Showing posts with label detective. Show all posts
Showing posts with label detective. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Using M.I.C.E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucifer (the TV show)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief digression ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Episode

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

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

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

The Sidekick as Protagonist

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

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

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


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

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


1. Elements of Fiction Writing, by Orson Scott Card

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20

Differences between Murder Mystery and Fantasy Stories

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

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

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

5 Differences between a Fantasy and a Murder Mystery

1. The Protagonist’s Goal

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

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

2. The Visibility of the Antagonist

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

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

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

3. Conflict Characters

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

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

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

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

4. The Missing Mentor

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

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

5. A Minor Arc

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing ...

Is vs Ought

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

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

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

The Truth to be Uncovered

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions

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

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

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

Direct or Explicit Characterization

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

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

a. The Narrator

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

b. Another Character

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

c. The Character Themselves

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

Indirect/Implicit Characterization

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

1. A physical description of the character.

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

What does the character look like?

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

How does the character dress?

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

2. A psychological description of the character.

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

3. The words a character uses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What other characters say about him or her.

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

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

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

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

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

8. The character’s thoughts.

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

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

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

9. The character’s feelings.

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

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

10.  The character’s environment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 8

The Detective’s Sidekick: 3 Character Types

The Detective’s Sidekick: 3 Character Types

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

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

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

3 Character Types for the Detective’s Sidekick

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

1. The Brawn

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Heart

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

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

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

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

3. Fish out of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6

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

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

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

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

1. Achilles heel. 

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

a) Zany theories. 

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

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

b) Has a blind spot. 

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

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

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

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

2. Intellectually average. 

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

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

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

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

3. Virtuous. 

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

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

4. Has a conscience. 

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

(See: The Conscience over at

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

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

5. Skeptical. 

Sidekicks are often skeptical. Why?

a) The sidekick reflects the reader's skepticism. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 c) Balance.

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

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

Traits the sidekick shares with the detective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 5

6 Ways a Sidekick Can Enhance Your Story

6 Ways a Sidekick Can Enhance Your Story

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

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

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

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

6 Ways the Sidekick Enhances the Story

What are the functions of the detective's sidekick?

1. A way to give the reader information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. A link to your reader: audience surrogate.

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

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

There’s two things here:

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

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

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

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

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

5. The sidekick can nudge the reader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4

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

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

Let’s talk about the detective’s sidekick!

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

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

Let’s get started!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relational Qualities

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

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

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

A Scene Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene Analysis

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

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

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

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

Till then, good writing!

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 2

Let’s Make a Detective, Part 2 of 2

Let’s Make a Detective, Part 2 of 2
Let’s continue creating a detective!

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.

4. Setting

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.

People have been coming up from the city and snapping up the real estate in Meadowmead. This has driven up prices and made it so that folks can't afford to buy a house in their own town. This has upset a number of them and biased them against outsiders.

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!