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

Thursday, June 8

Outlining a Murder Mystery




This article is part three of How to Write a Book (Part One, Part Two). Today I take the theory I laid out in my previous two posts (especially the last) and create an outline.

5a. Murder in Meadowmead: Example Outline


Murder in Meadowmead is a story I’ve been writing through a series of blog posts. Why? To give others—especially beginning writers who have never written a book—an idea of ONE WAY this can be done.

If you look at what I’ve created, below, and realize you do things differently, that’s fine! Do whatever works for you. But if you’ve never written a book and wonder how someone else does things, read on. When I was younger I didn’t have anyone’s shoulder to peek over. In those days I wanted to learn how someone took ideas (and goals and hopes and fears) and spun them into a tale.

I’m not saying what follows is the ‘right’ way (there’s no one right way!) to write a story and it’s certainly NOT the only way. But if this helps you, awesome!

By the way, this post continues a series I began on How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

 a1. ACT ONE (25%)


a1.1. The Ordinary World


The ordinary world represents the detective’s—Alex’s—life before the adventure (for more on Alex see Let's Make a Detective!). This is his starting point (for more on story structure see: The Structure of a Great Story). The setting should be designed to show readers who he is (the paintings he's chosen to display on the wall, his liquor cabinet, whether he keeps a journal, whether he displays pictures of family and friends, etc.

Further, something about Alex—his mannerisms, his behavior or how he looks—should be exaggerated; memorable.

Perhaps I’ll start the story by having Alex pack his belongings in preparation for his move to Meadowmead. He needs opposition, so perhaps Alex has a friend who thinks he’s nuts for moving. Or ... no. Not a friend; Alex doesn’t have close attachments. It’s his lawyer; he’s there to either pick something up or drop something off.
“Why are you moving there? And don't talk to me about that awful restaurant your mother-in-law left you. Where the hell IS Meadowmead, I’ve never heard of it! I’m sure they roll up the sidewalks at 9 pm. No restaurants, no entertainment, what the hell are you going to do? Stay home and READ?!” Robert said.
It’s a good question. WHY would Alex move from a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, one overlooking Central Park, to a sleepy town hardly anyone has heard of? Why THAT town as opposed to another? Is Alex looking for something? If so, what? What is drawing him?

Or is Alex running away from something? Perhaps memories of his late wife? (He and his late wife lived in his Manhattan apartment. They moved in after their honeymoon. They lived there for one glorious year before she died—I’m not 100% sure how she died, but I’m pretty sure her death was thought to be an accident.)

I think I’ll incorporate flashbacks. Alex is walking around his apartment looking at pictures of himself and his late wife in happier times. In one they’re holding hands, screaming at the top of their lungs as they bungie jump off a cliff; it was their honeymoon and Alex had never been that scared in his life. As he looks at the picture he smiles and turns away from Robert to wipe a tear from his eye.

“I’ll have everything packed up and sent on,” Robert said.

Alex shook his head. “No. Just pack it up and store it.”

“Everything? You don’t want anything sent on? Not even your clothes?”

Alex shakes his head and leaves.

a1.1 Revision Notes: 


Robert needs a goal, something he wants in the scene. As it is, there’s no friction. What is Alex giving up by moving? What is he gaining?

I think I’ll make Robert an older man, a friend of Alex’s parents. He wants Alex to take charge of the family business. He sees Alex’s move to Meadowmead as him running away, as cowardice. Alex needs to have a definite, concrete, goal in moving to Meadowmead. He may not share this with Robert, but he should allude to it.

a1.2. Inciting Incident: What is the Inciting Incident?


The Inciting Incident is where the world of the story changes. It is BECAUSE of the Inciting Incident that the protagonist receives a Call to Adventure (if these terms are unfamiliar, see my post A Story Structure in Three Acts).

I think I’ll make the Inciting Incident MYSTERIOUS. At twilight a strange older man rushes down the sidewalk and staggers into Alex. Apologies are exchanged.

“I have to go,” the other says, breathless, his watery fish-like eyes darting everywhere at once.

“Is someone chasing you?” Alex asks, glancing around. The street is empty.

The two exchange a look, a glance. Alex thinks, This man is terrified.

There’s something familiar about this apparent stranger, Alex feels he’s seen him before, perhaps a long while ago. “Do we know each other?” Alex asks, frowning. The man tears himself away and rushes on.

Shaken, Alex puts his hands in his pockets. Nestled in his right hand pocket is a small package. Some instinct keeps him from reacting. Alex finishes his shopping and walks home, careful not to betray any excitement. Only when he is safely in his apartment away from prying eyes does he reach into his pocket, take out the package and examine it. (I don’t yet know what’s inside, but it should be something that shatters the detective’s old world. Perhaps he learns something about his wife or her family.)

a1.2. Revision Notes: 


This scene needs to go first! THIS (the package and the events surrounding Alex acquiring it) is the Inciting Incident and it’s how I’ll open the book. This is why Alex decides to move to Meadowmead. (I discover, later in this post, that the package contained information about his wife’s death, information that convinces Alex that her passing wasn’t an accident.)

a1.3. Call to Adventure: What draws the protagonist into the quest?


The Inciting Incident changed the world; it has shattered the protagonist’s status quo. The Call to Adventure is the protagonist reacting to that change.

There are two arcs, two storylines, that intimately concern the protagonist: the INNER ARC and the OUTER/EXTERNAL ARC. The external arc is the murder mystery. The internal arc is about Alex facing his demons and trying to track down and punish those responsible for his wife’s death. Each of these has an Inciting Incident.

a1.3. External Arc


Alex’s late wife’s brother, Ben, comes to Alex and asks him to figure out who murdered his friend. Sure, he has an ulterior motive, but this is the reason he gives (I go over the sidekick in the post Let’s Create a Sidekick!). Alex initially refuses because he never was close to Maria’s brother—the man had never liked him, never thought he was good enough for his sister—also it really doesn’t look like there’s a case.

NOTE: The External Arc doesn't begin until Act Two, I mention it here only because we're talking about the Call to Adventure.

a1.3. Internal Arc


Alex wants revenge for his wife’s death. He is sure there’s something in the town that can help him figure out who killed his wife.

NOTE ABOUT THE PACKAGE: This is what was in the package! Evidence that his wife’s death wasn’t an accident, evidence she was killed and that the answer to who killed her can be found in Meadowmead. I think the package contained a USB flash drive.

A waiter/manager at his restaurant, someone who has been there for ages will act as Alex’s mentor. Perhaps she knows tarot. She gets Alex to reconsider by giving him information that connects his late wife’s family up to whatever the package was, whatever drew Alex to Meadowmead. Also, this woman talks to him about his wife, what she was like as a child. She talks about his wife’s mother, her family. Perhaps she also gives him something of Martha’s or Martha’s mothers. Perhaps he also has a dream that night. In any case, he changes his mind and begins to investigate with the brother.

a1.4. Journey to the Special World: What mini-quest takes the protagonist from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure?


Often the Special World is in a different physical location. For instance, in Star Wars Luke left his home planet of Tatooine and headed off to join the Rebel Alliance. In my example story the Special World is the small, sleepy, town of Meadowmead, especially those parts of the town associated with Alex's late wife’s family.

a1.4. Internal Arc


The quest that takes Alex from the Ordinary World (Manhattan) to the Special World (Meadowmead) of the Adventure will have to do with the mysterious package. Alex will need to risk something and he will need to get something.

Perhaps, after Alex unwraps the package, he will set up a meeting with the messenger who gave him the package. The messenger is either killed while they’re meeting or just before and Alex finds his body. Perhaps there’s something on the body that provides Alex a clue. Perhaps the older man has the same tattoo as his wife, or a similar medallion.

Also, there should be a point of no return either here or at the midpoint. Alex should have to make a conscious decision to continue with his quest despite the cost, the stakes (and the cost/stakes must be spelled out before he makes his decision).

a2. ACT TWO (26 to 75%)


Show the protagonist discovering the Special World of the Adventure. There should be tests and trials as well as fun and games. The Special World is starkly different from the Ordinary World—inside out and upside down.

a2.1. External Arc


Because of what Alex learns about the package, because of his experience finding the messenger dead, because of his conversation with the manager over at Absinthe Cafe, Alex decides to help Ben (his late wife’s brother) investigate the death of his friend. At this point Alex accepts the Call to Adventure.

Perhaps Ben is a detective on the force. He tells Alex that his investigation isn’t going anywhere and he wants a fresh pair of eyes. His sister always said she had never met anyone as smart as Alex, that if Ben ever had a crime he couldn’t solve he should get Alex to help. Ben is trying to butter up Alex but it kinda works.

a2.1. Internal Arc


Alex remembers his wife in a certain way. She was intelligent with a quick smile and a kind heart. She was an open book, brimming with passion for life. As Alex explores the town, talks to people who knew Maria, he forms a very different image of his late wife. The people of the town know Maria as someone brilliant but sad, withdrawn and even a wee bit scary. One thing they all agree on is that she was very determined. Once she decided to do something nothing could stop her.

a2.2. Trials: What challenges does the protagonist have adjusting to the Special World?


a2.2. External Arc


Alex needs to interview those who saw the victim last, discover what their alibi’s are, what their potential motive would be, and so on. If Ben is attached to the police in some way this could be useful, otherwise Alex will have to get creative.

Obviously the number of suspects you have is completely up to you. I’m going with 4 and here’s why. One of the suspects will be killed at roughly the 2/3 point leaving 3, which is fine. That’s still enough choice to make things suspenseful. The fewer suspects I have the less planning I’ll have to do. It’s that old adage: KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly).

As part of the trials the detective will go to each of the suspects and try to suss out whether they have means, method and opportunity. Also, the detective will likely have to consult at least one expert to help interpret the evidence or confirm a theory.

a2.2 Internal Arc


Alex has trouble finding out about his late wife. Alex has trouble getting folks to talk to him, even about the weather! Those few who do talk refuse to give him any information about Maria or her family. Alex has to employ a variety of techniques to get information (bribing people with food, free meals, doing favors, perhaps even a little blackmail).

He starts off by hiring someone to investigate the elderly man who gave him the package (see the Inciting Incident). That leads to other sources of information, other people to question. One person he wants to speak with is his father-in-law; Alex suspects this man is linked to his wife’s death, but he’s not sure how. Or perhaps Alex THINKS he knows how he just wants to hear him admit it.

a2.3. Approach the cave: What crisis compels the protagonist to confront the antagonist at the midpoint?


a2.3. External Arc & Internal Arc


Something that Alex came across, some evidence/information, has shed light on his wife’s death. It has given Alex a link between his wife’s so-called accident and her family.

a2.4. Midpoint: What happens at the confrontation? Does the protagonist win or lose? Do they acquire any information? 


a2.4. External and Internal Arc


At the midpoint the protagonist finds out something, some information, that is critical to the case. I think that perhaps this is when Alex finds out the central role Maria’s father plays in the cabal.

Alex confronts Maria’s father, a man who has never liked him. Alex believes the father is behind his wife’s death. Maria’s father says that IF anyone was the cause of her death then that person was Alex. Maria left the family because of Alex and NO ONE leaves the family. She had been warned.

Something that the father says triggers a memory, something about the murder Alex is investigating, but he can’t pin it down. It’s like having something on the tip of your tongue ...

a2.5. Bonding


After the midpoint there’s usually a time of bonding. The protagonist gets together with his allies (so far that’s only Alex, Ben and maybe his manager at Absinthe Cafe) and discusses what happened at the midpoint.

In any case, they have dinner at Alex’s restaurant and discuss the case. They probably interact with a few other characters from the town.

a2.6. The First Plan


As part of bonding, a plan is cooked up. You could make this part a bit humorous. Have it that the group thinks a character, call him Hank, is the murderer. They’re all set to bring him in. They go to Hank’s office and then ... find him dead.

a2.6. Complication: Something goes very wrong and complicates the protagonist’s quest, what happens?


Hank’s death is the first complication.

a2.6. More complications: Events keep going wrong. What happens?


Alex is arrested for the second murder. He’s been framed. As soon as Alex arrived at the location of the second murder police, etc., arrive. There is no REAL evidence of Alex’s guilt, the cabal has no real evidence, they are just trying to intimidate him.

Ben posts bail.

a2.7. All Hope is Lost: What happens at the All Hope is Lost point?


The cabal makes it look like Alex has violated his bail, either that or they trick him into doing something that violates his bail. He’s thrown back into jail. Perhaps someone comes to try and kill him but Alex defends himself.

It looks as though the cabal has won and Alex is finished. No matter what he does, the cabal will be one step ahead. If they want him to rot in jail, then Alex will rot in jail. If they want to frame him for murder then he’ll go down for murder.

a3. ACT THREE (76 to 100%)


In general terms, here’s what’s happening in the third act: All subplots have been closed out or will soon be closed out. The detective knows the identity of the murderer and events are pushing the protagonist toward the big reveal.

The way I’m thinking about it (and keep in mind this is early days) The internal and external arcs don’t exactly merge, but Alex now knows what he’s got to do on both counts.

a3.1. Race to the Finish: How does the protagonist get her mojo back and get back on track?


At the beginning of the third act Alex thinks the cabal killed the second victim. (We know this is incorrect, it was Lydia Morton.)

Something happens that gives Alex the epiphany he needs to solve the case. (The thing that was niggling at him when he confronted his late wife’s father at the midpoint is now made clear.) He realizes his anger, his hate, for the cabal has been blinding him. The cabal didn’t have anything to do with the second victim. As soon as he realizes that, he realizes who killed both victims.

Although Alex now knows the identity of the murderer he doesn’t have enough evidence to prove his suspicion.

a3.2. The Second Plan


Alex realizes that the cabal either has the proof he needs for his theory or is suppressing it. Further, the cabal is working against him (mostly) because

a) The murderer, Lydia, is a member of one of the founding families and they protect their own.
b) The cabal doesn’t like Alex. The cabal doesn’t seriously think Alex will be able to hurt them in any significant way, but accept that he could make things more difficult for them.

Alex’s plan is to get leverage on the cabal so that, at the very least, they’ll stop blocking his attempts to get the evidence he needs to bring the murderer to justice. Let’s say there is something specific, some object—perhaps a piece of paper or a section of surveillance video—Alex needs to get his hands on. He tries to hire someone (perhaps he knew people in Manhattan) but they all refuse once they realize the target is the cabal.

a3.3. First Complication


Note: There doesn’t HAVE to be three complications, though that is a good number because two are generally similar (though the stakes are raised each time) while the third is different and much more dire.

Alex tries to get what he needs from the cabal and fails.

I think this story needs a strong antagonist other than the cabal and the murderer. Perhaps the police chief or the mayor? Someone with power, someone who could really hurt the detective. Let’s say we’ve got someone like this in the story. They foil the detective’s attempt to get what he needs AND, on top of this, he lands back in jail. (Or perhaps now he’s thrown into one of the cabal’s private jails.)

a3.4. Second Complication


I think Alex needs a mysterious benefactor, a kind of mentor character. We might not find out who this person is in the first book.

Did Alex get what he needed from the cabal? No BUT Alex’s benefactor intervenes and he’s released. This was a one-time-only intervention. (In order for this not to be an instance of deus ex machina I’ll have to retroactively insert this character into the story, starting at the beginning. Perhaps this person helped Alex figure out what was in the package he received at the beginning of the story, the thing that became the Inciting Incident.)

Alex’s benefactor helps him get out of jail BUT this raises the stakes for Alex. Perhaps his sidekick—Ben—is assaulted or kidnapped or in some way put in danger. Further, Ben was in the process of getting critical evidence.

a3.5. Third Complication


Alex goes to the cabal to either blackmail them or offer them something they can’t refuse. Perhaps Alex says he’ll withdraw from everything, he’ll leave town, if they return Ben unharmed.

The cabal is shielding the murderer, Lydia, because of her family connections (perhaps they’re also scared of what she could tell Alex about their organization). The cabal catch Alex off-guard. They aren’t easily manipulated. Alex’s late wife’s father makes Alex a surprising offer. In exchange for giving Alex what he needs to solve the murder he’ll owe his father-in-law a favor.

a3.6. Climax: What happens at the climax? Does the protagonist win and, if so, how?


Since this is a murder mystery it’s no surprise what happens at the climax! This is the Big Reveal.

Since this post is quite long enough I think I’ll save the various kinds of reveals for later!

a3.7. Wrap up: What happens to the major characters?

I'm not going to worry about this until the rest of my outline is more developed.

General Observations


I find it fascinating how a story comes together. I started off with no idea about a mysterious package, the idea just came to me. Then I realized the package contained evidence that Alex’s wife didn’t die a natural death, that she was helped off this mortal coil. That information combined with hints about Meadowmead was enough to get Alex to move to a small town he never knew existed a week ago.

I suspect I’ll talk more about this in subsequent posts, but notice that when I started off the story I had NO IDEA how it would start. I’ve talked to other writers and that’s normal! So don’t stress about the first few paragraphs of your story, about that first scene, until AFTER you have a solid first draft (not a Zero Draft, a first draft). Sketch out the bare bones of your story and then flesh things out as you go.

SIDEKICK. One thing I need to develop further is Ben’s role in the story. Rather than doing that now, I’m going to publish this post and fill in the gaps later.



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, they put 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.

I've been to Michael Hauge's workshops and he is AMAZING! He just came out with a new book: Storytelling Made Easy: Persuade and Transform Your Audiences, Buyers, and Clients — Simply, Quickly, and Profitably. I haven't read it yet (I just found out about it 5 minutes ago!) but it's at the top of my 'to read' list.

From the blurb:
Renowned Hollywood story expert Michael Hauge’s Six Step Success Story formula gives your potential clients and buyers the emotional experience of success—and will move them to take action.




Friday, May 26

Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim


Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim


The first murder victim is unique.

Of course talking about a first victim assumes there will be more than one murder victim. True. But, these days, most murder mysteries DO include more than one victim.

And, honestly, I think it’s easier to structure a murder mystery that has more than one murder. I’ll talk more about story structure later on in this series. (By the way, this post is part of a series on How to Write a Murder Mystery.)

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

3 Things That Make the First Victim Special


1. The first victim brings the detective into the story.


The discovery of the first victim’s body CREATES the Inciting Incident. Regardless of the murderer’s motives, the first victim summons the detective and in this sense they are the reason for everything.

2. Usually, the relationship between the killer and the first victim ties the victims and the suspects together.


In traditional murder mysteries, killers kill for a reason. They have a motive. Since, often, the first victim is the only one the murderer intended to kill, the second, third, etc., victims are killed to tie up loose ends. In this sense, the killer’s motive for dispatching the first victim is either directly or indirectly responsible for all the other deaths.

3. Since the murderer is trying to tie up loose ends, subsequent murders are often more spontaneous than premeditated.


Often, the second and subsequent murders are committed because something went wrong with the first and the murderer is forced to improvise. Or if the first killing was a crime of passion—in other words, there was no plan, the killing was not at all premeditated—the subsequent murders would be done to cover the murderer’s tracks and so could be sloppy and rushed. And THIS—this lack of finesse—could itself be a clue.

Other factors:


The murderer plans for multiple victims rather than just one.


Granted, it isn’t always the case that the murderer begins his crime spree only intending to kill one person. Sometimes the murderer has a list of people who he feels either did him wrong or who harmed someone he loves. Or perhaps the murderer has a goal and to reach this goal he will have to kill more than one person.

A classic example of this often has to do with a tontine. With a tontine, a number of people contribute to a fund. As each of them die the fund grows larger. When the second to last person dies the final survivor controls the remaining capital. This provided the motive for no end of murders—at least in stories!

Also, although it didn’t have anything to do with a tontine, Agatha Christie’s most popular novel—And Then There Were None—features a murderer who intended to kill absolutely everyone, the entire cast of characters!

In this case the first murder victim isn’t as important, though the detective won’t know that. In this case sometimes the murderer intends the first murder to be a distraction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder Three Act Tragedy the first murder is a trial run. The murderer had nothing against the first victim—in fact, the first victim was randomly chosen!—he was simply testing out his murder method.

Wrap Up


I’ve found that in many murder mystery stories, the second, third, and so on, murders usually are a response to factors that unfold AFTER the initial crime.

Often, though not always.

Sometimes the murderer intends to kill two or more people, though even in these cases additional murders can occur as plans unravel and the murderer, panicked, tries to tie up loose ends.

Whatever the case, the murderer is changed by the first murder. He or she is now a different person. This can be shown in a number of ways. After this, the stakes are higher, they wonder if the police suspect them, their stress levels increase. Depending on how good the murderer is at dealing with stress, this could lead to them making mistakes, blurting out information they should have kept quiet about, or doing something rash because they're driven by fear.

In my next post I'll talk more about how to create a murder victim.



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, a murder mystery, I’ve read a number of times. Each time I discovered something new and valuable! I’m talking about Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mystery: And Then There Were None.

From the blurb: “The world's best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies sold! / Ten people, each with something to hide and something to fear, are invited to a lonely mansion on Indian Island by a host who, surprisingly, fails to appear. On the island they are cut off from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives. One by one, the guests share the darkest secrets of their wicked pasts. And one by one, they die…”




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 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!



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 tvtropes.org)

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! (TvTropes.org/AgentScully)

 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. TvTropes.org 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.” (tvtropes.org/TheWatson)

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."