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!
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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!