Readers of mysteries seek a particular experience: they want the intellectual challenge of solving the crime before the detective does, and the pleasure of knowing that everything will come together in the end.
So how do you create those characters who are so much more than stereotypes? How do guide your story so that the reader is held in suspense until you reveal who the unsub (unidentified subject) is.
How do you make you story come to life?
For this, I will send you to an article that was published on writing-world.com.
Find the Motive, Find the Killer.
In good mysteries, everybody has a motive for everything they do. They aren’t puppets dancing to the tune of the plot, cardboard characters pasted on stereotyped situations. They’re living people with demands and desires.
The Killer: Obviously, the killer had a reason for wanting the victim dead (or the secrets stolen or the convenience store robbed). Unless the victim is random, the killer and the victim had a shared history. Even a random victim probably had some quality that triggered the killer’s descent into action.
But questions of motive go beyond the basic “Why I killed the deceased:”
- Why now? Why kill instead of settling for a less lethal resolution?
- Why did the killer not immediately confess? In real life, most murders are crimes of passion and the killer is rarely in doubt. Why does your killer lie and cover up?
- If the killer bonds with the investigator, why? If the killer stonewalls the investigator, why?
- Sometimes a crime of passion leads to a cold-blooded murder. Why does the killer take this second step?
- What motivates the killer to go on as if nothing happened when that isn’t the case at all?
There’s nothing wrong with easy answers so long as the character comes to them and acts accordingly.
The Victim: Very few people want to be murdered. Why, then, does the victim act in such a way as to generate enough antipathy to cause homicide to happen?
- Why doesn’t the victim sense the growing danger? Why doesn’t the victim try to find a peaceful solution? Why doesn’t the victim seek mediation or outside help?
- Why is this investigation important enough to the investigator that it is being documented?
- Why does the investigator pursue the truth in this instance?
- How does the investigator approach witnesses and why? Is there a resentment of the rich, the beautiful, the married? Is there a fawning appreciation for a brand-name success?
- If the investigator is a police officer who tends to stray from the straight and narrow, why? Why do superior officers allow such behavior?
- Hardboiled private investigators often depend on brawn as well as brains. Why did they chose this path.
- Has the investigator reached a point of career-burnout? Why do they still believe in whatever system they operate within? If they don’t believe in the system, why go through the motions?
The Sidekick: Investigators are often assisted by a sidekick who provides anything from special knowledge to comic relief. Why do they put themselves in this situation?
- Why does each witness step forward or not? Why were they doing whatever it was they were doing when they saw/heard/smelled something odd?
- Why betray the living rather than protect the guilty since the dead are already beyond help? Why get involved when it might be dangerous or lead to testifying in court?
The Experts: Investigators often depend on information from outside experts or merely-the-clerk office workers who have access to sensitive information. Why do these people take the time (and often risk disciplinary action) to offer assistance?
- How does the knowledge of suspicion hanging over their head affect the various suspects? How does it affect what they say, how they act, and who they confide in?
- If they have the slightest suspicion of another, why do or don’t they rush forward to direct the spotlight away?
- Why do they react in whatever way they react to the accusation and the very real possibility they could be wrongly convicted of a crime they didn’t commit?
The Assorted Others: Not everybody in a mystery is a force for good or evil. Many are simply minor characters such as waiters, taxi drivers, and hotel managers. These are the players who keep the fabricated world revolving. If you do decide to color your minor characters, focus on their desires rather than the usual blemish, twitch, or accent that often attempts to double for characterization.
Simply knowing why your characters do what they do will allow you to select words that impart that knowledge to the reader. You don’t need to include their psychological profile to justify their choices.
Well, that said, take the time to have a look at your work and see how you can make it that incredibly successful mystery. In the meantime, here are this week’s readings.
We begin with Fate by P. Ochieng Ochieng: If Olweny had not stayed up to watch a late night Nigerian movie on the Afro-cinema series, he would not have woken up late and missed his usual transport.
And then we have a look at the Sour Sugar by Martin Bosire: Our poor shopkeeper was candid in a sinful manner and this coupled with his uncombed white hair that would send a shiver down a porcupine spikes made thing worse.
What? Mwangi Ichungwa is back with They Look like Diamonds: He thought she looked beautiful, lying there with her hair spread out like a halo, a lick of it covering the ghastly wound where her brains had seeped out.
We close this week’s reading with very Strained Choices by Karest Lewela: Curtis had never had an affinity for languages, in fact his English and Arabic, both native to him, had remained as basic as he could get away with.