This post is part of my Let’s Write a Murder Mystery! series. In my last post I began creating a detective. I:
- Started thinking about what the detective’s name will be.
- Chose two or three detectives I can use as my own personal examples of what an awesome detective is.
- Glimpsed the detective for the first time.
- Looked at how the detective dresses, especially the tags and traits associated with clothing.
- Looked at what the detective does for work or, in the case of a cozy, what kind of business he owns.
- Began developing the setting and paid special attention to how the detective's work and home add to his memorability.
Today I'm wrapping up the creation of the detective. In this post I'll:
- Finish figuring out the detective’s name.
- Develop a tagline.
- Get a start on fleshing out the detective's character sheet.
- Look at how the detective is connected to the other characters.
- Develop parts of the setting: the town, the detective's home (his lair), and his 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 the detective awesome, the detective's special talent. What about the character is unique and interesting?
- Discover what the detective's unique edge is? What is it about the detective that allows him to best the murderer at the end of the story.
- Discover what your detective's hobby is.
As I said last time, keep in mind I don’t have anything planned, no notion of what this detective is going to be like. Now let’s finish creating our detective!
Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.
1. Detective’s Name
You might already know your detective’s name, and if you do please feel free to skip this section.
Sometimes a name comes to me and sometimes it doesn’t. Nothing’s popping so I’m going to do this methodically. When a name doesn’t show up on my mental doorstep here’s what I do:
a) Write down the names of fictional characters that resonate with me.
Here are a few off the top of my head: Hercule Poirot, Ariadne Oliver, Hannibal Lecter, Indiana Jones, Raymond West, John McClane.
b) Look at the names and try to see some sort of pattern. These are all names I’m drawn to, so ... why? What is it about them I like?
I’m especially drawn to “Hercule Poirot” and “Ariadne Oliver,” the names of two of Agatha Christie’s characters.
“Hercule” and “Ariadne” are names from Mythology.
Ariadne is associated with mazes, puzzles, partly because she helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur. Some stories have it that Ariadne married Dionysus and MAY have become immortal!
And, of course, Hercules is a Greco-Roman hero and son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal. He was supernaturally strong and had many adventures.
In any case, you can see how Agatha Christie’s mind may have been working, her thought processes. Ariadne Oliver often helped Poirot find the solution to a case, to (in a sense) find his way out of a maze.
I think, ideally, my detective would be named Theseus, or (because I’ve never met anyone named Theseus!), Theo. After all, Theseus went into a maze in pursuit of a killer which is pretty much what we want our detective to do!
Problem: I know a Theo and, while he is a wonderful person, he is pretty much the OPPOSITE of how I imagine my detective.
But hold on, I just had an idea: Alexander! Xan for short. (I’ve always liked the name, “Xan.”)
Alexander conquered the (known) world. That fits with the backstory I spun yesterday, about the cabal bent on world domination—I can’t write that without thinking of that old song, Everyone Wants to Rule the World.
So that’s the name! “Alex,” “Alexander.” His friends, though, call him Xan. Yea!!! I feel much better now that my detective has a name. Now all I need is a last name but that doesn’t have to come right away.
2. Detective’s Tagline
I want Alex to have a saying, something like Poirot’s: I do not approve of murder. Which might seem a little odd because we usually don’t think about a prohibition against murder as a taste preference! But I like that Poirot makes it PERSONAL. It isn’t simply that murder is wrong, Poirot personally disapproves of it.
I’m going to borrow this emphasis on the importance of truth and of the value of truth-telling (in the right circumstances). Here it is:
Living is not enough.
In other words, it isn’t just living that’s important, it is HOW a life is lived. What do you think?
Perhaps “living is not enough” doesn’t relate to murder enough. We’ll see.
Mr. Monk’s tagline was: It’s a gift ... and a curse. This didn’t relate to MURDER per se, but it was exquisitely relevant to Monk’s abilities. He was compelled to notice even the most minute of minutiae and this was, indeed, both a gift and a curse. It was the cause of his illness but it made him the best detective in his fictional universe.
I’ll keep “Living is not enough” for now, I can always tweak it later.
Okay! Now that we have a name and a tag line, let’s press on and answer the questions from my post 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective.
3. How the Detective Is Connected to Other Characters
a) What sorts of actions (skills/traits/characteristics) could demonstrate how smart and capable your detective is? Think about putting this in a setting that will bias the outcome in favor of the murderer.
When I speak of a character’s tags and traits I’m usually either referring to something that is intrinsic to a character—for instance, having a button nose—or relational. For instance, beauty is generally considered relational. In the often mentioned Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder” a beautiful girl lives in a community of people we would consider hideously disfigured. The twist: because she doesn’t look like them they consider HER ugly.
Here’s how this applies to creating characters: When we read a story, the protagonist is only compared to the other characters in the story world. If you want a character to be attractive (or intelligent, or friendly, etc.), they must be attractive RELATIVE TO the other characters. So it’s not just about shaping the protagonist’s features, it’s about shaping the features of EVERY OTHER CHARACTER in your story.
In order for your character to appear formidable, they must be MORE formidable than your other characters. To ascribe a strength to your character, you must ascribe a weakness to other characters in the scene. (I’ll talk more about this in another post.)
EXERCISE: What tags and traits would set your detective apart as courageous? What other characters would you put in the scene? What would their tags and traits be?
I think the most courageous detective ever written was Mr. Monk. This might startle you. After all, the man was terrified of milk. MILK!
But courage isn’t doing something you’re not scared of, it’s being terrified but doing it anyway. When someone Monk cared about was threatened he would face his (copious!) fears and do what needed to be done.
I think that one of Alex’s greatest strengths is his willingness to put his reputation on the line. Willingness to make a fool of himself. Willingness to be wrong. Willingness to go the extra mile. To be scared and yet put himself in jeopardy to do what he believes needs to be done.
b) The Murderer
There is no direct personal connection between Alex and the murderer, though the murderer does ...
OMG!!! I just realized, that secret organization the killer, Lydia Morton, glimpses when she’s a girl, that organization is either the cabal I’ve been talking about (see my last post), or connected to them in some way.
I could use this as a way to demonstrate how truly and really old and powerful the detective’s (Alex’s) family’s organization is. The cabal can order this other secret society around. Generate conflict/interest by forcing them to do something they really don’t want to do.
TO DO: Come up with a name for the cabal.
And it follows that—yes! The detective, at the end of the story, will make a personal sacrifice and agree to become more connected to the organization in exchange for his father’s help with the case.
This will SHOW the reader what his father is like, the place he has in the organization, how powerful he is.
So there’s that connection but, other than that, the murderer just another townsperson as far as the detective is concerned. (This could change.) Perhaps he knows her husband, Mark. Mark is the Mayor?
Note: Often what makes the sleuth better than the murderer isn’t merely a tag. For instance, let’s say that the detective and murderer are both extremely, unnaturally, intelligent. What makes the detective better than the murderer won’t be that he’s more intelligent, it is a characteristic he shares with his sidekick, something warm and fuzzy and socially redeemable. Something that makes readers feel connected to the detective. (And, yes, I’m thinking about Sherlock as I type this!) I think I’m going to go with something very simple yet powerful: Family. Connectedness. The power of love.
i) What behavior, trait, event or characteristic could serve as a point of comparison between the detective and murderer?
One way of approaching this question is to ask what trait the detective and his sidekick share. This should be something that represents their special bond.
So. Alex. What trait does he share with this sidekick? To answer this we have to know something about the sidekick.
I do have a few ideas. I think he’ll be Alex’s late wife’s brother. The detective and his brother-in-law really didn’t know each other very well before Alex’s wife’s death—this is because, in part, she tried to shield Alex from her family.
Alex’s brother-in-law blames him for his sister’s death so the two of them are not on the best of terms.
IDEA: Alex’s brother-in-law could be the reason Alex is pulled into the investigation. The brother-in-law is desperate to solve the crime and his sister said that Alex was the most brilliant person she’d ever met, and for her that was really saying something. So, even though Alex’s brother-in-law has no love for Alex, he comes to him for help.
(I suspect the reality is that the brother-in-law is doing the bidding of the cabal, trying to find out how much Alex knows about the organization. They want to know what Alex is up to and how far he’s gotten in his investigation.)
So, what characteristic does Alex share with his brother-in-law? That’s easy, love for Alex’s late wife. In general, the ability to love another selflessly. Also, whether they want to admit it or not, they are family.
ii) How is this shared trait different from the antagonist’s primary trait?
For example, Sherlock and Watson are both loyal adventure seekers. Moriarty also sought adventure. like Sherlock Moriarty LOATHED boredom. But he wasn’t loyal. Loyalty wasn’t in his nature. Sherlock could love other humans, be loyal to them. Mycroft, on the other hand, could love, but only family, only people sufficiently like him.
So I'll say that Alex can love unselfishly while the murderer can't love. If she was faced with a choice between her life and that of her husband, she would choose herself. In the end, the only person she really, truly, cared for was herself.
iii) What one thing (skill/ability/disposition) contributes most to the murderer’s success?
For instance, Moriarty is lonely and bored, he’s basically a child ... if children could be specialist consulting criminals! He loves playing games with lives. His threat: to burn the heart out of Sherlock. This tells the reader something important about the detective: he has a heart. The skill that contributes most to the murderer’s success is, quite literally, heartlessness.
But what about MY murderer? What skill or characteristic contributes most to HER success? I think I’m going to borrow from Sherlock: heartlessness.
Caring about others, being willing to put one's own life in danger for them, is a strength but it's something a bad guy or gal could use against one. Having heart, though, makes the detective human because it makes them vulnerable. The murderer can take advantage of this because she doesn't share that particular characteristic with the detective.
iv) What one thing (skill/ability/disposition) contributes most to the detective’s success?
What one skill contributes most to Alex's success? We’ve just discussed this, above. I think it’s heart. Alex genuinely cares for people—his late wife, his brother-in-law—and would sacrifice himself for others.
c) The Murderer's Husband
The detective, Alex, had to go to Mark for a permit he needed. It’s a SMALL town and they became friendly.
NOTE: I need to explain why the murderer and her husband prefer to live in a small town rather than, say, Manhattan. Perhaps it has to do with her father? He grew up here, he’s devoted to the town.
d) The Murderer’s Father (Second Victim)
How is the detective connected to the second victim, the murderer’s father?
The murderer's father—Lydia's father—doesn’t like the detective. He views Alex as an outsider, which he is. Further, Lydia's father, let's call him Jim, belongs to a rival secret organization.
(Too many secret organizations? Perhaps I could say Jim was a policeman tasked with bringing down the cabal.)
For whatever reason, Lydia's father, Jim, views the detective as a threat. Further, Jim believes the detective's late wife, Maria, was a fool for marrying Alex.
Why would Jim feel like this? Perhaps he had a crush on Maria's mother? Perhaps Maria's mother spurned Jim's advances and married someone wealthier with better social connections. Perhaps Jim bowed out of their relationship and insisted she make this choice. Perhaps Jim has regretted that ever since and his misgivings have made him a sour old man.
IDEA: Jim could have been paid off by the cabal. Perhaps that's how he got the seed money for his business. Perhaps he owes his wealth to the cabal and that has been chewing him up inside for decades.
Alex did what Jim didn't have the courage to do (he married the girl he loved even though the cabal tried to pay him off) and therefore Jim hates him.
e) The Murderer’s Brother
The murderer’s brother is also Lydia's first victim.
I don't think Alex is connected to the murderer’s brother. Alex hasn’t been in the town all that long and they don't meet prior to his murder. The brother is off on vacation, indulging in an extreme sport. His death is thought to be a tragic accident at first.
Please indulge me while I say a quick word about settings. In terms of setting, what we want to do is ratchet up interest through contrast. Think of a demon in a church; that’s contrast.
Meadowmead. I see the town as a sleepy eastern town. Picturesque. I know it’s an older movie, but Practical Magic had gorgeous sets that captured the atmosphere I'm looking for.
Most of the townsfolk believe in family, community, love, and loyalty.
a) Detective's Lair in Meadowmead
I started to talk about Alex’s lair in the last post but didn’t get far. I have a few more ideas now. He has rooms above his restaurant.
Alex has a way with technology. He builds his own computers, uses a version of the Linux OS, and shuns the Chrome browser in favor of Tor. He has made his home ‘smart’ (IoT and all that) which means that his home occasionally malfunctions in hilarious ways.
Alex’s restaurant, Absinthe Cafe, is underneath an apartment building Alex owns. It used to be his late wife's and came to him after her death. Alex gives all the tenants deals, takes care of them. I don’t know if this will come out in the first book.
The physical space, the location, where the detective opens his business used to be a coffee shop. Alex takes over the cafe, shifts the focus to food, redecorates and reopens. He's able to keep some of the previous clientele.
There are still several things I don’t know. For instance, why does the detective move to THIS town? Perhaps he has family there? Let’s investigate ...
b) Why did the detective come to THIS particular town?
The protagonist will be called to the town by a herald conveying a message from a mentor figure. The mentor could be a family attorney or perhaps a friend of the family.
Does it have to do with his father’s (or perhaps uncle’s) will? Perhaps in order to inherit it he has to spend a year in the town?
Does the detective have any family in the town? He might have an uncle or aunt, elderly. The aunt could be a mentor of sorts. She could give readers the odd tidbit of information about the detective.
The detective, being a newcomer, doesn’t fit in. A person can live in Medowmead for 20 years and still be the new guy or gal and the detective has only been there a few days, maybe a week. He isn’t even a newcomer, he’s merely a tourist!
I still don’t know much about the detective’s family or his family’s connection to the town. Perhaps tie this back to the idea of a cabal of wealthy individuals who influence world affairs.
Ah! That gives me an idea ...
The detective is an only child and a bit of a rebel. He sees this cabal as undermining democracy. The detective thinks about exposing his family's connection to the cabal.
Perhaps the detective’s sidekick is from a family in Meadowmead, one who has been there since its founding. Further, perhaps it will turn out that the cabal did something to wrong this family. He was personally hurt by them in some way. Perhaps Alex is trying to make amends. Also, he is trying to LEARN about people and what makes them tick.
5. Detective's Characteristic Action
I’m thinking about the detective’s characteristic action. Perhaps this has something to do with his memory palace. Perhaps it has to do with the detective entering something, placing something, into his memory palace. The memory place would have to be ...
Don’t know! I’ve got nothing.
Transhumanism. I wasn’t planning to do anything with this but perhaps the detective’s family, the cabal, wants to beat death and is willing to do ANYTHING to achieve their goal. (That is in no way related to the detective’s characteristic action, but what the heck! It’s something.)
6. Fleshing out Meadowmead
Why is the detective in Meadowmead? Why not go someplace else?
There’s something about Meadowmead the detective loves, perhaps something associated with his childhood. He loved someone who died and her family is still here.
I think Alex’s connection to the town has to do with his late wife’s family. His own family wants him to leave the town, to come back home and pick up the family mantel.
That just came to me! Apparently the detective used to be married but his wife passed away. At this point that’s all I know about her.
I don’t see the detective’s late wife clearly but I think she might have been tall, willowy. She liked wearing pastel colored diaphanous dresses with droopy big-brimmed straw hats. She had long blond hair the color of sunflowers. And freckles. I don’t know exactly when she died, but I think it was fairly recently, perhaps a year or so before the start of the story. I also think it was from a prolonged illness. She was very kind.
The detective’s sidekick might be his late wife’s brother. Perhaps the detective’s connection to the town is through Alex’s late wife. Perhaps her family lives in Meadowmead. Perhaps the restaurant ...
Perhaps Alex's wife—I’m drawing from the movie John Wick here—had a last wish and it was for Alex to open up the restaurant. She thought it would be good for him. She made him promise. She wanted to draw him out of himself, force him to interact with other people, good ordinary (non-cabal) folks.
Or perhaps the detective thinks there was something fishy about his wife’s death and believes the town holds the answer. Or ... an idea just came to me ...
Perhaps I have it wrong, perhaps it ISN’T Alex who is connected to the Cabal, perhaps it was his late wife. The cabal view HIM as undeserving.
I like it! This increases the conflict. The cabal had a significant presence in the town—perhaps one of their main chapter houses is there, or their historical archive is there.
Oh! And this could explain why Alex came to Meadowmead. It could be that his mother-in-law passed away recently and left the detective her business. She used to own the cafe. She said that Alex’s late wife would have wanted him to come back. Perhaps his mother-in-law give the detective something in her will, perhaps some piece of information, that draws the detective back to town. The mother reveals the tip of a very dangerous secret. Perhaps ... yes! Alex’s mother-in-law could be the one who gives Alex his first real lead on how to bring down the cabal.
Here’s an idea for the ending of the story: Alex will have to do something risky in order to get leverage on the cabal to force them to a) help solve the murder mystery and b) get information from the cabal.
7. The Detective's Motivation and Goal
The way I see it, Alex's OVERRIDING DESIRE is for revenge, that’s what he’s driven by. Specifically, taking revenge on his late wife’s family for her death. Even more specifically, he believes her father is high up in the cabal and was directly responsible for his daughter’s death.
Alex's CONCRETE MOTIVATION is the knowledge that his late wife’s fatal illness was her family’s fault, that it was retribution for her marrying him and exposing the cabal. The detective has vowed the secret organization will pay for killing her. I see this as a myth arc or series arc. I wasn’t thinking about this when I came up with the idea but perhaps it will be a bit like Mr. Monk’s search for his wife’s killer, the way that investigation stretched out over the series.
Alex's OVERRIDING GOAL is to bring down the cabal by exposing them to the public for what they are.
Alex's concrete motivation and his CONCRETE GOAL go hand in hand—they are two sides of the same coin—you can’t have the one without the other. The detective’s concrete motivation is what gives him a push to go after his concrete goal. In Alex's case this is to expose his late wife’s father as a two-faced murderer.
Summary of motivation and goal:
Overriding desire: Revenge
Concrete motivation: The cabal killed his wife and is getting away with it.
Overriding goal: To bring down the cabal, to expose it.
Concrete goal: To expose his wife’s father as a two-faced murderer.
overriding desire -> overriding goal
concrete motivation -> concrete goal
I know this material can seem a bit abstract—which might seem unusual given that this is supposed to be a practical post exposing how one person (me!) goes about putting together a character—but this process is crucial to making characters believable, to giving them depth.
If the character’s overriding desire shifts so will everything else, including the character's concrete goal.
So ... Let’s look at Alex. As he lets go of his desire for revenge (which, let’s face it, isn’t a nice cuddly COMFORTABLE desire) how will his goal—to go after his father-in-law—change? And, over the course of a series, it should change.
Hmmm. I’m going to have to think about this. Perhaps Alex will go from seeking revenge (DESTRUCTION) to sacrificing himself (or a part of himself) to stop the cabal from doing awful things (REDEMPTION).
8. The Detective's Deep Psychological Wound
Alex’s deep psychological wound was caused by the death of his wife. The wound itself is the guilt he feels for her death (he believes he is directly responsible for it). If he hadn’t tried to make her disassociate herself from her family then she wouldn't have been killed.
The detective’s deep wound will come in especially handy in the B-story which, often, is about the hero’s inner life, his inner journey. The A-story carries the main story arc (it deals with the story question which has to do with the detectives external goal). The B-story is about a relationship, often one that involves a love connection.
In many stories the B-story concludes when the detective confronts her deep, dark, wound and heals it. In healing her deep wound, the hero discovers the key to achieving her external goal and, after taking action at the climax, victoriously closes out the A-story. (I go into this in more detail in Structure of a Great Story)
Further, the detective’s wound is healed BECAUSE of his willingness to sacrifice himself. Similarly, the killer’s wound will never heal because he will NEVER sacrifice himself, his happiness, for others. So ...
a) The Connection between Alex’s deep PSYCHOLOGICAL WOUND, his OVERRIDING DESIRE and his CONCRETE GOAL
Alex’s deep psychological wound is the death of his wife; namely, the responsibility he feels for it.
His overriding desire is revenge and his concrete goal is to make his late wife’s father pay for her death.
These three things reinforce each other. If Alex no longer felt responsible for his wife's death his thirst for revenge would be sated. He would still seek to bring down the cabal, but he would do so much less recklessly.
9. Your Character's Strength and Weakness
Honestly, I have NO idea what Alex’s strengths and weaknesses are. So I’ll do what I always do when I’m stumped, look at examples and hope inspiration strikes.
- One of Mr. Monk’s strengths is being the best copyeditor in the world! He spots EVERY mistake and is knowledgeable enough to correct it. His weakness is that he doesn’t have a choice, he is compelled to notice every single thing in his world that is out of place.
- Sherlock Holmes’s strength is not caring about what others think or feel about him. Of course this is also a weakness.
- Hercule Poirot’s strength is his ‘little grey cells.’ Is being able to meld the details of the murder with the psychology of the murderer to come up with the identity of the murderer. His weakness, one of them, is his vanity. Often murderer’s attempt to play on Poirot’s vanity to blind him to their guilt.
- Miss Marple’s strength was knowledge of her village, which gave the detective an uncanny knowledge/understanding of human nature. She knew countless stories about her neighbors, about their many misdeeds, and was able to extrapolate the lessons learned to other cases she came across. Her weakness was ... come to think of it, I’m not sure she had one!
a) What is Alex’s unique ability?
What ability would demonstrate how smart and capable my sleuth is?
Like all my example detectives, Alex is off-the-charts intelligent. Further, he has the ability to notice minutiae and to use this information to understand the significance of what he sees, to understand means, method and opportunity. But none of these abilities make Alex UNIQUE.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything! Perhaps I will have to content myself with having the detective be unique within the world of the story. Like Sherlock Holmes, Alex has the ability to notice and remember everything. From these minutiae, these clues, he eventually spins a correct theory of the crime.
b) What is Alex’s unique weakness?
Alex’s deep psychological wound is a weakness but I would say that his true weakness is also his strength: his love for his family, even his traitorous brother-in-law. His loyalty tends to blind Alex to the faults of his kin.
Perhaps part of the loyalty that he feels toward his brother-in-law is due to the guilt he feels over the death of his wife. Alex’s weakness makes him take what seem like insane risks, it leads him to trust those who are patently untrustworthy.
c) How is the detective’s psychological wound tied to their strength?
Alex's strength is being able to love others and his willingness to put himself, his life, on the line for his friends.
This is why his psychological wound cuts so deeply. It's killing him that he was there for others when he couldn't be for his wife.
CHANGE: I think I was wrong before, his late wife didn't have a terminal disease, she was killed but the killing was made to look like an accident, the cabal covered it up.
10. What is your detective’s hobby?
Sherlock Holmes played the violin, Hercules Poirot cooked and grew vegetable marrows. Lieutenant Columbo was an excellent golfer.
Alex could love baking, perhaps he even enters baking competitions. Or perhaps he loves drag racing, kite flying, football, biking or ... well, the list is as long as one's imagination!
I’m going to say he likes baking. He has staff that do most of the cooking for the restaurant, but he personally does all the baking.
11. The Detective’s Special Talent
Usually the detective has a special talent, a special ability. Sherlock Holmes and Monk had a photographic memory, Miss Marple had amazing hearing and an excellent memory. Columbo excelled at getting the murderer to underestimate him by being impervious to embarrassment. Others have had the ability to mentally recreate a crime scene and live it from the killer's point of view. Many different detectives have had the ability to tell if someone is lying.
I think you can make your detective good at practically anything, as long as it makes him or her seem resourceful and clever.
So, coming back to Alex, what is HIS special talent? I like the idea of him being able to recreate the crime scene, something like what Will Graham could do on Hannibal. So this comes in two parts. First, he notices minutiae and, second, he uses what he notices to mentally recreate and 'see' the crime, how it took place. I think Alex will also be able to tell if a person is lying.
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.
Writing the Paranormal Novel: Techniques and Exercises for Weaving Supernatural Elements Into Your Story, by Steven Harper.
From the blurb: "This helpful guide gives you everything you need to successfully introduce supernatural elements into any story without shattering the believability of your fictional world."
That's it! Next time we'll take a look at creating/discovering the detective's sidekick, his Watson. Until then, good writing!