Showing posts with label #mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #mystery. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 17

Let's Create a Sidekick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Character’s Role

We’re tackling the sidekick today.

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

2. What does the sidekick look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How old is this character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What are this character’s personality traits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. What tags will demonstrate these personality traits?

Let’s take them one at a time:

a. Intelligent

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

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

b. Honest

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

c. Loyal

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

d. Determined

Dan is extraordinarily determined. This is his primary trait.

e. Impulsive

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

f. Stubborn

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

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

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

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

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

11. What is the sidekick’s personal goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Indicate the character’s personality?

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

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

- Indicate his or her habits?

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

- Indicate his or her tastes?

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

- Indicate his or her activities?

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

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

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

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

22. What is this character’s special skill?

He fishes and ties his own lures.

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

23. What is Ben’s superpower?

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

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

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

24. Why is Ben so honest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

31. Which character will be Ben’s foil?

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

34. What were Ben’s parents like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

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

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

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

Direct or Explicit Characterization

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

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

a. The Narrator

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

b. Another Character

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

c. The Character Themselves

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

Indirect/Implicit Characterization

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

1. A physical description of the character.

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

What does the character look like?

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

How does the character dress?

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

2. A psychological description of the character.

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

3. The words a character uses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What other characters say about him or her.

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

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

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

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

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

8. The character’s thoughts.

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

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

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

9. The character’s feelings.

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

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

10.  The character’s environment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character

Today, I’d like to talk about what I’m going to call the ‘conflict character.’

As I’ve mentioned, the antagonist as antagonist doesn’t come ‘on-screen’ until the end of the story when the detective reveals the murderer’s identity to the reader.

This is one of the quirky characteristics of murder mysteries: for most of the story no one knows which of your characters is the criminal, not until the end of the story. (I’m going to use “antagonist” and “murderer” interchangeably except where I think it might cause confusion.)

In, say, an action/adventure story the reader knows who the antagonist is, at least in general terms. For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark we knew from the opening sequence that Indiana Jones’ nemesis was René Belloq.

This is not the case in a murder mystery. Yes, the detective’s goals and the murderer’s goals are mutually exclusive, but since the reader can’t know who the murderer is before the big reveal the detective often has another character—I’m calling this character the conflict character—to butt heads with. (Note: There can be more than one conflict character.)

Conflict and the Murder Mystery

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of conflict—and this applies to any story, not just murder mysteries: There is conflict that spans the entire arc of the story (i.e., the main arc) and conflict that spans a minor arc (for instance, the B-story, C-story, etc.).

The first kind of conflict lasts for the entire story and is often between the detective and her sidekick; I go into this further, below.

The second kind of conflict is conflict that only lasts for a portion of the story. This portion could be a portion of a scene, a sequence of scenes, or the entire B-story/C-story/D-story, etc.

I’ve covered the conflict within a scene elsewhere (see: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive) so I won’t go into that here. What follows has to do with conflict that comes from arcs such as the B-story, C-story, etc.

How many conflict filled arcs are needed depends, at least in part, on how many murders there are: the more murders, the more suspects. For instance, in a show like Midsomer Murders where 3 or 4 people die, there needs to be a larger initial character pool than in a show like Murdoch Mysteries where, often, only one or two people die.

An Example of Conflict: Murdoch Mysteries Season 10, Episode 17

In the main arc, the spine of the story, Murdoch teams up with the Captain to investigate the murder of an older derby skater, a person who coached girls, girls who later formed an aggressive derby team. That is the first major event. The second (usually either a murder or some sort of setback) is the victim’s daughter being knee-capped and crippled for life.

In this episode the Captain acts as Murdoch’s sidekick. Murdoch’s goal is to find the killer as well as the girl’s assailant. He hopes that even if the girl’s assailant isn’t the killer it will help him identify the killer. But there is no quarrel between Murdoch and the Captain. There is a certain gentle push and pull but nothing remotely aggressive.

That’s the main arc. The two sub-arcs are, first, Dr. Julia Ogden and Rebecca James’ rivalry with the derby girls (there is a minor arc having to do with their good-natured rivalry with each other over who is the better skater). The second arc has to do with the conflict between George and his new girlfriend, the reporter Louise Cherry.

Who are the conflict characters? Which character generate conflict? I would say that the closest think to a conflict character is the derby team collectively. Here it’s not so much a person as it is a collection of people/characters. George’s conflict with Louise is a one-on-one conflict (since everyone else seems to love her!) while the conflict with the derby girls is between them and everyone else!

What Sort of Characters Are Conflict Characters?

Let’s talk about character roles. The conflict character could be the murderer, but most often isn’t. The conflict character could be a scapegoat, it could be a rival detective or even the detective’s sidekick.

In what follows I’m going to explore each of these possibilities (see below) as well as give examples to illustrate what I’m saying.

  • The scapegoat as a conflict character.
  • A rival detective (or simply a rival) as a conflict character.
  • The detective’s helper/foil/sidekick as a conflict character.

I'll cover each of these in turn.

The Scapegoat as a Conflict Character

Let’s look at Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House. (Note: In what follows I draw from the television adaptation starring David Suchet.) This conflict spans most of the story and is part of the main arc.

A-Story: The Murder

--- Major
Detective: Hercule Poirot
Detective’s foil/Watson/sidekick/comic relief: Captain Hastings
Murderer: Magdala 'Nick' Buckley
Victim: Maggie Buckley
Scapegoat: Freddy Rice (Conflict character)

--- Minor
Detective’s ally: Miss Lemon
Police representative/ally: Chief Inspector Japp.

Note: Client lies to Poirot.

B-Story: The Relationship with Michael Seton

This is the red herring.

C-story: Drugs

Commander George Challenger: Drug dealer and transporter

D-story: Will/Forgery

Bert & Milly Croft: Forgers (antagonists of C-story)

Conflict. As indicated, Freddy Rice is the conflict character. From the first time she comes on-stage she pushes back against Nick’s claims. The first time we meet her she calls Nick the most brazen liar but then softens this by saying she doesn’t mean it as a criticism. She views Nick’s ability to lie as a gift. Freddy claims Nick is lying about the brakes on her car being sabotaged. But Freddy doesn’t stop there. At various parts of the story Freddy contradicts what Nick says.

Scandalous. For that time (the novel was published in 1932) Freddy was a scandalous character. She was married and yet carrying on a public affair with her lover, Jim Lazarus. And she is addicted to cocaine. As such, Freddy is not an especially sympathetic character! Just what one wants in a scapegoat.

A Rival Detective (or Simply a Rival) as a Conflict Character

Let’s stay with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, but this time let’s take a look at Murder on the Links. Again, I’m going to use the TV adaptation of the story starring David Suchet.

A-Story: The Murder

Detective: Hercule Poirot
Foil: Captain Hastings
Murderers: Madame Daubreuil (Mastermind),  Georges Conneau/Paul Renauld (22 years ago), Marthe Daubreuil (present day).
Victim: Paul Renauld
Scapegoats: Jack Renauld & Bella Duveen
Police representative: Giraud of the Sûreté (Conflict character).

Note: Client lies to Poirot.

B-Story: The Relationships between Jack Renauld, Bella Duveen and Marthe Daubreuil

Jack Renauld and Bella Duveen were a couple until Jack left Bella for Marthe Daubreuil.

C-story: The relationship between Captain Hastings and Bella Duveen.

Captain Hastings falls in love with Bella Duveen, but fears she is still in love with Jack Renauld and has murdered Paul Renauld. But, hey, every relationship has its problems!

Although (as in any murder mystery) there is conflict between each character and the detective, the main source of story conflict (the A-story/arc) is between Poirot and Giraud. Both men consider themselves the greatest detective alive so there was bound to be a clash. Giraud, though, is a condescending bully who lacks Poirot’s grasp of order and method. Events come to a head when Giraud arrests Jack Renauld for the murder of his father.

The Detective's Helper as a Conflict Character

When the detective's helper is the conflict character the sidekick is usually somewhat bumbling, the detective somewhat acerbic, we see that they both have reasons for how they feel but they’re both likable, good and fair.

I’ve already gone over an example of this, above, but let’s talk about Peril at End House. Here Poirot clashes with Hastings over the latter’s fanaticism over golf—he would much rather golf than help Poirot with the case—and this irks Poirot.

Also, Poirot tells Hastings that his instincts about who is a good guy are so bad that if Hastings thinks a certain person is beyond reproach Poirot thinks they’re probably guilty of something! Hastings is, of course, offended. These minor clashes continue throughout the story.

Long-Term Conflict Generated by the Detective's Love Interest

A story arc is the story's spine. It has to do with the characters, their goals, and the obstacles each encounters. In a television series the spine generally stretches over an entire season while the myth arc spans an entire series (not all series have coherent myth arcs, and that's fine; it's not necessary).

In a murder mystery there are often two spines. One spine is what you would expect, the protagonist has the goal of discovering the identity of the antagonist/murderer and the antagonist/murderer has the goal of not being caught (or perhaps of doing whatever it takes not to be caught). As I've mentioned, it can be difficult to infuse conflict into this arc because the identity of the murderer is unknown.

The other spine, though, often focuses on the protagonist's romantic interest. This story arc can generate conflict. While each episode will contain minimal conflict, when taken as a whole, generous amounts of conflict are supplied by the season-long romantic arc.

For example, in Death in Paradise one story arc had to do with Humphrey engaging in what he thought would be a whirlwind romance with a friend on vacation but which turned into something deeper for both of them. I won't describe the story arc, but it has the traditional setup: each character has a goal and each goal is mutually exclusive. While each of them seems like a very nice person, they are each other's antagonist. It's effective.

I think the TV show Supernatural (I'm currently addicted to it!) is the most successful at using both a seasonal story arc and its myth arc to generate conflict. Each season the brother's are in conflict over something. Further, this familial conflict is directly tied into the threat they're trying to save the world from (which, in turn, is tied into the whole myth arc about why they're doing this in the first place).

Why does this work? Because, hey, they're brothers! It's realistic. They love each other, would die for each other, but they can drive one another nuts! They can have epic fights. The conflict comes across as natural. (I've mentioned Supernatural because, while not strictly speaking a mystery, it does include that element.)

* * *

We see that because the identity of the antagonist isn’t revealed until the end of the story, conflict in a murder mystery is often handled differently from other kinds of stories. That is, the other main characters, and even minor characters, help stoke conflict and keep the antagonistic fires burning. And of course the antagonist helps out by providing one or more murders for our intrepid detective to investigate.

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.

Being Poirot. This is an amazing documentary for fans (like me!) of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

From the blurb: “As twenty five years of playing one of television's greatest icons come to an end David Suchet attempts to unravel the mysterious appeal of the great detective Hercule Poirot - and reveals what it has been like to play one of fiction's most enduring and enigmatic creations. In this entertaining and revealing documentary Suchet allows the camera crew to follow him as he prepares for the emotional final days' filming on set. Suchet returns to Agatha Christie's Summer home in Devon, where he first met the author's family after taking on the role a quarter of a century ago, and travels to Belgium as he attempts to find Poirot's roots and discover what the Belgians think of one of their most famous sons.”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing!


1. Except when it isn't! In a murder mystery there are exceptions to this rule but they are so rare I'm not going to talk about them except to mention their existence. Example: The 10 season of Murdoch Mysteries. It seems as though George Crabtree's decision between Louise Cherry and Nina Bloom.

Sunday, October 20

How To Write A Murder Mystery, Part Two

How To Write A Murder Mystery, Part Two

Here is the second and final part of this two part micro-series on how to write a murder mystery. To read part one click here: How To Write A Murder Mystery.

11. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

Everyone lies.

At least, all your suspects should. The murderer will lie about being the murderer (of course) but the rest of your suspects were off doing various other things they feel disinclined to reveal. Your sleuth must either drag it out of them or do some old fashioned detection. Or both.

Susan Spann writes that "Figuring out what your suspects are hiding is just as important as figuring out 'who-done-it' … and sometimes, a lot more fun."

12. Outline the events of your novel the reader sees

Your outline "should include every major scene (and major clue) in the novel. It gives you a road map and helps you keep your sleuth on course when everyone starts lying."

13. Outline the events of your novel the reader DOESN'T see

This outline includes all the scandalous things your suspects were doing when the murder(s) took place.

This outline will tell you "which clues to plant, and where" and will keep "the lies from jamming up the story’s moving parts."

14. Write the reveal first

At the end of every mystery novel there is a reveal scene where the sleuth goes over each person's motive, or potential motive, for committing the crime. In so doing, all the clues are trotted out and the sleuth explains what kind of clue it is and how it relates (or not) to a murder. (See point 8 of yesterday's post for the three kinds of clues.)

At the end of the reveal the reader must not only know HOW each murder was committed but WHY it was committed and WHO committed it.

15. The first half of the story

Write this part fast. Much of what happens here will depend on how the story ends, so don't worry about it too much until you've written the second half. (Yes, it's a bit of a chicken and egg problem.)

- Introduce the sleuth
- Introduce the suspects

Remember to introduce characters in action and have that action tell the reader something important about what kind of character they are. What do they desire above all else? What is their ruling passion? What do they fear? What do they do better than anyone else?

16. The midpoint

By the time the midpoint comes around your sleuth should have sussed out who the murderer is.

The problem is: he's wrong.

Still, your sleuth doesn't know he's wrong so the investigation shifts at the midpoint from discovering how the crime was committed to discovering WHY the murderer committed the crime.

You've read this time and again, right? The sleuth is convinced they know who did it but they don't know why. They don't know the motive and they can't arrest the perp until they have that final piece of the puzzle.

17. All hope is lost

At some point—usually at around the three-quarter mark—the sleuth will experience a major setback and, shortly afterward, go through the "all hope is lost" point.

At this stage the sleuth realizes he was wrong. The killer isn't who he thought. Further, because of the sleuth's mistake not only is the murderer going to kill the sleuth, he is going to kill everyone the sleuth loves or even vaguely cares about and, after stealing the sleuth's new car, the murderer will ride off into the sunset to live a long, satisfied, life.

Or so it will seem.

In other words, this is where the detective hits bottom, the floor breaks and he falls through to the true oil slathered, garbage encrusted, foul depths of hopeless despair.

And then, as Susan Spann writes, he has to dig her way out with nothing but a broken chopstick.

(I think that sometimes it isn't the sleuth who makes the mistake at the midpoint, it's someone the that is heading up the investigation, either their rival or a helper.)

18. The sleuth's special something

Your sleuth has to extricate himself from this mess using that special something that makes him a hero.

With Indiana Jones, it was his common sense and his courage, with Luke Skywalker, it was his innate aptitude for the force and his faith/trust. With Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby he's usually wittier and smarter than everyone else. Tom Barnaby's cousin, John Barnaby, uses his understanding of human psychology (like Agatha Christie's character, Poirot).

Every hero needs a special something. This special something gives the hero the edge he needs when the chips are down. It allows him to extricate himself from the clutches of the murderer. Or fate. Or whatever.

19. Race to the finish

I think of the time between the All Hope is Lost point and the Climax as the Race To The Finish.

No new characters are introduced and the secondary plots have either been resolved or are on the backburner. The sleuth is focused and must use everything he has—plus a little more—if he is going to achieve his goal and bring the murderer to justice.

20. Finish the first draft BEFORE revising

As far as I'm concerned all this advice is optional. Experiment and do what works for you.

That said, I do believe there is one rule observed amongst most writers who finish more than one novel a year: finish your first draft; write it all the way through and type "The End" before you start to revise it.

Do this even if you're convinced your story sucks.

Do this even if your story does suck!

After you have the entire story laid out before you in all its dismal glory you can form an outline. THEN you can revise and tweak and adjust and rewrite to your hearts content.

21. Revise

After you've written the rough draft comes the revisions. Here are a few things to look at:


This is a complex topic, but, briefly, look at your scenes and sequals. If the story is moving too fast, if you need readers to be more emotionally engaged, make the sequels longer. If the pace is too slow, make the sequels shorter. (Jim Butcher has written terrific articles on scenes and sequals.)

Plot is fundamentally about change.

Every story I have ever read had a beginning, middle and an ending. Beyond that there is a lot of variation.


- Is each character distinct? Do they each have a unique voice?
- Is each character fresh/new/original?
- Do your characters change? Each character should change over the course of the story as well as (in smaller ways) in each scene.


Are all the clues in the right places and do they make sense?

That's it! Now go write a murder mystery. (grin)

Good writing!

Photo credit: "focus" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, October 18

How To Write A Murder Mystery

How To Write A Murder Mystery

I've never written a murder mystery, but I've always wanted to.

I fell in love with detection and murder in grade nine when my English teacher assigned the class Agatha Christie's story, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. We read a section in each class and had to try and guess who the murderer was, then defend our guess.

Best. Class. Ever!

One of my life goals is to write a mystery novel, one sprinkled with murders, false leads and scandalous secrets.

I've started a few murder mystery stories. Every two years or so, I decide to take another run at it but I always end up setting the manuscript aside after several angst-filled writing sessions.

Which is why I was utterly thrilled by Susan Spann's post, 25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, over at Chuck Wendig's blog,

SS's post set forth important, insightful and, above all, useful writing tips that could help even a murder mystery neophyte (like me!) actually finish writing one.

How To Write A Murder Mystery

1. Start with your sleuth

Everything begins with character.

Once you know something about your sleuth you can create a world around him, one designed to show readers what kind of a person he is and make them care about him and his quest for justice.

As is true for any story, your characters need to be both engaging and unique. Think about how your character looks, his physical appearance, and how he will stand out from your other characters. How about his behavior? Does he have any ticks? Phobias? Idiosyncrasies?

Something needs to set your sleuth apart. He needs to be interesting and memorable. Often this is accomplished through exaggeration—Mr. Monk is scared of everything, even milk!

Jim Butcher has a marvelous discussion about this over on his Livejournal blog.

2. Make your sleuth quirky and damaged

Break your sleuth in interesting ways.

Susan Spann writes:
"... take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Bust those suckers good—and be creative. Divorces, tragic accidents, and dead relatives are dime-a-dozen. You can do better. Make your detective allergic to coffee, or phobic of houseplants. Squash her beloved iguana beneath a Zamboni and then force her to solve a murder at an ice rink."
I love that last line. It's easy for me to forget that a character's weakness is only interesting if I exploit it.

We only care about Indiana Jones' fear of snakes (a big fearless adventurer with a fear of snakes) when he's forced to confront one (or, more likely, a dozen). And of course the snake is going to be poisonous.

That's what I mean about forming the fictional world around the hero. Indy's fear of snakes is part of his backstory, but it's something that's going to affect what sorts of obstacles you throw at him, so it'll help shape your story and your story world. That's why you need to know all about it before setting pen to paper.

3. Backstory

The reason why Indiana Jones is scared of snakes is part of Indy's backstory. Susan Spann reminds us that we need to work in backstory without using the following props:

- Internal monologues
- Flashbacks
- Dreams

That said, if your character is a seer, a visionary of some sort, I imagine using a dream to introduce bits of backstory might be okay.

It all depends. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it's all on the table, every trick, every tool. If it works, great, keep it. If it doesn't, throw it out.

Aaron Sorkin, in How To Write An Aaron Sorkin Script, writes that the key to introducing backstory is to make the audience—in our case, our readers—want/crave/demand the information. Sorkin writes:
"A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing— when words won't do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern."
Sorkin is talking specifically about how he sets up a character to give one of the monologues he's known for, but these monologues are basically info dumps. An excellent article.

4. Get a handle on your sleuth's motivation

As a general rule, humans prefer the easy to the hard, the simple to the complex, the happy to the sad.

If your hero is going to put herself in mortal danger, if she's going to risk not only her life but her retirement pension, we've got to give her a darn good reason.

For instance, when Neo goes to rescue Morpheus in The Matrix he doesn't believe he's going to survive the attempt but he's got a darn good reason for doing so. He believes that without Morpheus the human resistance is doomed to fail. By giving up his life in exchange for Morpheus' he's saving the world.

Not bad as far as motivation goes!

Make sure that your hero has a darn good, believable, reason for putting it all on the line.

5. Kill 'em

We're writing a murder mystery so there has to be a murder (at least one) and the sooner the better.

Bank heists, jewel robberies, kidnappings, and various other nefarious crimes will not suffice. This is a murder mystery, your readers demand a murder.

6. Kill 'em soon

Have the first murder occur in the beginning—in the first half of the first third--of the novel. Put another way, if your novel is 300 pages long, have it occur in the first 50 pages.

7. Kill 'em with style

Get creatively offbeat with the murder method.

Susan Spann writes: "Anything is fair game if you can explain it."

I went googling for unusual deaths and came up with these:

- Death by Egyptian curse
- Death by puffer fish poison
- Death by ricin
- Death by caffeine
- Death by puppets
- Death by robot
- Death by milk (In honor of Mr. Monk)

8. Kill 'em logically

For each murder the writer must figure out:

a. The killer's method.
b. The killer's opportunity.
c. The killer's motive(s).

9. Kinds of clues

There are three kinds of clues:

a. Genuine clues

These kind of clues point to the killer and can help the sleuth solve the crime. She just has to figure out they're genuine.

b. Red herrings

Fake clues point to someone other than the murderer. Red herrings distract the reader and (at times) the sleuth.

c. Pivotal clues

These are the clues the sleuth uses when she finally solves the crime.

You need to insert these clues into the story in such a way that your reader won't know which category (genuine, fake, pivotal) the clue falls into.

10. The unusual suspects

Susan Spann holds that you'll need at least three suspects, through her preference is for four.

Further, each suspect must fall into one of two categories.

a. People who wanted the victim dead.
b. People who had the opportunity to kill the victim.

Further, one of your suspects should be different, wacky, "out of the box," someone not like the others. This person should add a sense of the crazily unexpected. SS cautions, though, to be careful not to stretch a reader's belief to the breaking point.

I'm not finished, there are another 11 points to consider when writing a murder mystery, but I've put those into a post that's going out tomorrow. Stay tuned! (Update: Here's the link: How To Write A Murder Mystery: Part Two)

Good writing.

Photo credit: "Dawn of the Anna" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.