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

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!

Thursday, April 27

Let's Make a Detective!

Let's Make a Detective!

Let’s create a detective!

This post is part of my Let’s Write a Murder Mystery! series. In my last post I wrote about the theory behind creating a detective, now it’s time to actually create the character.

Since the detective is SO important to our story, I’m going to split this discussion into two. In this post we’re going to brainstorm and grope our way toward our character. In the next post, we’ll build on the work we do here.

Keep in mind that I don’t have anything planned, no notion of what this detective is going to be like. So, let’s dive in and think about what kind of detective we want to create.

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

The First Step

The key to creating a realistic character is to rummage about within yourself—your own desires, hopes, fears, motivations and deep dark secrets—to find something you can bestow on your character, something you can infuse into them. It’s a little bit like how, in the Christian New Testament, God breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living soul.

Or, to use another analogy, creating a character is like using a starter culture to make yogurt. Yes, I’ve started making my own yogurt! How? By taking a tablespoon of yogurt containing an active culture (I use Activia yogurt), putting it in scalded milk that has been cooled to an appropriate temperature, and leaving the concoction in a warm place for 5 hours. That’s it!

I think something similar needs to happen for a character to come alive. Characters with depth aren’t randomly created, they are CULTURED. They are grown from bits of us, from our memories, dreams, desires, mistakes, goals, failures and successes. They are grown from those bits of our soul we choose to give them.

In what follows, I invite you to look inward. Answer these questions by looking into yourself at different angles, by daydreaming. Let your mind wander.

What is your detective’s name?

Don’t worry if your detective’s name doesn’t come to you right away. I find it’s the LAST thing that comes to me! And I’m not alone.

I talked about exaggeration in my last post. I find the most memorable names are often the most exaggerated.

For example, take the name Aloysius Pendergast. That is NOT a common name. It’s distinctive. As distinctive as the character himself: rail thin with blond-white hair, an accent hailing from the deep south, and charming old world manners.

Of course not all detectives have distinctive names (though Poirot does and, arguably, he’s still the most popular detective ever created!) But it is something to think about.

On a more practical level, google “baby names” and visit one or two of the sites listed. You don’t have to use any of the suggestions but it might spark an idea. Also, if you use Scrivener, you have a name generator. Just go to “Edit > Writing Tools > Name Generator” and there it is!

Start the Culture: Think about your favorite detectives.

Ideas aren’t born in a vacuum. We learn by studying the work of other writers, we learn by studying what has inspired us. So! Let’s study our favorite detectives. We’ll end up throwing various tags and traits into a crucible and (hopefully) transforming them into a detective of our very own.

My favorite detectives are Sherlock Holmes (especially as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), Hercules Poirot and Lieutenant Columbo. What are yours? Try to think of at least two.

Question: Who are your favorite detectives? What especially appeals to you about each? What is EXCITING or memorable about them?

I find it helps to reread the book your favorite detective was first introduced in since this is likely where the author spent a lot of time establishing the character.

In what follows I try to answer these questions for my own favorite detectives:

Sherlock Holmes

In a sense, Sherlock Holmes (and here I’m referring to Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes) is upside down. Whatever normal human reaction you’d expect from him, he gives you the opposite. This is from The Study in Pink:

Watson (to Holmes): A place like this must be expensive.
Holmes: Not really. I know the landlady, Mrs. Hudson. She owes me a favor. A few years back, her husband was sentenced to death in Florida. I was able to help out.
Watson: You stopped her husband from being executed?
Holmes: Oh, no, I ensured it.

This nicely establishes a couple of things. First, that Mrs. Hudson isn’t exactly what she seems, but it does the same for Sherlock. They are definitely characters from the Special World of the Adventure (i.e, inside out and upside down).

What stands out:
- Behavior: odd, quirky, surprising. Holmes says things that subvert one’s expectations.
- Distinctive overcoat (The Belstaff 'Milford' Coat).
- Deerstalker cap.
- Rumpled hair.
- Plays violin.
- Keeps decaying body parts in an otherwise empty fridge.
- Tends to use the walls for target practice.

Hercules Poirot

Poirot isn’t as dramatic as Sherlock, but his reveals ARE exciting. The key to Poirot’s drama, the key to his power, is TRUTH. He knows the truth. Sure, people have tried to deceive him, they may have laughed at him behind his back because of his antiquated clothes and manners, because of his accent, but at the reveal Poirot is King. This is HIS domain. Sure, the suspects tried their little deceptions, but now they are in HIS domain and he demands respect.

Uncovering the truth is Poirot’s superpower. It’s what he does and (in his fictional world) NO ONE is better at it.

What stands out:
- If Poirot had a tagline it would be: I do not approve of murder.
- His accent. How he makes himself seem more foreign to encourage folks to underestimate him.
- Poirot is almost always slightly overdressed.
- Patent leather boots.
- Cane.
- Pince-nez.
- a lapel vase with a boutonniere (a Tussie Mussie or “amphora”).
- Poirot does not appreciate the charms of the country.
- Poirot does not play physically exerting sports.


I love it that Columbo appears rumply and unimpressive, unintimidating. In Dead Weight one of the character’s called him an unmade bed.

As a result the murderer usually underestimates him and lets his or her guard down. By the time they realize Columbo is crazy like a fox it’s too late. He’s got all the evidence he needs to arrest them.

What stands out:
- Rumpled beige raincoat.
- Cheap suit.
- Needs coffee in the morning, will drink it in any state even if it’s stale, black and cold.
- Columbo always has to pat down his coat because he can’t find his pen/cigar/match/unpeeled egg. If he can’t find something he will ask those around him until he finds it even if this makes him seem like a lunatic!
- Columbo smokes a very stinky cigar and is often told to put it out or take it away.
- In a few episodes Columbo’s boss says, “I knew you weren’t listening,” when they’re both at a crime scene together.
- Columbo often whistles “This Old Man.”
- Columbo’s car almost always has something wrong with it but the detective thinks it’s the best car ever.
- Flusters suspects by not acting how they expect him to.
- Columbo is fluent in Italian and a good cook.
- Columbo's dog is named "Dog."

I’m curious, which detectives did you pick? What are their three most compelling traits?

Your detective, a first look

Think of your detective. He or she is surrounded by mist. You can’t see them, you can only make out a shape, a silhouette. What does it look like?

Now the mist is clearing, they’re walking toward you. How are they walking? What is their gait like? Is he or she limping? Are they young or old, male or female? Don’t think too hard about it, just see it. What kind of clothes are they wearing? Formal evening wear? Casual wear? Workout clothes? What are they saying? Are they speaking to you? Can you hear their thoughts? Can you feel their emotions?

Write down what you’ve discovered about your character.

(If nothing has come through, I’ve included a character creation exercise at the end of this post.)

I find the process of character creation is different each time. One just needs to keep at it, approach the character from different directions and, eventually, you’ll ‘see’ them, they’ll come to you. As I mentioned, often the key is to put a bit of yourself into the character. Not ALL of yourself, but a part. An aspect. Sometimes this means that your detective will share your gender, sometimes not.

One thing I’m struggling with is whether to make my detective male or female. The outline I’m creating will be for a murder mystery that’s a cross between a traditional detective story with elements of a cozy and, from my experience, those sorts of books generally have a female detective.

On the other hand, all three of my example detectives are male. And, for some reason, it FEELS as though he’s male.

So that’s something! Let’s say that he’s male and in his 30s.

How does your detective dress?

I see him in a black coat, something like what Neo wore in the Matrix but the bottom of the coat is more fitted. He wears jeans. New jeans. They aren't worn or scuffed. And a white shirt or maybe a white t-shirt. Not sure which it is at the moment.

He’s wearing black shoes and black leather gloves.

I’m seeing him how, at least a little bit. It’s a white shirt, not a t-shirt.

I thought he would be  more like Columbo, but he’s not. He’s particular about his appearance, especially his hair. It’s collar length and curly. As for color, it’s not black, but VERY deep brown.

What does your detective do for work?

At the moment, I’m not sure how much money my detective makes or what he does for a living. And that’s okay. It’s still early days. But let’s see if I can’t peer into the fog and see my character a bit more clearly.

I want this traditional murder mystery to be a bit like a cozy so perhaps he should own a business.

The rumor is that he used to be a stockbroker (or perhaps a banker) in London but left under mysterious circumstances. It’s difficult to know what his previous life was like, he refuses to talk about it and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

As for the town, it lies somewhere in upstate New York. Currently, our detective only lives there during the summer months.

I still have no idea what kind of business he runs. During the Winter months he ... I’m not sure. Perhaps he travels. Perhaps he visits a monastery and meditates with the monks.

I think the detective is attracted to the mystical. Perhaps he has been influenced by certain ancient teachings. Perhaps his daily routine (meditations, etc.) have helped him locked the latent powers of his mind (cue Twilight Zone).

What is the detective’s business? Hmm ... Let’s see ... The murderer, Lydia, owns a large beer company that’s on the verge of bankruptcy. We want to contrast the detective and antagonist. I’m not sure it will be HIS business, but I could see him selling amaranth. Just up from where I live there’s a restaurant that specializes in pairing Amaranth with food. I’ve never been, but I love that idea. Amaranth and fine dying. (lol. I meant to write “dining” but it came out “dying”! Perhaps I’ll keep that in the back of my mind as a possible title. Perhaps “Murder and Fine Dying,” “Absinthe and Fine Dying”, “Fine Dying in Meadowmead”? Okay, perhaps not!)

Tentatively, I’ll say the detective owns a restaurant called Absinthe Cafe. The focus is on pairing exotic drinks with delicious food. The food is moderately priced and a good deal for what one gets.

Where does your detective live? What does his lair look like?

Here I’m thinking about Exotic Setting (see the last post).

Now that we know a bit more about the detective, this is easy: he lives above his restaurant! It’s a bit unusual, so that’s good. It’s memorable and it certainly ties in with the character’s occupation!

What’s exotic or unusual about the town? I like the idea of having a festival the town is organized around. For example, in their tip of the hat to Twin Peaks, Psych did a Cinnamon Festival episode.

Cupcake festival! It turns out that cupcakes are the detective’s favorite things in the entire world, a bit like Dean Winchester on Supernatural likes pie. At the moment he is passionate about chocolate cupcakes (the ones with sprinkles on top).

(Or perhaps it’s a chocolate festival. That way I could include interesting, quirky, recipes such as chocolate chili. The detective has a killer chocolate chili cupcake recipe!)

How does the detective’s work and digs add to her memorability? 

Gah! I’m writing “her” now. I didn’t mean to. Perhaps I’ll leave the door open to the possibility the detective is female.

In any case, how does the detective's work and accommodations affect his memorability?

I’m drawing a blank. Let’s approach this from another direction. How did Poirot’s apartment help make him memorable?

Order and method. How Poirot ARRANGED things in his apartment said something about his character, about how his mind worked. The modern, geometrical, art on the walls. The art is a prop, it gives Hastings a reason to ask, “Oh! Say that’s new, eh.” He cocks his head to the side, blinks, turns it to the other side. Poirot smiles, comes over, and enthusiastically explains the virtue of the straight lines and the pristine curves.

I think I’m going to hate myself a little bit, but I’m going to make the detective a neat freak. I’m thinking of Monica on the TV show, Friends. I’m going to give him my mother’s favorite expression: A place for everything and everything in its place. This is going to be one of the detective’s more irritating qualities.

I suppose I need to take my own advice and make the detectives predilection for order EXTREME. So—despite what I just said about ‘having a place for everything’—I have to go one of two ways: disorder or order.

Disorder. Columbo has a bit of the existentialist about him. Boundaries are artificial. This helps him escape the ordinary, false, conclusions that other, lesser, detectives settle on.

Order. But that expression, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” FEELS right. The detective is all about bringing order to chaos.

So we’re going for ORDER. That means I need to take the detective's neatness to an extreme, or at least make it memorable.

Now, I’ve said that the detective is attracted to the spiritual, the mystical. But he doesn’t follow any established religion, he has his own take on these things. He does not accept any one tradition whole hog, he picks a bit from this and that and weaves his own story.

So perhaps the order we’re talking about has to do with this mystical order.

“A place for everything and everything in its place” could have a double-meaning. It isn’t merely a matter of arbitrarily finding a place for something. Perhaps this ties into the idea of a memory palace. It isn’t that there is a preordained place for everything, but—given the way he has arranged his memory palace—there is. (Think Hannibal Lector or Pendergast.)

So not only will the detective’s lair tell us about his quirks, his tags and traits, it will tell us about his very MIND, perhaps even his soul (okay, maybe that last part is going a WEE bit over the top, but I’m leaving it in because it’s a little bit true).

That's it for today! In this post we:

  • Thought about what the detective's name will be.
  • Chose two or three detectives we can use as our own personal examples of what an awesome detective is like.
  • Glimpsed the detective for the first time.
  • Answered the question: How does your detective dress?
  • Figured out what the detective does for work, or—in the case of a cozy—what kind of business he owns.
  • Began developing the setting paying special attention to how the detective's work and home add to her memorability.

Next time we'll:

  • Finish choosing a name for the detective.
  • Develop a tagline.
  • Get a start on the detective's character sheet.
  • Look at how the detective is connected to the other characters.
  • Start developing the the setting, especially the town, the detective's home (his or her lair) and their 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 your detective awesome, the detective's special talent. What about your character is unique and interesting?
  • What is the detective's unique edge on the murderer? What is it about the detective that allows him or her to defeat the murderer at the end of the story?
  • What is the detective's hobby?

Update: Link to part 2 of 2: Let’s Make a Detective, Part 2 of 2

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: The Great Courses: Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. I listen to one of The Great Courses every couple of months or so. The presenters are top notice, the material is revelatory and it's easy to find a format that suits your needs. I prefer listening to audiobooks because it allows me to multitask as I walk to the store or do housework. Try one, you'll like it!

Writing Exercise

Your detective’s tags and traits:

Write down the names of two or three of your favorite fictional detectives. For each detective, write down as many of their tags and traits as you can. Now imagine the detective WITHOUT each of the tags/traits, alone or in combination. When you take away the tag/trait, are they still the same person? This exercise can help you figure out which tags/traits are the most important to the character’s identity.

Sunday, April 23

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective

This post is part of a series of articles on how to write a murder mystery. I plan to write an article about each character type: the murderer, the detective, the detective’s sidekick, the police representative, the first victim, the suspects, and the experts.

For the last couple of days we’ve been examining how to write a murderer your readers will love to hate (to see an index of these posts see How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery).

In my last post I said that, arguably, the murderer was the most important character in the story. That’s because it’s the antagonist that makes us root for the detective. After all, if the detective had no obstacles to overcome, if there was no pressure, no ticking clock, the story would be dull. Without the antagonist—the murderer—there would be no entertainment. No excitement. Why? Because the protagonist wouldn’t be TESTED. He wouldn’t be put through a crucible, be transformed and come out the other side with the tools, the ability, to solve the mystery.

The detective IS the most important character in a murder mystery because this is the character your reader needs to love, or at least love reading about. This is the character the reader needs to identify with (and, also, with the detective’s helper, but more on that later).

If you plan on writing the story from the first person perspective there are really only two choices for your viewpoint character: the detective or the detective’s sidekick. If you choose the detective then your readers will be even more likely to identify with the detective.

Keep in mind that in a murder mystery the main focus is on entertaining your reader. So let’s ask ourselves, what characteristics should the detective have to make folks love reading about him or her?

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

7 Characteristics Every Detective Should Have:

Everything in this post stems from this: THE DETECTIVE SHOULD BE MEMORABLE. Why? Because a memorable character has nearly all the needed characteristics of a lovable character. What is needed, in addition, is to SHOW the reader the kind of person the detective is, to expose their character. This is done mostly in sequels, but I’m not going to go over that today. Here we’re confining ourselves to characterization and setting.

I like examples, so let me list a few characters I think are memorable: Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot and Mr. Monk.

(For more about how to make memorable characters see: Crafting Interesting Characters.)

Most of the time, dramatic equates to memorable. We know drama when we see it, but what creates drama? What characteristics make a detective interesting?

7 Characteristics That Make a Detective Interesting

1. Exaggeration

A dramatic character is a memorable character. Think of Carrie from Stephen King’s story of the same name. Carrie White, a traumatized young girl, is pushed too far, snaps, and kills half her town. Carry isn't just telepathic, she's the most powerful telepath who ever existed!

That's extreme.

Or take Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher. Reacher is 6'5'' tall, has a 50-inch chest, and weighs about 250 pounds. He’s a physical wrecking machine.

That's extreme.

Mr. Monk is scared of a lot of things and some of these we can understand. It is a rare (and perhaps slightly odd) person who has never been the least scared of heights. But I don’t know anyone who is scared of the sheer number of things Mr. Monk is. They’re in the hundreds! But the key thing isn’t JUST that Monk is just scared of many things most normal folks aren’t (milk for instance!), it is that he is scared of them to an insane degree.

That’s extreme.

All of these characters are popular and, as you can see, quite memorable. While I can’t guarantee that any memorable character will be a popular character, I CAN guarantee that if your character ISN’T memorable they won’t be popular.

Why does exaggeration work? Two reasons:

a. Wish fulfillment.

Humans crave excitement. Most folks would rather read about a mercenary who is a 6'5'' mountain of man-muscle than about a man who makes a good wage, has 1.6 kids, takes a vacation a year and for whom a speeding ticket is a major event.

b. Exaggerated traits are memorable. 

An exaggerated, extreme, over-the-top trait captures one's imagination. It’s memorable.

As I’ve said, this quality of being memorable is critical. If your readers can’t remember your character they won’t ever feel emotionally attached to her. The more a reader remembers about the characters we create the better the chances are of them turning the page.

  • Without going overboard, think about what is exciting about your character? What characteristic of his makes you smile, what do you especially like about him?
  • Are your character’s tags and traits memorable? What makes them memorable?

2. Exotic Setting

Exotic setting, as the name suggests, has to do not only with the character but the PLACE/SETTING and the character’s OCCUPATION.

PLACE/SETTING. Instead of living in an unexceptional apartment on an unexceptional street in an unexceptional town give the character a living space that’s exotic. Of course what’s exotic to me may not be exotic to you so here the writer must be guided by their own tastes. (A trip to Hawaii would be exotic for me but not so much to folks who already live there!)

Batman had his Batcave, Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, Sherlock Holmes has 221b Baker Street, Lieutenant Columbo had his car, and Poirot had his (fastidiously arranged) London apartment.

  • Where does your detective live?
  • What is exotic about your detective’s lair?
  • What does your detective’s lair say about him? How does it do this? What characteristics make it representative of the detective?

OCCUPATION. All things being equal it's more interesting for a character to be a wizard or a CEO or even an archaeology professor than to be an ordinary dad or mom with an ordinary job.

Also, start thinking about what the setting is going to be for the Special World of the Adventure. An exotic resort? Small English Village? Plane in flight? Wherever you decide to place the lion’s share of the story keep in mind that the primary job of the setting is to CREATE CONFLICT and REVEAL CHARACTER.

(To read more about the Special World of the Adventure see: The Structure of Story)

  • If your detective isn’t a professional, what does she do for work? How does this add to her exoticness, to her memorability?
  • Where will the lion’s share of your story take place? How will this help to create conflict between the detective and his allies?
  • How will the setting reveal the detective’s character?

3. Active Introduction

What we do—how we behave—is just as much a part of who we are as how we dress or what we think. So it should come as no surprise that how we introduce a character has an enormous impact on the reader. How we introduce a character will go a long way to determining whether your reader will remember the character as well as HOW he or she will be remembered.

In the character’s active introduction you want to do something CHARACTERISTIC, UNIQUE and MEMORABLE.

a. Characteristic Introduction

We can make a character's introduction characteristic by using MEMORABLE tags and traits. Determine which tags and traits are most important to the telling of your story. These are the ones you want your readers to remember so these are the ones that should be showcased when introducing the character.

For example, think of ...

Columbo. He loves his shabby raincoat, can never find a pencil, and always lulls the murderer into a false sense of security. He always gets his man/woman.

Hercules Poirot. He has a very old-fashioned, exaggerated, mustache that he fusses over endlessly. He is fastidious. He dresses in a suit, the cut of which is outdated and old-fashioned. He appears (especially when he wants to) excessively foreign. And he is brilliant.

Mr. Monk. The man was scared of ... well, nearly everything. Even milk! He was a germaphobe. He had trouble leaving his home unattended. If even the smallest thing was out of place he obsessed over to the point he became paralyzed. And he was the best detective in the world because he noticed all those little things others didn’t. As Mr. Monk always said: It’s a gift ... and a curse.

You get the idea. In each of these cases there are a few characteristics that fix the character in your mind and, afterward, act to bring the character back to life in your imagination.

The trick is to take the character’s tags and traits and use them to introduce the character in a way the reader will remember. (I’ll have more to say about this later.)

A couple of things to keep in mind:


In order for an action to be characteristic it must be unique to the character. For example, if white-blond hair is one of a character's tags then no other character should have white-blond hair.

Similarly, if one of your character's tags is their beaten up leather jacket, then no other character should have a beaten up leather jacket. (That said, another of your characters could have a pristine leather jacket, this would help to compare and contrast the two people, who they are, their characters, their values.)


Although just about anything can serve as a tag, it needs to be memorable (something exaggerated, fun, or linked to a significant event in the character's life). So, for instance, Jim Butcher has made Harry Dresden's staff one of his tags, as well as his shield bracelet. Then, to make extra sure his readers will remember, he links these tags to significant events in the character's backstory.

  • What are your detective’s UNIQUE, MEMORABLE tags and traits?
  • How will you introduce the detective? How will you introduce him or her to your readers for the first time such that a) the introduction reflects the character’s essence and b) readers will remember them?

b. Characteristic Action

We've seen that each character should have a few memorable qualities which are captured by their tags and traits. We need to use the character's introduction to indelibly inscribe the essence of that character in our readers' minds. (No pressure or anything! This is why I HATE writing openings.)

All things being equal, the character should do something that only they can do, something that is exaggerated, over the top. Something that will allow the reader to grasp—and remember!—the essence of this character. Jim Butcher does this with his wizard, Harry Dresden.

In the 6th book of his awesome Dresden Files series, Blood Rites, Harry Dresden is in the midst of fighting monkey demons trying to save a litter of ... can you guess? That's right, puppies! Can it get cuter than that?! Talk about pulling one's heartstrings. The book is a terrific read even if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series.

If you haven't read Butcher's Harry Dresden novels, think James Bond. If you've never heard of James Bond, the opening sequence of the movie will tell you everything about him you need to know. Curvy young women wearing barely enough to clothe a toothpick swoon over him, he is suave, a skilled fighter, a stone cold killer and Britain’s last, best, hope.

In general, you want the reader to be able to think, afterward, "Yes, that was SO them." Like Harry Dresden nuking a huge demon-monkey in the opening pages of Jim Butcher's Blood Rites.

  • What are your detective’s characteristic actions? What could he/she do that would be both unique to them AND completely awesome?

4. True to Life: Verisimilitude

Unbelievable characters are boring characters.

So far we’ve focused on exaggeration to help us make our character’s traits, tags, and actions memorable. Now let’s make sure they’re believable.

As we make tags and traits more exaggerated we need to keep in mind that our character still needs to seem true to life or at least plausible. This is the difference between, say, DCI Tom Barnaby (from Midsomer Murders) and Superman. Superman requires a certain suspension of disbelief that Barnaby doesn’t. After all, Barnaby doesn’t have super-strength nor can he fly!

Part of how we make sure a character seems true to life EVEN THOUGH she has several exaggerated traits that lifts her above the mainstream is to show her emotions to the reader. And how does one do THIS? Two ways: Mini-sequels and (as I’ve already mentioned) tags and traits.


Don't worry about this too much right now, but the best way to give readers the sense that your character is a real person is to show the emotions, reactions and decisions that he has in response to, for example, a disastrous setback.

First, we need to show his EMOTIONAL reaction.

Second, we need to show how his emotion is followed by thought, by REFLECTION. We need to show him considering what occurred, trying to figure out what went wrong, what he should have done differently. Perhaps show him regretting his choices.

Third, we need to show him asking himself the question: "What now?" That is, spinning out various possible PLANS for future action.

Finally, the detective CONSIDERS the courses of action open to him and chooses what he thinks is the best one.

In the next scene we show readers the detective implementing his choice by ACTING in a believable way unique to them.

Note: For more on sequels see my article: The Structure of Sequels.

  • If you have a chapter or two already written, look through them. Do they contain a sequel or at least one mini-sequel? If your characters don’t jump off the page, think about beefing up either the number of sequels or their length.

Tags and Traits

Let’s take each of these in turn.


What is a tag? Think of Hercule Poirot. His large, obvious, antiquated mustache that he is inordinately fond of is a tag. His old-fashioned clothes are a tag. His fastidiousness, however, is a trait (we’ll look at traits, below).

You want to have two or three tags per significant character, more if you like. You use these tags when you introduce the character for the first time and, after that, every time they are reintroduced after being off-stage for any significant period of time.

It’s important that each character’s tags be unique (otherwise the characters won’t be as memorable). So, for example, you only want one character with bleach-blond hair IF you’re using that as a tag.

How does your character talk? What sort of expressions do they use? People born in the south tend to use different expressions than do people from the north, etc. This could be a tag. The WAY a person talks can be a tag. If a person teaches at the university they might use long sentences and unnecessarily long words.

In general, anything that separates your character from another character can be a tag. Does your character tend to run their fingers through their hair or blink rapidly when they’re nervous or shuffle their feet? Those could be tags.

Is your character optimistic? Pessimistic? Do they love playing practical jokes? Those could be tags! Vizzini in The Princess Bride continually misusing the word "inconceivable" was a tag because it uniquely differentiated him from all the other characters. Also, it helped reveal the essence of his character.

When you’re thinking about tags, think of what differentiates your character in terms of: appearance, speech and mannerism. (For more on this see Dwight V. Swain and his excellent book Techniques of the Selling Writer.)


Traits (at least, this is the way I think of them) are behavioral dispositions, attitudes or habits. Is your character proud? Funny? Vain? Fearful? Are they a golf fanatic? Do they dote on their children? Are they fanatical about classic cars?

Remember that the essential thing here is (like tags) to use the trait to a) express character and b) differentiate this character from every other character.

  • What are the detective’s tags and traits? Try to come up with at least two tags and one trait. You’ll likely add more later but this will get you started.

5. Empathy

The ultimate goal of character creation is to get your readers to empathize with your characters. You want to be able to be able to create characters your readers will love as well as those they’ll hate. If you can consistently do this then you’ll have a lucrative career as a writer!

  • What tags and traits would dispose readers to like your character?

6. Relationships

Tags and traits define a character but so do their relationships with others.

Each character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character—the detective—achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting.

  • How does the detective’s goal conflict with the murderer’s goal? In general, they conflict in the sense that the detective wants to identify the murderer and expose him to the community and the murderer wants to NOT be identified, but what I’m after here is something more specific. Why, other than fear of punishment, does the murderer wish to hide his crime? For example, is there someone he cares about he doesn’t want to alienate? Does he care about his position in society and how that would be jeopardized? Does the detective care about these kind of things as well?

7. The detective should live a life the reader will want to learn about.

What kind of life are your readers interested in learning about?

I think that, to a large extent, this is up to you. What sort of detectives, do you like reading about? Where do they live? When they’re not detecting what do they do? (Poirot cooks, takes urban walks, and goes abroad on vacation; DCI Tom Barnaby tries to eat his wife's inedible cooking, goes to see his daughter's latest play, and tries to take his family out to dinner so they can enjoy a delicious meal!)

A tip: something about your detective’s life should be EXOTIC, DIFFERENT. Perhaps he has a quirky hobby and plays the violin during thunderstorms. Perhaps he has an exotic vice like fine whisky.

What you don’t want is for the detective to be ORDINARY. Even Murdoch (Murdoch Mysteries) is so ordinary he’s extraordinary.

  • This is a more global question. What about your detective’s life stands out as unusual? For example, Sam and Dean on Supernatural are vagabonds, traveling around the country hunting evil. It’s not the life for everyone—or anyone!—but it stands out. It grabs the imagination. It’s different. EXOTIC!

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.

This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and I’m sure it won’t be the last! If you enjoy a good British mystery, try it! I predict you won’t be disappointed.

From the blurb: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl.”—The New York Times

Friday, April 21

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I began fleshing out a character, the murderer, for a murder mystery I'm tentatively calling Murder in Meadowmead. Today I pick up where I left off yesterday (The Making of a Murderer).

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

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

a. How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?

As we saw yesterday, the murderer, Lydia, is motivated by her twisted love for her husband, Mark. Her goal, on the other hand, is to murder her father and brother. Let’s break this down.

Motivation --> goal: Lydia (incorrectly) feels that the only way to keep her husband is to acquire large amounts of money. The only way she can do this in the near future is to inherit her family’s wealth. Unfortunately for them, the only way this would happen is if her father and brother were no longer among the living. Therefore Lydia decides they must die.

b. How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

The murderer’s motivation (keeping Mark) IS Lydia’s passion. She is head-over-heels in love with Mark. But it’s an unhealthy, immature, love. Mark is the ONLY person she cares about, he is a splash of color in a world of grey. (In other words, the murderer has bigger problems than losing Mark, but she has no idea of this.)

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer passionately wants to keep something: her husband. Yes, she wants vast sums of money, but she wants the money because she wants to keep her husband.

(Perhaps it will turn out that Lydia is actually more attached to money than she tells herself. Perhaps she wants to think she just wants the money to keep Mark but she’s kidding herself. This is something we can explore down the road.)

a. What does the murderer love? Be specific.

The murderer loves her husband, Mark. She also cares deeply that her business is failing. It isn’t just the money, it bothers her that she wasn’t able to make a success of things, that her father is ashamed of her.

b. Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

There are many ways a particular motivation can be expressed, there are many ways it can resolve into a particular goal. What this question is asking is why did this particular murderer choose this particular goal?

In other words, why choose to go straight to murdering her family rather than do something else like stage a kidnapping or, less violent still, try to sell her failing business, or (despite what her father said) go and beg her father for more money. Why go straight to murder?

The answer is pretty clear: there’s something a bit off about our Lydia. Also, she’s not a big fan of her father and brother. My guess is that there’s a backstory we haven’t uncovered yet. How about ...

Her father didn’t treat Lydia very well when she was a child. He beat her and kept her isolated because he didn’t want her telling anyone.

A few people suspected what was happening at home but they didn’t want to get involved. Lydia’s father was wealthy and could have made a lot of trouble for anyone who spoke up. Her brother never beat her but he didn’t do anything to try and help her either.

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

a. What is Lydia’s deep psychological wound?

I think we’ve just found out what it is: childhood abuse. Lydia was beaten as a child and not allowed to interact with anyone but her father, brother and their servants. She wasn’t allowed outside unsupervised. Even when she was old enough to go to school they brought tutors in to educate her rather than let her go off on her own. After all, then they could never be sure who she Lydia talked to or what she had told them.

b. How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia’s strength?

Every significant character should have a strength, something concrete they’re good at. I know it might sound odd to put it like this, but they should have a characteristic that could help them win a bar bet.

I’m going to say that, because of the abuse she suffered, Lydia became hyper-observant. She’s a past master of Where’s Waldo. Also, ask her to tell what differs between two pictures and it only takes a glance for her to see it. Sometimes, though, she only knows that there IS a difference but she can’t see it. When this happens—and it doesn’t happen often—she becomes paralyzed, obsessed, until she is able to identify the difference. (And, yes, I’m shamelessly borrowing this from Mr. Monk and Sherlock!)

Another effect of her psychological wound, of the childhood abuse she suffered, is having to live with a feeling of isolation. She was isolated throughout her childhood and rarely felt the simple comfort of human touch, a hand on her arm, a quick hug. Consequently, she has an intense aversion to being touched (except for Mark). She can’t bear the touch of a stranger, it feels like ants crawling over her skin and her anxiety ratchets up into the stratosphere.

CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia can’t bear a stranger’s touch.

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

a. How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

It might sound odd, but Lydia gets the upper hand by killing the brother first. Why? Because Lydia had no obvious motive for killing her brother. Also, for her brother’s murder she has a run-of-the-mill alibi, as one would. The night her brother died Lydia said she was making a new recorder and, when asked, her neighbors say they heard music coming from her workshop. This checks out and, since the detective is used to thinking of Lydia as innocent, this biases him in this direction when her father’s body is found.

CLUE: The night her brother died the weather was unseasonably cold. The only way the neighbors could have heard Lydia play is if she kept the window open.

CLUE: Lydia is quite thin and tends to get a chill. It doesn’t seem to the detective as though she would have left the window open on such a cool night.

Detective’s action: Detective asks Lydia what she was wearing. If she was bundled up then, fine. Sometimes you just want the window open to air out the place. After all, she was working. Perhaps she was sanding? If so, the open window makes sense. But if she WASN’T she may have left the window open because that was the only way the neighbors could have heard her music. It would be easy to set music to automatically play at a certain time.

The detective could say something like: “Say, this looks like a drafty old place. What do you spend in heating?” “Really! That much. My mom was always telling us to put on sweaters, I used to tell her I could tell when she was cold, she’d get me to put on a sweater! So, what do you do in the winter? This place must be cold. You like wearing sweaters? No? Well, that’s interesting.” Or something less lame!!! You get the idea. Just watch an episode of Columbo. He talks to suspects about completely irrelevant things ... or rather, things that seem completely irrelevant until he’s spun his web around the suspect.

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point toward the end of the story all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but being driven to lie.

Lydia’s Janus Story: At the moment I’m not sure what this will be and that’s okay. It’s early. One idea is to bring in a touch of the paranormal. Lydia could try to get the detective to believe there’s some sort of a curse at work. If I don’t want to draw in the supernatural/paranormal I could perhaps try to pin the killings on a secret organization that the family had contact with.

Let’s explore each of these possibilities.

Secret Organization (SO)

I love reading stories about secret organizations! This secret organization can’t take over the story, it has to be kept in the background. I’m thinking that it’s something that would (for me) be exotic, something that originated in Asia thousands of years ago.

The reality is that Lydia’s family IS involved with this organization. Lydia stumbled across something, a clue, when she was a child, something she was beaten for. Perhaps a letter in her father’s desk. He had left his desk drawer unlocked intending to be out of his office only a moment. Lydia wandered in and saw something she shouldn’t have. A piece of paper. A letter with an odd looking symbol at the top. Lydia remembered the symbol.

Much later she had to do a book report on something-or-other, and came across that same symbol. The author was talking about a secret organization shrouded in mystery. She wrote her report then forgot about it. Now, casting about for an alternate explanation, an idea occurs to her.

MURDERER’S CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia saves everything. She has every book report she’s ever written, every essay she wrote. 

Since Lydia is a hoarder she still has the book report she wrote and so I don’t need to worry about hiding her internet trail as she does research!

CLUE: Lydia knows she’ll need something substantial to tie her family to the secret organization (I need to think of a cool name!) and so visits her father’s place while he’s away on vacation. The problem is, he arrives home early and catches her there. She stammers a bit and comes up with what she hopes is a plausible reason for her presence. She hopes her father bought it. Later it turns out that although her father didn’t guess what she was up to he thought the event strange enough to mention to his attorney/friend. This was the last time Lydia saw her father but she keeps her mouth shut about it and doesn’t tell the detective. When the detective finds out from her father’s attorney that she met him at his place, that she was digging around there, that her father thought her presence was suspicious, the detective confronts Lydia about this.

QUESTION: What story would Lydia give the detective a) for why she lied to him and b) why she was there?

Okay, good progress! I’m going to shift gears now and think about whether Lydia should, instead, go with a paranormal explanation. I like the idea of having a secret organization, it feels fun, but let’s think about how we could spin a story of a curse.


My detective isn’t going to be in the least superstitious, but the murderer doesn’t know that.

I’m being inspired by the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor. There the murderer, Susan Maltravers, makes it seem plausible she is seeing ghosts. In reality Susan is attempting to build a narrative that will scare her husband to death (this has a shot of working because he has heart trouble). When this doesn’t work she gets impatient and shoots him. Her Janus Story: The ghost scared him to death.

It could also be that Lydia’s family used to be part of a larger clan but has been plagued with unfortunate accidents. Now the clan has shrunk to contain only the three of them: Lydia's father, Lydia's brother, and herself. Her brother is unmarried and childless. She has no children. Her mother died at some point but I don’t know why.

QUESTION: Were Lydia’s father and mother still married at the time of her mother’s death?

QUESTION: How did Lydia’s mother die? That is, how did she REALLY die and how does Lydia think she died?

It could be that one of Lydia’s ancestors made a promise, one that her grandfather broke. Ever since then tragedy has befallen the family.

I think I like the secret organization angle better. That said, I could roll the curse explanation into the secret organization explanation. It could be that grand-dad did something to anger the secret organization of which they’re all a part. Perhaps even Lydia’s own actions are somehow (unbeknownst to her) occasioned by the secret organization. Perhaps they have been subtly influencing her. Perhaps that’s too exotic for a traditional murder mystery! Though perhaps I could dangle it as a possibility at the end.

(I just got back from the gym, while working out it occurred to me that Lydia’s mother discovered what was going on with her husband and the secret organization. Something happened when Lydia got into her father’s papers. Lydia’s father flew into a rage and her mother intervened to protect her child. Lydia’s father lost control and hit his wife. Taken unawares she fell backward, hit her head and died. Lydia’s father, unable to accept that he killed his wife (whom he loved) blamed his daughter.)

CHANGE: Lydia’s beatings began AFTER her mother’s death.

QUESTION: How old was Lydia when her mother died?
Answer: It has to be the case that Lydia remembers the symbol but young enough that we believe she doesn't have a vivid memory of the event. That is, it needs to seem plausible that she forgot the symbol of the secret organization was in any way tied to her mother’s death, etc. Let’s say 5 years old? 6 years old? (I don’t have children, so if any of you parents want to chime in here, please do!!)

DEEP DARK SECRET: This is another deep dark secret for the murderer. She will discover the truth about the symbol of the secret society and believe (incorrectly) that she was the cause of her mother dying.

CHANGE: This is more of an addition than a change, but ... Let’s have it that Lydia adored her mother. Her mother’s death was immensely traumatic for her. When she learns the truth about her mother’s death—and that she was indirectly the cause of it—she wants vengeance. This doesn’t change anything I’ve already said about Lydia killing her father and brother for the money, but it will make her father’s murder easier for her to carry out. We could say that she came across this information as she went through boxes in her storage locker, perhaps these were boxes of her mother’s things, boxes she hadn’t gone through before. (I just had the thought that perhaps it would be most dramatic if her father tells her this information just before she murders him.)

QUESTION: Why was Lydia going through her mother’s boxes now, at this particular time? What event occasioned this?

Okay! So far so good, we’ll leave that there for now.

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The killer has been hiding for most of the story. We haven’t been able to see her directly, we’ve peered at characters wondering: Is that him/her? Is THIS person a seething sea of madness under their mask of calm normality?

The reveal is the place to show the murderer as they truly are. And how do we do that? Put the character in a crucible.

a. At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?

I’m not sure. I think Lydia would be more on the quiet side. Perhaps she would cry, sob. Perhaps she would try to get Mark to understand why she had killed, why she had to kill. (Such behavior will repulse Mark.)

b. What does the character fear the most?

In Lydia’s case, she fears ... Well, what’s her trauma? She fears her father, she fears isolation. She has lived through isolation and she never wants to be that alone ever again. In a sense, her not wanting to lose Mark, her husband, is because she can’t be alone. For Lydia, hell would be solitary confinement. It would be the feeling that she is all alone and that is how she will be forever.

c. How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

I think Lydia would abandon her dignity, break down, and beg Mark not to leave her.

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

a. How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie ended several of her books) take their own lives? 

I’m not sure. I think this is something that will become clearer as the story progresses.

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 Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft: A step-by-step guide to revising your novel, by Janice Hardy. I’ve read Janice Hardy’s blog for years and her advice is top notch.

From the blurb: “Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you step-by-step through the novel revision process. She’ll show you how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and how to fix those problems.”

Okay! It looks like we’ve gotten through the making of a murderer! Yea!! If you’re following along and making your own murderer as we go I’d love to learn a bit about him or her. Did you discover her name? Her motive? Her backstory? Please share!! :-)

I’ll continue this series tomorrow and talk about the detective. Till then, good writing!!