Thursday, April 27

Let's Make a Detective!

Let's Make a Detective!

Let’s create a detective!

This post is part of my Let’s Write a Murder Mystery! series. In my last post I wrote about the theory behind creating a detective, now it’s time to actually create the character.

Since the detective is SO important to our story, I’m going to split this discussion into two. In this post we’re going to brainstorm and grope our way toward our character. In the next post, we’ll build on the work we do here.

Keep in mind that I don’t have anything planned, no notion of what this detective is going to be like. So, let’s dive in and think about what kind of detective we want to create.

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

The First Step

The key to creating a realistic character is to rummage about within yourself—your own desires, hopes, fears, motivations and deep dark secrets—to find something you can bestow on your character, something you can infuse into them. It’s a little bit like how, in the Christian New Testament, God breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living soul.

Or, to use another analogy, creating a character is like using a starter culture to make yogurt. Yes, I’ve started making my own yogurt! How? By taking a tablespoon of yogurt containing an active culture (I use Activia yogurt), putting it in scalded milk that has been cooled to an appropriate temperature, and leaving the concoction in a warm place for 5 hours. That’s it!

I think something similar needs to happen for a character to come alive. Characters with depth aren’t randomly created, they are CULTURED. They are grown from bits of us, from our memories, dreams, desires, mistakes, goals, failures and successes. They are grown from those bits of our soul we choose to give them.

In what follows, I invite you to look inward. Answer these questions by looking into yourself at different angles, by daydreaming. Let your mind wander.

What is your detective’s name?

Don’t worry if your detective’s name doesn’t come to you right away. I find it’s the LAST thing that comes to me! And I’m not alone.

I talked about exaggeration in my last post. I find the most memorable names are often the most exaggerated.

For example, take the name Aloysius Pendergast. That is NOT a common name. It’s distinctive. As distinctive as the character himself: rail thin with blond-white hair, an accent hailing from the deep south, and charming old world manners.

Of course not all detectives have distinctive names (though Poirot does and, arguably, he’s still the most popular detective ever created!) But it is something to think about.

On a more practical level, google “baby names” and visit one or two of the sites listed. You don’t have to use any of the suggestions but it might spark an idea. Also, if you use Scrivener, you have a name generator. Just go to “Edit > Writing Tools > Name Generator” and there it is!

Start the Culture: Think about your favorite detectives.

Ideas aren’t born in a vacuum. We learn by studying the work of other writers, we learn by studying what has inspired us. So! Let’s study our favorite detectives. We’ll end up throwing various tags and traits into a crucible and (hopefully) transforming them into a detective of our very own.

My favorite detectives are Sherlock Holmes (especially as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), Hercules Poirot and Lieutenant Columbo. What are yours? Try to think of at least two.

Question: Who are your favorite detectives? What especially appeals to you about each? What is EXCITING or memorable about them?

I find it helps to reread the book your favorite detective was first introduced in since this is likely where the author spent a lot of time establishing the character.

In what follows I try to answer these questions for my own favorite detectives:

Sherlock Holmes

In a sense, Sherlock Holmes (and here I’m referring to Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes) is upside down. Whatever normal human reaction you’d expect from him, he gives you the opposite. This is from The Study in Pink:

Watson (to Holmes): A place like this must be expensive.
Holmes: Not really. I know the landlady, Mrs. Hudson. She owes me a favor. A few years back, her husband was sentenced to death in Florida. I was able to help out.
Watson: You stopped her husband from being executed?
Holmes: Oh, no, I ensured it.

This nicely establishes a couple of things. First, that Mrs. Hudson isn’t exactly what she seems, but it does the same for Sherlock. They are definitely characters from the Special World of the Adventure (i.e, inside out and upside down).

What stands out:
- Behavior: odd, quirky, surprising. Holmes says things that subvert one’s expectations.
- Distinctive overcoat (The Belstaff 'Milford' Coat).
- Deerstalker cap.
- Rumpled hair.
- Plays violin.
- Keeps decaying body parts in an otherwise empty fridge.
- Tends to use the walls for target practice.

Hercules Poirot

Poirot isn’t as dramatic as Sherlock, but his reveals ARE exciting. The key to Poirot’s drama, the key to his power, is TRUTH. He knows the truth. Sure, people have tried to deceive him, they may have laughed at him behind his back because of his antiquated clothes and manners, because of his accent, but at the reveal Poirot is King. This is HIS domain. Sure, the suspects tried their little deceptions, but now they are in HIS domain and he demands respect.

Uncovering the truth is Poirot’s superpower. It’s what he does and (in his fictional world) NO ONE is better at it.

What stands out:
- If Poirot had a tagline it would be: I do not approve of murder.
- His accent. How he makes himself seem more foreign to encourage folks to underestimate him.
- Poirot is almost always slightly overdressed.
- Patent leather boots.
- Cane.
- Pince-nez.
- a lapel vase with a boutonniere (a Tussie Mussie or “amphora”).
- Poirot does not appreciate the charms of the country.
- Poirot does not play physically exerting sports.


I love it that Columbo appears rumply and unimpressive, unintimidating. In Dead Weight one of the character’s called him an unmade bed.

As a result the murderer usually underestimates him and lets his or her guard down. By the time they realize Columbo is crazy like a fox it’s too late. He’s got all the evidence he needs to arrest them.

What stands out:
- Rumpled beige raincoat.
- Cheap suit.
- Needs coffee in the morning, will drink it in any state even if it’s stale, black and cold.
- Columbo always has to pat down his coat because he can’t find his pen/cigar/match/unpeeled egg. If he can’t find something he will ask those around him until he finds it even if this makes him seem like a lunatic!
- Columbo smokes a very stinky cigar and is often told to put it out or take it away.
- In a few episodes Columbo’s boss says, “I knew you weren’t listening,” when they’re both at a crime scene together.
- Columbo often whistles “This Old Man.”
- Columbo’s car almost always has something wrong with it but the detective thinks it’s the best car ever.
- Flusters suspects by not acting how they expect him to.
- Columbo is fluent in Italian and a good cook.
- Columbo's dog is named "Dog."

I’m curious, which detectives did you pick? What are their three most compelling traits?

Your detective, a first look

Think of your detective. He or she is surrounded by mist. You can’t see them, you can only make out a shape, a silhouette. What does it look like?

Now the mist is clearing, they’re walking toward you. How are they walking? What is their gait like? Is he or she limping? Are they young or old, male or female? Don’t think too hard about it, just see it. What kind of clothes are they wearing? Formal evening wear? Casual wear? Workout clothes? What are they saying? Are they speaking to you? Can you hear their thoughts? Can you feel their emotions?

Write down what you’ve discovered about your character.

(If nothing has come through, I’ve included a character creation exercise at the end of this post.)

I find the process of character creation is different each time. One just needs to keep at it, approach the character from different directions and, eventually, you’ll ‘see’ them, they’ll come to you. As I mentioned, often the key is to put a bit of yourself into the character. Not ALL of yourself, but a part. An aspect. Sometimes this means that your detective will share your gender, sometimes not.

One thing I’m struggling with is whether to make my detective male or female. The outline I’m creating will be for a murder mystery that’s a cross between a traditional detective story with elements of a cozy and, from my experience, those sorts of books generally have a female detective.

On the other hand, all three of my example detectives are male. And, for some reason, it FEELS as though he’s male.

So that’s something! Let’s say that he’s male and in his 30s.

How does your detective dress?

I see him in a black coat, something like what Neo wore in the Matrix but the bottom of the coat is more fitted. He wears jeans. New jeans. They aren't worn or scuffed. And a white shirt or maybe a white t-shirt. Not sure which it is at the moment.

He’s wearing black shoes and black leather gloves.

I’m seeing him how, at least a little bit. It’s a white shirt, not a t-shirt.

I thought he would be  more like Columbo, but he’s not. He’s particular about his appearance, especially his hair. It’s collar length and curly. As for color, it’s not black, but VERY deep brown.

What does your detective do for work?

At the moment, I’m not sure how much money my detective makes or what he does for a living. And that’s okay. It’s still early days. But let’s see if I can’t peer into the fog and see my character a bit more clearly.

I want this traditional murder mystery to be a bit like a cozy so perhaps he should own a business.

The rumor is that he used to be a stockbroker (or perhaps a banker) in London but left under mysterious circumstances. It’s difficult to know what his previous life was like, he refuses to talk about it and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

As for the town, it lies somewhere in upstate New York. Currently, our detective only lives there during the summer months.

I still have no idea what kind of business he runs. During the Winter months he ... I’m not sure. Perhaps he travels. Perhaps he visits a monastery and meditates with the monks.

I think the detective is attracted to the mystical. Perhaps he has been influenced by certain ancient teachings. Perhaps his daily routine (meditations, etc.) have helped him locked the latent powers of his mind (cue Twilight Zone).

What is the detective’s business? Hmm ... Let’s see ... The murderer, Lydia, owns a large beer company that’s on the verge of bankruptcy. We want to contrast the detective and antagonist. I’m not sure it will be HIS business, but I could see him selling amaranth. Just up from where I live there’s a restaurant that specializes in pairing Amaranth with food. I’ve never been, but I love that idea. Amaranth and fine dying. (lol. I meant to write “dining” but it came out “dying”! Perhaps I’ll keep that in the back of my mind as a possible title. Perhaps “Murder and Fine Dying,” “Absinthe and Fine Dying”, “Fine Dying in Meadowmead”? Okay, perhaps not!)

Tentatively, I’ll say the detective owns a restaurant called Absinthe Cafe. The focus is on pairing exotic drinks with delicious food. The food is moderately priced and a good deal for what one gets.

Where does your detective live? What does his lair look like?

Here I’m thinking about Exotic Setting (see the last post).

Now that we know a bit more about the detective, this is easy: he lives above his restaurant! It’s a bit unusual, so that’s good. It’s memorable and it certainly ties in with the character’s occupation!

What’s exotic or unusual about the town? I like the idea of having a festival the town is organized around. For example, in their tip of the hat to Twin Peaks, Psych did a Cinnamon Festival episode.

Cupcake festival! It turns out that cupcakes are the detective’s favorite things in the entire world, a bit like Dean Winchester on Supernatural likes pie. At the moment he is passionate about chocolate cupcakes (the ones with sprinkles on top).

(Or perhaps it’s a chocolate festival. That way I could include interesting, quirky, recipes such as chocolate chili. The detective has a killer chocolate chili cupcake recipe!)

How does the detective’s work and digs add to her memorability? 

Gah! I’m writing “her” now. I didn’t mean to. Perhaps I’ll leave the door open to the possibility the detective is female.

In any case, how does the detective's work and accommodations affect his memorability?

I’m drawing a blank. Let’s approach this from another direction. How did Poirot’s apartment help make him memorable?

Order and method. How Poirot ARRANGED things in his apartment said something about his character, about how his mind worked. The modern, geometrical, art on the walls. The art is a prop, it gives Hastings a reason to ask, “Oh! Say that’s new, eh.” He cocks his head to the side, blinks, turns it to the other side. Poirot smiles, comes over, and enthusiastically explains the virtue of the straight lines and the pristine curves.

I think I’m going to hate myself a little bit, but I’m going to make the detective a neat freak. I’m thinking of Monica on the TV show, Friends. I’m going to give him my mother’s favorite expression: A place for everything and everything in its place. This is going to be one of the detective’s more irritating qualities.

I suppose I need to take my own advice and make the detectives predilection for order EXTREME. So—despite what I just said about ‘having a place for everything’—I have to go one of two ways: disorder or order.

Disorder. Columbo has a bit of the existentialist about him. Boundaries are artificial. This helps him escape the ordinary, false, conclusions that other, lesser, detectives settle on.

Order. But that expression, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” FEELS right. The detective is all about bringing order to chaos.

So we’re going for ORDER. That means I need to take the detective's neatness to an extreme, or at least make it memorable.

Now, I’ve said that the detective is attracted to the spiritual, the mystical. But he doesn’t follow any established religion, he has his own take on these things. He does not accept any one tradition whole hog, he picks a bit from this and that and weaves his own story.

So perhaps the order we’re talking about has to do with this mystical order.

“A place for everything and everything in its place” could have a double-meaning. It isn’t merely a matter of arbitrarily finding a place for something. Perhaps this ties into the idea of a memory palace. It isn’t that there is a preordained place for everything, but—given the way he has arranged his memory palace—there is. (Think Hannibal Lector or Pendergast.)

So not only will the detective’s lair tell us about his quirks, his tags and traits, it will tell us about his very MIND, perhaps even his soul (okay, maybe that last part is going a WEE bit over the top, but I’m leaving it in because it’s a little bit true).

That's it for today! In this post we:

  • Thought about what the detective's name will be.
  • Chose two or three detectives we can use as our own personal examples of what an awesome detective is like.
  • Glimpsed the detective for the first time.
  • Answered the question: How does your detective dress?
  • Figured out what the detective does for work, or—in the case of a cozy—what kind of business he owns.
  • Began developing the setting paying special attention to how the detective's work and home add to her memorability.

Next time we'll:

  • Finish choosing a name for the detective.
  • Develop a tagline.
  • Get a start on the detective's character sheet.
  • Look at how the detective is connected to the other characters.
  • Start developing the the setting, especially the town, the detective's home (his or her lair) and their work.
  • Determine the detective's characteristic action.
  • Explore the character's strength as well as their weakness.
  • Explore the character's psychological wound.
  • Explore the character's motivation and goal. 
  • Continue developing the character's backstory.
  • Clarify what the murderer and detective have in common.
  • Clarify the characteristics that make your detective awesome, the detective's special talent. What about your character is unique and interesting?
  • What is the detective's unique edge on the murderer? What is it about the detective that allows him or her to defeat the murderer at the end of the story?
  • What is the detective's hobby?

Update: Link to part 2 of 2: Let’s Make a Detective, Part 2 of 2

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: The Great Courses: Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. I listen to one of The Great Courses every couple of months or so. The presenters are top notice, the material is revelatory and it's easy to find a format that suits your needs. I prefer listening to audiobooks because it allows me to multitask as I walk to the store or do housework. Try one, you'll like it!

Writing Exercise

Your detective’s tags and traits:

Write down the names of two or three of your favorite fictional detectives. For each detective, write down as many of their tags and traits as you can. Now imagine the detective WITHOUT each of the tags/traits, alone or in combination. When you take away the tag/trait, are they still the same person? This exercise can help you figure out which tags/traits are the most important to the character’s identity.

Sunday, April 23

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective

This post is part of a series of articles on how to write a murder mystery. I plan to write an article about each character type: the murderer, the detective, the detective’s sidekick, the police representative, the first victim, the suspects, and the experts.

For the last couple of days we’ve been examining how to write a murderer your readers will love to hate (to see an index of these posts see How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery).

In my last post I said that, arguably, the murderer was the most important character in the story. That’s because it’s the antagonist that makes us root for the detective. After all, if the detective had no obstacles to overcome, if there was no pressure, no ticking clock, the story would be dull. Without the antagonist—the murderer—there would be no entertainment. No excitement. Why? Because the protagonist wouldn’t be TESTED. He wouldn’t be put through a crucible, be transformed and come out the other side with the tools, the ability, to solve the mystery.

The detective IS the most important character in a murder mystery because this is the character your reader needs to love, or at least love reading about. This is the character the reader needs to identify with (and, also, with the detective’s helper, but more on that later).

If you plan on writing the story from the first person perspective there are really only two choices for your viewpoint character: the detective or the detective’s sidekick. If you choose the detective then your readers will be even more likely to identify with the detective.

Keep in mind that in a murder mystery the main focus is on entertaining your reader. So let’s ask ourselves, what characteristics should the detective have to make folks love reading about him or her?

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

7 Characteristics Every Detective Should Have:

Everything in this post stems from this: THE DETECTIVE SHOULD BE MEMORABLE. Why? Because a memorable character has nearly all the needed characteristics of a lovable character. What is needed, in addition, is to SHOW the reader the kind of person the detective is, to expose their character. This is done mostly in sequels, but I’m not going to go over that today. Here we’re confining ourselves to characterization and setting.

I like examples, so let me list a few characters I think are memorable: Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot and Mr. Monk.

(For more about how to make memorable characters see: Crafting Interesting Characters.)

Most of the time, dramatic equates to memorable. We know drama when we see it, but what creates drama? What characteristics make a detective interesting?

7 Characteristics That Make a Detective Interesting

1. Exaggeration

A dramatic character is a memorable character. Think of Carrie from Stephen King’s story of the same name. Carrie White, a traumatized young girl, is pushed too far, snaps, and kills half her town. Carry isn't just telepathic, she's the most powerful telepath who ever existed!

That's extreme.

Or take Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher. Reacher is 6'5'' tall, has a 50-inch chest, and weighs about 250 pounds. He’s a physical wrecking machine.

That's extreme.

Mr. Monk is scared of a lot of things and some of these we can understand. It is a rare (and perhaps slightly odd) person who has never been the least scared of heights. But I don’t know anyone who is scared of the sheer number of things Mr. Monk is. They’re in the hundreds! But the key thing isn’t JUST that Monk is just scared of many things most normal folks aren’t (milk for instance!), it is that he is scared of them to an insane degree.

That’s extreme.

All of these characters are popular and, as you can see, quite memorable. While I can’t guarantee that any memorable character will be a popular character, I CAN guarantee that if your character ISN’T memorable they won’t be popular.

Why does exaggeration work? Two reasons:

a. Wish fulfillment.

Humans crave excitement. Most folks would rather read about a mercenary who is a 6'5'' mountain of man-muscle than about a man who makes a good wage, has 1.6 kids, takes a vacation a year and for whom a speeding ticket is a major event.

b. Exaggerated traits are memorable. 

An exaggerated, extreme, over-the-top trait captures one's imagination. It’s memorable.

As I’ve said, this quality of being memorable is critical. If your readers can’t remember your character they won’t ever feel emotionally attached to her. The more a reader remembers about the characters we create the better the chances are of them turning the page.

  • Without going overboard, think about what is exciting about your character? What characteristic of his makes you smile, what do you especially like about him?
  • Are your character’s tags and traits memorable? What makes them memorable?

2. Exotic Setting

Exotic setting, as the name suggests, has to do not only with the character but the PLACE/SETTING and the character’s OCCUPATION.

PLACE/SETTING. Instead of living in an unexceptional apartment on an unexceptional street in an unexceptional town give the character a living space that’s exotic. Of course what’s exotic to me may not be exotic to you so here the writer must be guided by their own tastes. (A trip to Hawaii would be exotic for me but not so much to folks who already live there!)

Batman had his Batcave, Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, Sherlock Holmes has 221b Baker Street, Lieutenant Columbo had his car, and Poirot had his (fastidiously arranged) London apartment.

  • Where does your detective live?
  • What is exotic about your detective’s lair?
  • What does your detective’s lair say about him? How does it do this? What characteristics make it representative of the detective?

OCCUPATION. All things being equal it's more interesting for a character to be a wizard or a CEO or even an archaeology professor than to be an ordinary dad or mom with an ordinary job.

Also, start thinking about what the setting is going to be for the Special World of the Adventure. An exotic resort? Small English Village? Plane in flight? Wherever you decide to place the lion’s share of the story keep in mind that the primary job of the setting is to CREATE CONFLICT and REVEAL CHARACTER.

(To read more about the Special World of the Adventure see: The Structure of Story)

  • If your detective isn’t a professional, what does she do for work? How does this add to her exoticness, to her memorability?
  • Where will the lion’s share of your story take place? How will this help to create conflict between the detective and his allies?
  • How will the setting reveal the detective’s character?

3. Active Introduction

What we do—how we behave—is just as much a part of who we are as how we dress or what we think. So it should come as no surprise that how we introduce a character has an enormous impact on the reader. How we introduce a character will go a long way to determining whether your reader will remember the character as well as HOW he or she will be remembered.

In the character’s active introduction you want to do something CHARACTERISTIC, UNIQUE and MEMORABLE.

a. Characteristic Introduction

We can make a character's introduction characteristic by using MEMORABLE tags and traits. Determine which tags and traits are most important to the telling of your story. These are the ones you want your readers to remember so these are the ones that should be showcased when introducing the character.

For example, think of ...

Columbo. He loves his shabby raincoat, can never find a pencil, and always lulls the murderer into a false sense of security. He always gets his man/woman.

Hercules Poirot. He has a very old-fashioned, exaggerated, mustache that he fusses over endlessly. He is fastidious. He dresses in a suit, the cut of which is outdated and old-fashioned. He appears (especially when he wants to) excessively foreign. And he is brilliant.

Mr. Monk. The man was scared of ... well, nearly everything. Even milk! He was a germaphobe. He had trouble leaving his home unattended. If even the smallest thing was out of place he obsessed over to the point he became paralyzed. And he was the best detective in the world because he noticed all those little things others didn’t. As Mr. Monk always said: It’s a gift ... and a curse.

You get the idea. In each of these cases there are a few characteristics that fix the character in your mind and, afterward, act to bring the character back to life in your imagination.

The trick is to take the character’s tags and traits and use them to introduce the character in a way the reader will remember. (I’ll have more to say about this later.)

A couple of things to keep in mind:


In order for an action to be characteristic it must be unique to the character. For example, if white-blond hair is one of a character's tags then no other character should have white-blond hair.

Similarly, if one of your character's tags is their beaten up leather jacket, then no other character should have a beaten up leather jacket. (That said, another of your characters could have a pristine leather jacket, this would help to compare and contrast the two people, who they are, their characters, their values.)


Although just about anything can serve as a tag, it needs to be memorable (something exaggerated, fun, or linked to a significant event in the character's life). So, for instance, Jim Butcher has made Harry Dresden's staff one of his tags, as well as his shield bracelet. Then, to make extra sure his readers will remember, he links these tags to significant events in the character's backstory.

  • What are your detective’s UNIQUE, MEMORABLE tags and traits?
  • How will you introduce the detective? How will you introduce him or her to your readers for the first time such that a) the introduction reflects the character’s essence and b) readers will remember them?

b. Characteristic Action

We've seen that each character should have a few memorable qualities which are captured by their tags and traits. We need to use the character's introduction to indelibly inscribe the essence of that character in our readers' minds. (No pressure or anything! This is why I HATE writing openings.)

All things being equal, the character should do something that only they can do, something that is exaggerated, over the top. Something that will allow the reader to grasp—and remember!—the essence of this character. Jim Butcher does this with his wizard, Harry Dresden.

In the 6th book of his awesome Dresden Files series, Blood Rites, Harry Dresden is in the midst of fighting monkey demons trying to save a litter of ... can you guess? That's right, puppies! Can it get cuter than that?! Talk about pulling one's heartstrings. The book is a terrific read even if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series.

If you haven't read Butcher's Harry Dresden novels, think James Bond. If you've never heard of James Bond, the opening sequence of the movie will tell you everything about him you need to know. Curvy young women wearing barely enough to clothe a toothpick swoon over him, he is suave, a skilled fighter, a stone cold killer and Britain’s last, best, hope.

In general, you want the reader to be able to think, afterward, "Yes, that was SO them." Like Harry Dresden nuking a huge demon-monkey in the opening pages of Jim Butcher's Blood Rites.

  • What are your detective’s characteristic actions? What could he/she do that would be both unique to them AND completely awesome?

4. True to Life: Verisimilitude

Unbelievable characters are boring characters.

So far we’ve focused on exaggeration to help us make our character’s traits, tags, and actions memorable. Now let’s make sure they’re believable.

As we make tags and traits more exaggerated we need to keep in mind that our character still needs to seem true to life or at least plausible. This is the difference between, say, DCI Tom Barnaby (from Midsomer Murders) and Superman. Superman requires a certain suspension of disbelief that Barnaby doesn’t. After all, Barnaby doesn’t have super-strength nor can he fly!

Part of how we make sure a character seems true to life EVEN THOUGH she has several exaggerated traits that lifts her above the mainstream is to show her emotions to the reader. And how does one do THIS? Two ways: Mini-sequels and (as I’ve already mentioned) tags and traits.


Don't worry about this too much right now, but the best way to give readers the sense that your character is a real person is to show the emotions, reactions and decisions that he has in response to, for example, a disastrous setback.

First, we need to show his EMOTIONAL reaction.

Second, we need to show how his emotion is followed by thought, by REFLECTION. We need to show him considering what occurred, trying to figure out what went wrong, what he should have done differently. Perhaps show him regretting his choices.

Third, we need to show him asking himself the question: "What now?" That is, spinning out various possible PLANS for future action.

Finally, the detective CONSIDERS the courses of action open to him and chooses what he thinks is the best one.

In the next scene we show readers the detective implementing his choice by ACTING in a believable way unique to them.

Note: For more on sequels see my article: The Structure of Sequels.

  • If you have a chapter or two already written, look through them. Do they contain a sequel or at least one mini-sequel? If your characters don’t jump off the page, think about beefing up either the number of sequels or their length.

Tags and Traits

Let’s take each of these in turn.


What is a tag? Think of Hercule Poirot. His large, obvious, antiquated mustache that he is inordinately fond of is a tag. His old-fashioned clothes are a tag. His fastidiousness, however, is a trait (we’ll look at traits, below).

You want to have two or three tags per significant character, more if you like. You use these tags when you introduce the character for the first time and, after that, every time they are reintroduced after being off-stage for any significant period of time.

It’s important that each character’s tags be unique (otherwise the characters won’t be as memorable). So, for example, you only want one character with bleach-blond hair IF you’re using that as a tag.

How does your character talk? What sort of expressions do they use? People born in the south tend to use different expressions than do people from the north, etc. This could be a tag. The WAY a person talks can be a tag. If a person teaches at the university they might use long sentences and unnecessarily long words.

In general, anything that separates your character from another character can be a tag. Does your character tend to run their fingers through their hair or blink rapidly when they’re nervous or shuffle their feet? Those could be tags.

Is your character optimistic? Pessimistic? Do they love playing practical jokes? Those could be tags! Vizzini in The Princess Bride continually misusing the word "inconceivable" was a tag because it uniquely differentiated him from all the other characters. Also, it helped reveal the essence of his character.

When you’re thinking about tags, think of what differentiates your character in terms of: appearance, speech and mannerism. (For more on this see Dwight V. Swain and his excellent book Techniques of the Selling Writer.)


Traits (at least, this is the way I think of them) are behavioral dispositions, attitudes or habits. Is your character proud? Funny? Vain? Fearful? Are they a golf fanatic? Do they dote on their children? Are they fanatical about classic cars?

Remember that the essential thing here is (like tags) to use the trait to a) express character and b) differentiate this character from every other character.

  • What are the detective’s tags and traits? Try to come up with at least two tags and one trait. You’ll likely add more later but this will get you started.

5. Empathy

The ultimate goal of character creation is to get your readers to empathize with your characters. You want to be able to be able to create characters your readers will love as well as those they’ll hate. If you can consistently do this then you’ll have a lucrative career as a writer!

  • What tags and traits would dispose readers to like your character?

6. Relationships

Tags and traits define a character but so do their relationships with others.

Each character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character—the detective—achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting.

  • How does the detective’s goal conflict with the murderer’s goal? In general, they conflict in the sense that the detective wants to identify the murderer and expose him to the community and the murderer wants to NOT be identified, but what I’m after here is something more specific. Why, other than fear of punishment, does the murderer wish to hide his crime? For example, is there someone he cares about he doesn’t want to alienate? Does he care about his position in society and how that would be jeopardized? Does the detective care about these kind of things as well?

7. The detective should live a life the reader will want to learn about.

What kind of life are your readers interested in learning about?

I think that, to a large extent, this is up to you. What sort of detectives, do you like reading about? Where do they live? When they’re not detecting what do they do? (Poirot cooks, takes urban walks, and goes abroad on vacation; DCI Tom Barnaby tries to eat his wife's inedible cooking, goes to see his daughter's latest play, and tries to take his family out to dinner so they can enjoy a delicious meal!)

A tip: something about your detective’s life should be EXOTIC, DIFFERENT. Perhaps he has a quirky hobby and plays the violin during thunderstorms. Perhaps he has an exotic vice like fine whisky.

What you don’t want is for the detective to be ORDINARY. Even Murdoch (Murdoch Mysteries) is so ordinary he’s extraordinary.

  • This is a more global question. What about your detective’s life stands out as unusual? For example, Sam and Dean on Supernatural are vagabonds, traveling around the country hunting evil. It’s not the life for everyone—or anyone!—but it stands out. It grabs the imagination. It’s different. EXOTIC!

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.

This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and I’m sure it won’t be the last! If you enjoy a good British mystery, try it! I predict you won’t be disappointed.

From the blurb: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl.”—The New York Times

Friday, April 21

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I began fleshing out a character, the murderer, for a murder mystery I'm tentatively calling Murder in Meadowmead. Today I pick up where I left off yesterday (The Making of a Murderer).

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

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

a. How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?

As we saw yesterday, the murderer, Lydia, is motivated by her twisted love for her husband, Mark. Her goal, on the other hand, is to murder her father and brother. Let’s break this down.

Motivation --> goal: Lydia (incorrectly) feels that the only way to keep her husband is to acquire large amounts of money. The only way she can do this in the near future is to inherit her family’s wealth. Unfortunately for them, the only way this would happen is if her father and brother were no longer among the living. Therefore Lydia decides they must die.

b. How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

The murderer’s motivation (keeping Mark) IS Lydia’s passion. She is head-over-heels in love with Mark. But it’s an unhealthy, immature, love. Mark is the ONLY person she cares about, he is a splash of color in a world of grey. (In other words, the murderer has bigger problems than losing Mark, but she has no idea of this.)

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer passionately wants to keep something: her husband. Yes, she wants vast sums of money, but she wants the money because she wants to keep her husband.

(Perhaps it will turn out that Lydia is actually more attached to money than she tells herself. Perhaps she wants to think she just wants the money to keep Mark but she’s kidding herself. This is something we can explore down the road.)

a. What does the murderer love? Be specific.

The murderer loves her husband, Mark. She also cares deeply that her business is failing. It isn’t just the money, it bothers her that she wasn’t able to make a success of things, that her father is ashamed of her.

b. Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

There are many ways a particular motivation can be expressed, there are many ways it can resolve into a particular goal. What this question is asking is why did this particular murderer choose this particular goal?

In other words, why choose to go straight to murdering her family rather than do something else like stage a kidnapping or, less violent still, try to sell her failing business, or (despite what her father said) go and beg her father for more money. Why go straight to murder?

The answer is pretty clear: there’s something a bit off about our Lydia. Also, she’s not a big fan of her father and brother. My guess is that there’s a backstory we haven’t uncovered yet. How about ...

Her father didn’t treat Lydia very well when she was a child. He beat her and kept her isolated because he didn’t want her telling anyone.

A few people suspected what was happening at home but they didn’t want to get involved. Lydia’s father was wealthy and could have made a lot of trouble for anyone who spoke up. Her brother never beat her but he didn’t do anything to try and help her either.

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

a. What is Lydia’s deep psychological wound?

I think we’ve just found out what it is: childhood abuse. Lydia was beaten as a child and not allowed to interact with anyone but her father, brother and their servants. She wasn’t allowed outside unsupervised. Even when she was old enough to go to school they brought tutors in to educate her rather than let her go off on her own. After all, then they could never be sure who she Lydia talked to or what she had told them.

b. How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia’s strength?

Every significant character should have a strength, something concrete they’re good at. I know it might sound odd to put it like this, but they should have a characteristic that could help them win a bar bet.

I’m going to say that, because of the abuse she suffered, Lydia became hyper-observant. She’s a past master of Where’s Waldo. Also, ask her to tell what differs between two pictures and it only takes a glance for her to see it. Sometimes, though, she only knows that there IS a difference but she can’t see it. When this happens—and it doesn’t happen often—she becomes paralyzed, obsessed, until she is able to identify the difference. (And, yes, I’m shamelessly borrowing this from Mr. Monk and Sherlock!)

Another effect of her psychological wound, of the childhood abuse she suffered, is having to live with a feeling of isolation. She was isolated throughout her childhood and rarely felt the simple comfort of human touch, a hand on her arm, a quick hug. Consequently, she has an intense aversion to being touched (except for Mark). She can’t bear the touch of a stranger, it feels like ants crawling over her skin and her anxiety ratchets up into the stratosphere.

CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia can’t bear a stranger’s touch.

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

a. How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

It might sound odd, but Lydia gets the upper hand by killing the brother first. Why? Because Lydia had no obvious motive for killing her brother. Also, for her brother’s murder she has a run-of-the-mill alibi, as one would. The night her brother died Lydia said she was making a new recorder and, when asked, her neighbors say they heard music coming from her workshop. This checks out and, since the detective is used to thinking of Lydia as innocent, this biases him in this direction when her father’s body is found.

CLUE: The night her brother died the weather was unseasonably cold. The only way the neighbors could have heard Lydia play is if she kept the window open.

CLUE: Lydia is quite thin and tends to get a chill. It doesn’t seem to the detective as though she would have left the window open on such a cool night.

Detective’s action: Detective asks Lydia what she was wearing. If she was bundled up then, fine. Sometimes you just want the window open to air out the place. After all, she was working. Perhaps she was sanding? If so, the open window makes sense. But if she WASN’T she may have left the window open because that was the only way the neighbors could have heard her music. It would be easy to set music to automatically play at a certain time.

The detective could say something like: “Say, this looks like a drafty old place. What do you spend in heating?” “Really! That much. My mom was always telling us to put on sweaters, I used to tell her I could tell when she was cold, she’d get me to put on a sweater! So, what do you do in the winter? This place must be cold. You like wearing sweaters? No? Well, that’s interesting.” Or something less lame!!! You get the idea. Just watch an episode of Columbo. He talks to suspects about completely irrelevant things ... or rather, things that seem completely irrelevant until he’s spun his web around the suspect.

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point toward the end of the story all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but being driven to lie.

Lydia’s Janus Story: At the moment I’m not sure what this will be and that’s okay. It’s early. One idea is to bring in a touch of the paranormal. Lydia could try to get the detective to believe there’s some sort of a curse at work. If I don’t want to draw in the supernatural/paranormal I could perhaps try to pin the killings on a secret organization that the family had contact with.

Let’s explore each of these possibilities.

Secret Organization (SO)

I love reading stories about secret organizations! This secret organization can’t take over the story, it has to be kept in the background. I’m thinking that it’s something that would (for me) be exotic, something that originated in Asia thousands of years ago.

The reality is that Lydia’s family IS involved with this organization. Lydia stumbled across something, a clue, when she was a child, something she was beaten for. Perhaps a letter in her father’s desk. He had left his desk drawer unlocked intending to be out of his office only a moment. Lydia wandered in and saw something she shouldn’t have. A piece of paper. A letter with an odd looking symbol at the top. Lydia remembered the symbol.

Much later she had to do a book report on something-or-other, and came across that same symbol. The author was talking about a secret organization shrouded in mystery. She wrote her report then forgot about it. Now, casting about for an alternate explanation, an idea occurs to her.

MURDERER’S CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia saves everything. She has every book report she’s ever written, every essay she wrote. 

Since Lydia is a hoarder she still has the book report she wrote and so I don’t need to worry about hiding her internet trail as she does research!

CLUE: Lydia knows she’ll need something substantial to tie her family to the secret organization (I need to think of a cool name!) and so visits her father’s place while he’s away on vacation. The problem is, he arrives home early and catches her there. She stammers a bit and comes up with what she hopes is a plausible reason for her presence. She hopes her father bought it. Later it turns out that although her father didn’t guess what she was up to he thought the event strange enough to mention to his attorney/friend. This was the last time Lydia saw her father but she keeps her mouth shut about it and doesn’t tell the detective. When the detective finds out from her father’s attorney that she met him at his place, that she was digging around there, that her father thought her presence was suspicious, the detective confronts Lydia about this.

QUESTION: What story would Lydia give the detective a) for why she lied to him and b) why she was there?

Okay, good progress! I’m going to shift gears now and think about whether Lydia should, instead, go with a paranormal explanation. I like the idea of having a secret organization, it feels fun, but let’s think about how we could spin a story of a curse.


My detective isn’t going to be in the least superstitious, but the murderer doesn’t know that.

I’m being inspired by the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor. There the murderer, Susan Maltravers, makes it seem plausible she is seeing ghosts. In reality Susan is attempting to build a narrative that will scare her husband to death (this has a shot of working because he has heart trouble). When this doesn’t work she gets impatient and shoots him. Her Janus Story: The ghost scared him to death.

It could also be that Lydia’s family used to be part of a larger clan but has been plagued with unfortunate accidents. Now the clan has shrunk to contain only the three of them: Lydia's father, Lydia's brother, and herself. Her brother is unmarried and childless. She has no children. Her mother died at some point but I don’t know why.

QUESTION: Were Lydia’s father and mother still married at the time of her mother’s death?

QUESTION: How did Lydia’s mother die? That is, how did she REALLY die and how does Lydia think she died?

It could be that one of Lydia’s ancestors made a promise, one that her grandfather broke. Ever since then tragedy has befallen the family.

I think I like the secret organization angle better. That said, I could roll the curse explanation into the secret organization explanation. It could be that grand-dad did something to anger the secret organization of which they’re all a part. Perhaps even Lydia’s own actions are somehow (unbeknownst to her) occasioned by the secret organization. Perhaps they have been subtly influencing her. Perhaps that’s too exotic for a traditional murder mystery! Though perhaps I could dangle it as a possibility at the end.

(I just got back from the gym, while working out it occurred to me that Lydia’s mother discovered what was going on with her husband and the secret organization. Something happened when Lydia got into her father’s papers. Lydia’s father flew into a rage and her mother intervened to protect her child. Lydia’s father lost control and hit his wife. Taken unawares she fell backward, hit her head and died. Lydia’s father, unable to accept that he killed his wife (whom he loved) blamed his daughter.)

CHANGE: Lydia’s beatings began AFTER her mother’s death.

QUESTION: How old was Lydia when her mother died?
Answer: It has to be the case that Lydia remembers the symbol but young enough that we believe she doesn't have a vivid memory of the event. That is, it needs to seem plausible that she forgot the symbol of the secret organization was in any way tied to her mother’s death, etc. Let’s say 5 years old? 6 years old? (I don’t have children, so if any of you parents want to chime in here, please do!!)

DEEP DARK SECRET: This is another deep dark secret for the murderer. She will discover the truth about the symbol of the secret society and believe (incorrectly) that she was the cause of her mother dying.

CHANGE: This is more of an addition than a change, but ... Let’s have it that Lydia adored her mother. Her mother’s death was immensely traumatic for her. When she learns the truth about her mother’s death—and that she was indirectly the cause of it—she wants vengeance. This doesn’t change anything I’ve already said about Lydia killing her father and brother for the money, but it will make her father’s murder easier for her to carry out. We could say that she came across this information as she went through boxes in her storage locker, perhaps these were boxes of her mother’s things, boxes she hadn’t gone through before. (I just had the thought that perhaps it would be most dramatic if her father tells her this information just before she murders him.)

QUESTION: Why was Lydia going through her mother’s boxes now, at this particular time? What event occasioned this?

Okay! So far so good, we’ll leave that there for now.

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The killer has been hiding for most of the story. We haven’t been able to see her directly, we’ve peered at characters wondering: Is that him/her? Is THIS person a seething sea of madness under their mask of calm normality?

The reveal is the place to show the murderer as they truly are. And how do we do that? Put the character in a crucible.

a. At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?

I’m not sure. I think Lydia would be more on the quiet side. Perhaps she would cry, sob. Perhaps she would try to get Mark to understand why she had killed, why she had to kill. (Such behavior will repulse Mark.)

b. What does the character fear the most?

In Lydia’s case, she fears ... Well, what’s her trauma? She fears her father, she fears isolation. She has lived through isolation and she never wants to be that alone ever again. In a sense, her not wanting to lose Mark, her husband, is because she can’t be alone. For Lydia, hell would be solitary confinement. It would be the feeling that she is all alone and that is how she will be forever.

c. How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

I think Lydia would abandon her dignity, break down, and beg Mark not to leave her.

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

a. How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie ended several of her books) take their own lives? 

I’m not sure. I think this is something that will become clearer as the story progresses.

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 Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft: A step-by-step guide to revising your novel, by Janice Hardy. I’ve read Janice Hardy’s blog for years and her advice is top notch.

From the blurb: “Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you step-by-step through the novel revision process. She’ll show you how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and how to fix those problems.”

Okay! It looks like we’ve gotten through the making of a murderer! Yea!! If you’re following along and making your own murderer as we go I’d love to learn a bit about him or her. Did you discover her name? Her motive? Her backstory? Please share!! :-)

I’ll continue this series tomorrow and talk about the detective. Till then, good writing!!

Wednesday, April 19

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Let’s create a murderer!

Today I'm trying something a bit different. In my last post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) I talked about 8 ways to build a murderer your readers will love to hate. In this post I’m going to begin constructing what, arguably, is the most important character in a murder mystery: the murderer.

Not only do the actions of the murderer set the story in motion, the first killing is the event that breaks the normal functioning of the ordinary world, the victim’s world. Further, the murderer’s repeated interventions keep increasing the stakes, the danger, and the suspense.

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

Detective and Murderer: Two Sides of the Same Coin


The antagonist—the murderer—must be a good fit for the antagonist. They are two sides of the same coin. For example, on Supernatural (I know, I know, Supernatural is NOT a murder mystery, but go with me here) the brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, are opposites. In many ways, each is the antagonist of the other. It works well! The puzzle pieces of character, of push and pull, fit together. This sort of ‘fit’ is what I aim for with the detective and murderer.

For example, Dean tends to draw sharp lines between humans and monsters. At the beginning of the TV series he thinks in terms of black and white: humans good, monsters bad. Sam, however, has a more flexible point of view since he is acquiring abilities (like telepathy and telekinesis) that only 'monsters' have. At the end of the first season the lines between hunter and monster have nicely blurred and Dean is having a bit of a crisis. The thing he loves most in life is his brother but his purpose is to hunt monsters. That clash produces a lot of (lovely!) conflict.

Other examples drawn from Supernatural’s lighter side: Dean loves junk food. LOVES IT!!! Sam, on the other hand, is a bit of a fitness nut. Dean loves classic rock but Sam dislikes it. Dean loves dive bars and friendly women while Sam likes research and getting a decent nights sleep. You get the idea. And, yes, this is a different dynamic than between detective and murderer, but I think it points us in the right direction.

Does one HAVE to do this sort of characterization to have a terrific story? No! Take Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House (I’m referring to the television adaptation with David Suchet). Hercule Poirot is in constant contact with the murderer, Magdala 'Nick' Buckley. I would say that the primary dynamic between detective and murderer is one of father-child, or uncle-niece. Poirot becomes a kind of mentor to Nick and sees it as his job to protect her. In the end, of course, we discover that Nick was manipulating Poirot, just as she manipulated everyone in her life! My point is that with Christie’s plots the satisfaction usually didn’t come from the complex relationships between the characters, it came from the fact that she could play (more or less) fair and still completely surprise you when it came time to reveal who the murderer was.

I think this is one of the major ways in which contemporary murder mysteries differ from those of Christie’s day: now there’s more of a focus on getting to know the detective as a person.

But Christie did create interesting characters! Don't believe me? Read Sparkling Cyanide.

Detective and Murderer: Shared Experiences

I think it’s most effective if there’s a certain amount of ‘mirroring’ between the detective and murderer.

For example, if the antagonist is brilliant, the protagonist should be brilliant. (This is true for a traditional murder mystery though it might not be in other genres.) But there can be variations. The antagonist could be brilliant and the detective clever. Cleverness can beat brilliance. If you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of Columbo!

(We’ll get to this later when we talk about the detective, but if the detective is brilliant then it works well if he has a character like John Watson (in Sherlock) as his sidekick. Watson is an ‘everyman’ but he’s not dim. Sure, he’s not even close to being as smart as Sherlock but he understands people and THAT is a kind of understanding, of knowledge, Sherlock completely lacks.)

Generally speaking, if the protagonist has a difficult relationship with a sibling over a certain issue, say trust/distrust, then the protagonist often mirrors this in his relationship with another character. This other character is often the key character in the B-story. For example, if the protagonist is beginning to wonder if he can trust someone he has always had absolute faith in—his sidekick—then he might meet someone, sometime new, who seems to offer him the kind of relationship he thought he’d had with his sidekick. This situation could resolve itself in a number of ways but often something occurs in the B-story that allows the protagonist to see his sidekick in a new way. Perhaps that’s for the better, perhaps not.

Since, here, we’re talking about the antagonist in a murder mystery, it could be that the protagonist, the detective, is the new person in the antagonist’s B-story. This could make the antagonist’s sidekick jealous—in the protagonist’s mind, unreasonably so but they don’t (yet) know what’s going on—and create a nice, very natural, red herring. Of course I’m not suggesting that this buddy relationship between the protagonist and antagonist would need to last more than a few pages, but it could help move the plot forward.

Setting up a point of comparison between the antagonist and protagonist.

You could also go the other way and have the antagonist have a wonderful, trusting, relationship with a family member while the antagonist has a twisted relationship with someone in his life and show how that difference affects the rest of their lives.

For example, in Basic Instinct (again, I know, NOT a traditional murder mystery) Nick Curran, the detective, had three main relationships. One with the murderer, Catherine Tramell, one with his partner, Gus, and the third with his psychiatrist, Dr. Beth Garner. Basic Instinct is one of those movies I’ve watched over and over again because I LOVED the ending. Also, I thought it was well-plotted.

Notice that Catherine’s relationship with Nick forms a perfect counterpoint to Nick’s relationship with Gus (or so I would argue). Gus would (and did) die for Nick. Gus loves Nick like a not-too-bright younger brother. Gus thinks Nick is a good person, one who just keeps messing up. Catherine, far from dying for Nick, kills Gus and will likely kill Nick. Catherine doesn’t think Nick is a good person. (One of the interesting things about Basic Instincct is that this question, whether Nick is a good person, is left open: Was he a good person who did some bad things or was he a bad person who did some good things?)

Both Nick and Catherine had lost people. People they loved. And these losses had changed them. Nick was trying to reform himself, to kick cocaine, to stop drinking, and to attend therapy. Catherine, however, leaned into the trauma, the pain, the loss. She accepted it. She even seemed to revel in it. My point here is just that this shared link—both of them having suffered the loss of someone they adored—gives us a much needed point of comparison. We can compare them as people, we can compare their choices.

Of course the most important comparison is between the protagonist and antagonist in respect to WHY the murderer did what he did, his motive. In the end, it will be the detective’s insight into this aspect of the antagonist’s psyche that will point her in the right direction. It is what (although she doesn’t understand it fully at first) will give her an edge.

Murder at Meadowmead: The Murderer

Enough preamble! Let’s create a murderer.

Murderer’s Name

Let’s start with something deceptively easy. What’s the murderer’s name? Generally, this only comes to me after I’ve written a bit about the character. Before this—I kid you not—I just write “M” in my zero draft. At a certain point I’ll get a feeling for a name, or sometimes it’ll pop into my head. That’s what happened here. I was mulling over the story and then, “Lydia,” whooshed in. So—as I often do when this happens—I visited a site that gives the meanings of popular names. said that:

“Lydia is a very early place name, that of an area of Asia Minor whose inhabitants are credited with the invention of coinage and of having strong musical talent—as well as great wealth.”[1]

That fits since, as we’ll see, our Lydia seeks great wealth. Musical talent isn’t something I had thought of giving the character, but I’ll keep that at the back of my mind.

Murderer’s Motivation

Why does the murderer kill? I’m going to say she kills for LOVE. Specifically, she loves her husband madly, passionately. She can’t imagine life without him. Lydia is the sort of person who would spend everything she had on a love spell.

Here we’ve taken a normal, natural, wonderful emotion and twisted it by exaggerating it, by taking it to an extreme.

When Lydia thinks of life without her husband (let’s call him Mark) she feels as though she’s free-falling. Sometimes she dreams she’s falling from a cliff so tall she can’t see the bottom. She reaches out to clutch at something, anything, and wakes up in a cold sweat. She realizes that for her, there is no life without him.

The problem (and here I’m giving the problem from Lydia’s perspective): Although charming and capable of kindness, her husband insists on having a certain standard of living. If she can’t give that to him, he’ll find someone who can. If he knew she had run out of money then, even though he is genuinely fond of her, he would drop her like a hot potato.

Murderer’s motivation: Lydia’s desire to keep her husband in her life whatever the cost.
Murderer’s (specific) goal: To murder her father and brother to inherit her family’s fortune.
Murderer’s (general) goal: To acquire enough money to sustain her and her husband’s lavish lifestyle.

Important Note: It will turn out that LYDIA IS WRONG. She thinks that if only she can acquire a fortune that her husband won’t leave her but this isn’t true. It’s not the money, that’s NOT why her husband is slipping away from her (Lydia is correct that her husband IS slipping away). But even if she acquires a fortune he will still leave. It’s her. Her diminishing finances have put her under a great deal of stress and she’s become irritable and withdrawn. Further, there’s something about Lydia that’s immature, that never grew up. And it kinda scares him.

Okay! That was a lot of information. All this more or less just came to me as I was writing, but it seems to hang together. Now let’s try to unpack the murderer’s specific goal so we can see what kind of clues we’ll need to plant.

Murderer’s Specific Goal

Three questions need to be answered:

Why does Lydia have money? 
Where did she get it? 
Why is Lydia running out of money?

Let’s do some brainstorming. You could do this with me and see what answers you come up with!

Lydia comes from money—her father is a billionaire—but he is a firm believer in not spoiling his children. When Lydia was young her father set a trust fund up for her. It was enough that she could live comfortably—though not lavishly—on the interest. If she wanted to dip into the principle she could, though her father warned her in no uncertain terms that, barring extreme circumstances, she would get no more money from him.

This could go one of two ways.

First choice:

Lydia is out of money and so needs extreme circumstances. She racks her brain and settles on the idea of a fake kidnapping. She will need the help of another person to pull it off, but if her father received a ransom note she feels he could be persuaded to part with enough money to fund their lavish lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Lydia finds someone to help her but it goes terribly wrong and her accomplice dies. Lydia didn’t murder him (perhaps he attacked her and as she defended herself he was killed) but he wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t been trying to deceive her father. Something within Lydia snaps. She hides the body and then goes back to dispose of it.

Second choice:

Lydia is out of money but doesn’t know anyone who could help her with a kidnapping, so that’s out. She doesn’t see any other way: if she wants the money she’ll have to kill her father and brother.

The second seems more straightforward so that’s the one I’ll go with.

The 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

So far so good. Now let’s go back to my previous post and see if we can answer those questions I raised yesterday. By answering these questions we’ll (hopefully) be able to discover concrete answers as well as discover what clues need to be planted. Afterward, we’ll step back and see where that leaves us and we’ll try and answer the question, or at least make inroads on the question, of what the underlying thread of similarity or contrast will be between the protagonist and antagonist.

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

The sleuth can only be as impressive as the murderer so we need to create a smart, capable, powerful murderer.


- How are we going to show that the murderer is smart, capable and powerful? What sort of actions or objects would demonstrate this?
- What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

I’d love to read what you come up with (we’re doing this together, right?!), but here are a few of my brainstormed answers:

Smart: Like Inspector Morse from the show of the same name, Lydia does the New York Times Saturday crossword, a crossword known as challenging. (This is more of a behavioral trait than a tag.)

Capable: Since musical aptitude is part of her name, perhaps Lydia plays an instrument. This isn’t generally what I think of when I think someone is capable, but I’m going to run with it. (One thing is sure, from what I know so far about Lydia she is NOT a wiz at financial management.) It could be that she began playing an instrument in school and kept at it. Perhaps she found that playing an instrument soothed her anxiety. (Ah! She has anxiety. Good to know.)

What kind of instrument? To work as a tag it would have to be something she could carry around, so it would need to be small, something like a harmonica, recorder, flute or ucalaly. I think I’ll go with recorder. She becomes interested in various ways recorders can be made, their history, etc. Lydia likes the idea of DIY and she’s even made a few of her own recorders. It’s a hobby.

Powerful: I think of a powerful person as someone who can influence the lives of others. I’m not sure this fits Lydia, though perhaps I’ve missed something. Perhaps she runs a company of some sort, one whose prospects have diminished recently. Perhaps she owns a huge beer company but the craft breweries that are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain have cut into her sales. She knows the company will have to declare bankruptcy. She’s powerful in the sense that the fate of her employees rests with her. Of course she hates beer—can’t stand it. She’s a wine snob.

How can I turn this into a tag? What represents the significance of this company to her? What represents the impact it has had on her life? Perhaps Lydia owns the company but her husband runs it. In her mind, he has run it into the ground, but she’s not being fair. The market for large commercial breweries is shrinking, there isn’t anything Mark could have done about that. This isn’t exactly a tag, but when Lydia sees beer ... part of the reason why she hates beer is because it represents the conflict between her and her husband, it exemplifies her dismal financial state.

Okay! Better.  At least we have a significant part of the backstory, a significant emotional element, tied to something physical (beer and a company that makes beer), something we can introduce into a scene to elicit an emotional reaction. A reaction that will demonstrate the murderer’s—Lydia’s—character.

Ack!!!! I’m only at 8.1 and this post is pushing 3,000 words! Okay, I’ll stop here.

I wasn’t planning on publishing a post tomorrow but I think I might try to push on with this. SO! Please do come back tomorrow as we continue to create our murderer.

By the way, if you’d like to take a look at my previous post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) and offer suggestions regarding what characteristics our murderer should have, please do!


“Lydia” over at

Tuesday, April 18

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

I’ve decided to try something new! As many of you know, I’m putting together a book on how to write a murder mystery (see: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters). As part of that I’ve begun developing an example story, a traditional murder mystery with elements of a cozy.

When I sat down to write this blog post I had an idea: Why not take a deep dive into this material and try it out on my blog! I’ve been thinking about how to structure this and hit on the idea of doing a “theory” post—talk about an element of structure—followed by an example post—take the previous day's theory and use it to create an outline.

For example, this post gives 8 tips for creating a murderer. Next post I will step through each tip and use it to create the murderer. This is just the start, though. Over the next few weeks my plan is to develop an outline for a murder mystery I’m calling Murder at Meadowmead.

I don't plan on using this outline to write a story—but if you would like to, please do!

Warning: Murder Mystery Under Construction

Please keep in mind that this is an experiment! I don’t have the story already plotted. I will be putting it together as I go (and please feel free to make suggestions!). As a result the outline will evolve. Story elements will shift, break apart, re-form and (occasionally) disappear.

At the end of it all I should have a completed outline for a traditional murder mystery. At that point I’ll bundle up all the posts as well as the example story outline and put it into a book for easier access.

I’d love to know what you think of this idea! Thumbs up, thumbs down? You can leave a comment here or contact me privately. Thanks!

So, here we go! What follows is the theory and then, tomorrow, I’ll post my outline of the murderer, one which implements most of these points.

The Murderer

The murderer is the person who violates the norms of society by intentionally ending the life of another.

8 Tips for Creating a Murderer Your Readers Will Love to Hate

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

Since the sleuth can only be as formidable as the antagonist (weak antagonist equals weak sleuth), make the antagonist smart and capable.

How are you going to show the murderer is smart and capable? What sort of actions would demonstrate this?
What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

Picture this: A man in a rowboat frantically rows away from a shark and heads toward an island.

Character’s motivation: To escape the shark.
Character’s goal: To reach the island.
Story Question: Will the man reach the island before the shark eats him?

The character’s motivation explains the goal and reveals their passion.

How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?
How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer must either passionately want to acquire something or prevent the loss of something (spouse, job, status, money, power, and so on).

The murderer’s general goal is to get away with his/her crime, but let’s drill down. What, SPECIFICALLY, does the murderer want? Does she want to prevent the loss of her business? Acquire satisfaction by getting revenge on the sister/mother/brother/father who made her life hell for the last 30 or so years? Prevent the loss of her spouse by preventing him from running off with his much younger mistress? Prevent her sibling from gaining the inheritance?

I love Agatha Christie’s work but occasionally she wrote killers who were motivated solely by money. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun the murderer's specific motivations aren’t revealed other than that they killed to acquire the victim’s vast fortune.

It would have been nice to know WHY the murderers were so intent on acquiring vast sums of money. Sure, who doesn’t want vast sums of money? But still. It doesn’t personalize the killers in any way. If they had needed the money to finance an operation for their child, or because one of them wanted to return home to Russia one last time to see her ailing mother, or ... well, you get the idea.

The decision to murder isn’t a decision driven by abstract calculations. It is something one passionately, desperately, desires. (I thought Christie did a good job of this in Body in the Library (this holds for BOTH the book and the TV adaptation).)

What does the murderer love? Be specific.
Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

The murderer, like the sleuth, should have a deep psychological wound. The wound needn’t explain the murder or in any way justify it, but it WILL help humanize them.

Moriarty’s strength was also his weakness (as Mr. Monk said, “It’s a gift and a curse.”) He is brilliant but his very brilliance isolates him. This is true for Sherlock as well, but he has been able to make connections to others, to Dr. John Watson, Mrs. Hudson,  DI Lestrade and Molly Hooper. Moriarty views regular humans (in other words, you and me) as ants to be squashed if it suits him.

What is your murderer’s deep psychological wound?
How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia's strength?

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

Keep in mind that letting the murderer score a point on the detective is different from the detective suffering a setback.

If a grumpy witness refuses to cooperate that is a setback for the detective (and so, automatically, a gain for the antagonist) but here I’m talking about a stratagem—an intentional plan implemented by the murderer that paid off. Perhaps the murderer feels the detective is getting too close and he/she plants a red herring that succeeds (at least for a while) in misdirecting the detective.

How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but they must spin a convincing lie.

What is your murderer's Janus story?

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. AND she did it for personal gain. She’s NOT nice, NOT ordinary, perhaps not even sane (though she will likely APPEAR to be all these things prior to being revealed). At the reveal it is important we get to see the murderer as she really is.

We need to see the murderer’s contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves her friends (a terrific example of this is Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House).

At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?
What does the killer fear the most?
How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

If you're writing a traditional murder mystery, then there has to be some sort of punishment meted out. SOMEONE must be punished. But if you want to have a recurring character you could make one person the 'sufferer,' they get caught and pay the price, but their partner—or perhaps the mastermind—escapes. Still, though, at some point they must pay. So, even if they aren't punished in the current story, think about what their ultimate fate will be.

How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie wrote in several of her books) take their own lives? 

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 Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful creation: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

From the blurb: “Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer.”

That’s it! As I said, tomorrow I’ll post the start of my outline. Please keep in mind this is an experiment and that your feedback is (as always!) welcome.

Thursday, April 13

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

Fan fiction, for many people, is ... a gateway drug to all other fiction writing.”
—Emma Lord

Before Amazon came out with Kindle Worlds I never seriously thought about trying my hand at writing fan fiction. This blog post was inspired by a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago: NPR 1a: Fans And Fan Fiction (I've also embedded the podcast, below). It got me wondering: can fan fiction help writers hone their skill and, if so, how?

Why write fan fiction?

We’ve all heard of fan fiction, or fanfic. Fan fiction is just what it sounds like, fiction written in an established universe which features characters and settings from that universe.

For example, the TV show Supernatural has a LOT of fans. I’m one of them, but certainly not the most hardcore. Over at Supernatural has the biggest community in the TV show section. Supernatural has acknowledged their fans by making fanfic the subject for a couple of episodes (my favorites!).

But, why write fan fiction? 

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

1. Personal fulfillment.

You love a particular narrative world and there are stories you’d like to read which aren’t being written.

Have you ever wanted characters to do something that you know can’t happen on the show? For example, you want to tell a story about the main character’s death or you would like two characters (possibly the protagonist and antagonist!) to begin a romantic relationship. Or perhaps the stories being spun in a particular universe are strictly PG and you want to take things in a more NC-17 direction. 

2. Change part of a story

You might love a particular story but hate the ending. For example, I’ve always LOVED Bram Stokers Dracula. If any of you haven’t read the original, please do. But I’ve never been a fan of the ending. I’ve always wanted to take Stoker’s story, put it in a modern setting, and—while  leaving the beginning more or less the same, change the ending. 

3. The series is finished

No more shows are being produced, no more books are being written. The only way you’re going to get a new story is if you write one.

4. Mashup

You want to mash two narrative worlds together. For instance, Buffy wakes up in Mordor and takes on Sauron.

The Advantages of Writing Fan Fiction

Writing fanfic has definite advantages for new writers—I wish I had written fanfic when I was a kid; I think most of my stories would have been set in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia!

Another advantage for new writers is that they don’t have to create everything—the characters, the world—from scratch. They can work with fully developed characters that work and they can draw from LOTS of examples. It’s a bit like being an apprentice writer.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest fanfic is ONLY for new writers! 

The Rhythm of Story

Just today I was listening to an interview with one of Stephen King’s children, Joe Hill (10 Minute Writer's Workshop: Workshop 18: Joe Hill). He mentioned a time when he was blocked. To push through he wrote out, longhand, great chunks of a story by one of his favorite authors. It helped him internalize those story rhythms. (Incidentally, several best selling authors have also given this very same advice; it’s what they did at the beginning of their careers.) I think fanfic can help writers in a similar way. By trying to write in the same voice (or a similar one) as a more experienced writer we can internalize the rhythms of successful storytelling.

Tags and Traits

Established characters generally have well-defined tags and traits and seasoned writers deftly weave them into character introductions and reintroductions. This, however, is one of the things it is sometimes difficult for a beginner to pick up, even though it's one of the most important. There are several TV shows that do this exceptionally well. In my opinion, one of the best shows for this is Archer (<-- NSFW). That show continually amazes me! See also: The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural

Watch or rewatch an episode of one of these shows and pay attention to how the characters are introduced, how tags and traits are used to define the characters and hook viewers, as well as how they hook into the story arc for that season. Also (and this isn’t specific to tags and traits) notice how these shows get right to the inciting incident with minimal preamble.

Where to publish fan fiction?

The legalities are beyond me but if you would like to read about this I suggest the wikipedia article on Fan Fiction.


It seems as though copyright holders will not prosecute if a work of fan fiction is published on a site devoted to that purpose, for example


In the case of commercial fiction things are much different. Generally speaking, without some sort of prior understanding between you and the copyright holder, one cannot write in another author’s universe and get financial remuneration. But some authors do allow others to write in one of their fictional worlds AND receive compensation for their efforts.

For instance, Kindle Worlds offers writers a place to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. Of course there are conditions and restrictions which you can read about here.

Tips for Writing Fan Fiction

Voice. If your goal is to write in the voice of the original author then you must get the atmosphere right. In this context Ian Sansom’s positive review of The House of Silk (a Sherlock Holmes novel) might be of interest: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Characterization. Even if your goal isn’t to write in the voice of the original author and even if you intend to transform the characters in some way or other, be careful to make your characterizations are consistent. Of course this applies to ALL writing but chances are your readers will already be fans of the characters and may be even more sensitive to inconsistencies. Further, if you change any of a character’s traits be careful that the characterization you settle on doesn’t ‘break’ the character.  

For example, in the 1992 retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the big screen, Lucy was depicted as more sexually inquisitive than in the book. Even so, she was recognizably Lucy. I’m not suggesting that each character has a core set of characteristics that any fan fiction must adopt—I rather doubt this—but that’s part of what makes writing a deliciously dark art. Keep in mind that IMHO no matter what you do, no matter what decisions you make in writing (as in life), there are going to be folks who vehemently disagree with you.

List of Fan Fiction Sites and Resources This is a huge site that serves the interests of a vibrant community. If you’re at all interested in writing fan fiction I encourage you to wander down its highways and byways.

The Writers’ Area. This is a master list of miscellaneous resources devoted to fan fiction. 

Harry Potter Fanfic Resources. There are many sites devoted to all things Harry Potter and this is by no means the only fan fiction resource for that universe but it’s a place to start. 

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 wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. DC taught Jim Butcher in university and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. I’ve read DC's blog for years and love it!

From the blurb: “There's more to writing a successful fantasy story than building a unique world or inventing new magic. How exactly is a plot put together? How do you know if your idea will support an entire novel? How do you grab reader attention and keep it? How do you create dynamic, multi-dimensional characters? What is viewpoint and do you handle it differently in urban fantasy than in traditional epics? What should you do if you're lost in the middle? How do you make your plot end up where you intend it to go? / From the writing of strong, action-packed scenes to the handling of emotions, let award-winning fantasy author Deborah Chester guide you through the process of putting a book together.”

I’m curious, do you write fan fiction? If so, when did you start? Do you also write original fiction? What do you love most about writing fan fiction? Is there anything you don't like about it? I’d love it if you posted your comment for all to read but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can also contact me directly. I’d love to hear about your experiences!