s campaign the newcomer promised to only buy computer parts from domestic wholesalers but he discovers his party has placed a major order for computer parts from a foreign country.

The newcomer believes he is ethically bound to make the public aware of this illicit deal. The cynic says the newcomer doesn’t know the larger political context of the deal and he shouldn’t release any information until he’s looked into it. The newcomer disagrees and, before he understands the stakes, releases the information.

Scene Analysis

In this example, what are the stakes? This is the key to the scene.

The newcomer, for all his optimism, doesn’t have a realistic view of the stakes. It will turn out that this entire situation, this crisis, has been manufactured by the cynic to SHOW the newcomer the realities of politics, to show him the personal (and not just the political) stakes. Now you’re off to the races!

Granted, this particular example didn’t use a sidekick, but when your detective and sidekick are in a scene together locking horns they are acting as protagonist and antagonist within that scene.

That’s it for today! Tomorrow, Friday, I want to finish talking about the functions of the sidekick in a murder mystery. On Monday we’ll go back to creating our outline and flesh out a sidekick.

Till then, good writing!

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book every writer needs to read at least once. I try to reread it every year! I’m talking about Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark.

From the blurb: “Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America's most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing. In the past decade, Writing Tools has become a classic guidebook for novices and experts alike and remains one of the best loved books on writing available.”