Individual Characters and the Story
In a mystery, supporting characters provide conflict for the detective. Their role in the story is to confound, confuse, lie and make trouble for your protagonist. They enhance the story context and color how your story is revealed.
The Character Bible
A character bible is the place where you keep all the details for every character in your story. It can be handwritten sheets in a binder or a character development section of a writing software program, on character notes in MSWord or Google Docs. The important action is to keep track of all the details for each character, so they don’t change hair or eye color half-way through the story because you forgot.
Each character has their own individual pages and often multiple pages like backstory and character interviews.
The character bible is your own reference work you create to save all the character details.
14:20 Ask Me Anything:
Q: I want to write a mystery. I read them all the time and think I could write my own. I’m wondering if I should have a male or a female detective. I’ve read that female leads sell well.
Q: I’m halfway through my mystery and now I don’t know what to do next. Any advice?
What You Need to Know About Your Characters
The most important aspect of your character is how they move the story. Writer/director Adam Skelter calls it the context. Define the story situation the characters deals with in the story. Know their personal conflict.
For mystery writers, the context is how a character impacts the detective’s attempt to solve the mystery.
Details like height, hair color, and carriage are icing on the cake. Readers love details because they heighten the presence of the character and make them real. But, if you change your character’s hair color, and you can, it won’t impact their influence on your detective.
You need to know each character’s intention. That’s why the secrets and lies (Mystery Monday, Episode 3) are important in your mystery. The lies they lead your detective on create false paths on her trail of discovery. These lies create conflict. A story is not a story without conflict. The more frustrations and problems you throw at your detective, he’ll have a more difficult time solving the puzzle. And so will your readers.
Most character creation guides and tools start with physical details. And I think they start beginning writers backwards. The first thing you need to know about each character is how they work in the story. Knowing this prime aspect of each character will prevent you from having too many characters, Or, going off-story by emphasizing a minor character because they are intriguing or fun to write about.
Just as each scene must move the story forward, each character must impact the detective in her search to discover the murderer.
Once you know the character’s role in the story, then you can build their background.
Create a Character Hierarchy
Create a Character HierarchyNot every character has equal importance in your mystery. Spend more time with the background of the main supporting characters.
Limit your time with minor characters who appear once or twice. A simple trick is to give them an identifying characteristic like a limp, a rasping voice, extra rosy cheeks so readers quickly remember them when they appear 80 pages later. This is one time when physical details work as a memory aid for readers.
The Play’s The Thing
Shakespeare is a great guideline for us all. When you decide each character’s place in the context of the story and build on their story importance, you’ll create characters that influence the story and keep readers engaged.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Backstory and Dreams - New Writer Pitfalls
Backstory and Dreams are traps for beginning writers. When you’re just starting out, avoid them. Yes, I know Michael Connelly uses war dreams for Bosch.
Use these two story elements with a light touch. Best to avoid them. If you use them at all, wait until you are at least a quarter into your story. Never start with either. They peg you as a novice.
Having a dream sequence and then the protagonist wakes up is just a no. Info dumping how he was abused, fell in love and was hurt, or any other backstory is a no.
Dreams later in the story - if the dream elements reveal character - are just barely OK.
Try to sprinkle backstory information in dialogue. For example a best friend can mention something and the protagonist can have an emotional reaction right then and there without spelling it out in a flashback.
These elements need such a light touch beginning writers should avoid them. Just tell the story.
Like long descriptive passages, dreams and backstory, slow down story progress and jar the reader out of the story.
Writers Who Couldn't Spell
Don't let your fears of punctuation, spelling, and grammar keep you from telling a good story. A writer question from this week's Mystery Monday was about giving up writing because she couldn't spell.
Famous writers had the same problem. Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all couldn't spell.
Storytelling is a talent. Let an editor fix your shortcomings after you write your story.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
How To Not Get Lost In Your Mystery
Writing a first mystery can be challenging as a new author. With all the information out there about writing a story, you may be tempted to get "everything" into your story.
And, with your creative mind buzzing, it's easy to have lots of ideas for your story and add them all in. You come up with plot twists or add interesting characters to your suspect list.
In the end you have a unwieldy story that is hard for you to manage, especially closing it all out. And, worse yet, a story that is hard for readers to follow.
A fellow mystery writer in Sisters in Crime told me at our last meeting her first book was over 400 pages long and included 26 suspects. Way too long and complicated to gather a solid reader base. She laughs about it now.
In this week's Mystery Monday I talk about ways to avoid the fog of putting too much into your mystery.
Get Organized Before You Write
You will enjoy the writing process more if you organize your thoughts before you start writing the story.
Get to know your protagonist. Your mystery detective carries your story. Know as much as possible about your sleuth. The deeper you probe the more your readers will engage.
Plan the important details of your storyline. As you write you'll have a roadmap of where you are going. This plan will help you stay on course so you don't end up with a 400-page story with 26 suspects. Instead, you will have a select group of 5 to 8 suspects to develop and keep your sleuth and your reader guessing.
Flesh out your perpetrator. He or she needs to be smart, clever, and able to tell lies well. The more you know about this character, the easier it is to hide important details. Keep your reader guessing.
Manage the Main Storyline
If plotting sounds intimidating, don't use the word. Develop your storyline to follow as you write scene by scene.
The guys at Sterling and Stone put together a brilliant 40 chapter outline. Here's the sequence to help your build your mystery. If you follow the sequence you will outline your story from start to finish.
1 Everyday world, everyday conflict
2 Setup for the inciting incident
3 Inciting incident
4 Aftermath of the inciting incident
5 Setup for the first complication
6 First complication
7 Aftermath of the first complication
8 Minor dark moment
9 Setup for the first plot point
10 First plot point
11 Aftermath of the first plot point
12 Second complication
13 Aftermath of the second complication
14 Setup for the first pinch point
15 First pinch point
16 Aftermath of the first pinch point
17 Third complication
18 Aftermath of the third complication
19 Setup for the midpoint
21 Aftermath of the midpoint
22 Fourth complication
23 Aftermath of the fourth complication
24 Setup for the second pinch point
25 Second pinch point
26 Aftermath of the second pinch point
27 Fifth complication
28 Aftermath of the fifth complication
29 Setup for the second plot point
30 Second plot point
31 Aftermath of the second plot point, part one: the dark moment
32 Aftermath of the second plot point, part two: the resurgence of hope
33 Climax, stage one: preparing for battle
34 Climax, stage two: taking the fight to the enemy
35 Climax, stage three: first contact
36 Climax, stage four: war of attrition
37 Climax, stage five: mano a mano
38 Climax, stage six: from the ashes of disaster
39 Resolution, stage one: sweeping up
40 Resolution, stage two: reconnection
Fill in the 40 chapters with brief descriptions listing the characters involved. It's a quick, smart way to get your story outlined so you can cut through the fog and start writing.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy.
Tips to Make Supporting Characters Suspicious
Supporting characters are rich tools for misdirecting your sleuth. Characters because of their secrets, lies, and coverups lead the sleuth down trails that are dead ends.
How to Make Innocent Suspects Look Guilty
When you observe people, you'll notice actions and dialogue that you can use in your mystery. Keep them in your notebook, because there are ways to make your innocent supporting characters look guilty.
Obvious Motive - the character inherits the estate, or business or wanted the victim as a partner or was being blackmailed by victim or had been jilted by the victim.
Vanishing Act - the character can’t be found when the sleuth comes to question him. He may be innocently off on vacation or a business trip or a romantic tryst. Because your investigator can't find him, he'll appear to be deliberately avoiding contact.
Stonewalling - the character can’t remember or refuses to tell where they were at the time of the murder.
Contradictory Behavior - A character who claims to be clueless about guns has an NRA membership card in his wallet, a character who claims to have been in love with the victim was having an affair with someone else.
Eavesdropper - the character is overheard telling the victim "drop dead” or threatening the victim.
Emnity - the character hates the victim. They may be business rivals involved in a nasty lawsuit or the victim stole their spouse away.
Overeager - the character goes to the investigator and provides tons of information that implicates someone else. But, only some of the information turns out to be true.
Bad Reputation - the character is known to be a liar, or a swindler, cheats on girlfriends, deals drugs, etc.
Guilt by Association - the character hangs out with unpleasant or unsavory characters or is married to someone who hated the victim.
Previously Suspected - the character was convicted of a similar crime though he always claims he was innocent.
Skeleton in the Closet - no one knows it but the character was once or still is a compulsive gambler, pedophile, alcoholic, drug addict, etc.
Crack in the Veneer - a kind, generous, flawlessly beautiful character, kicks a dog, slaps a child, or grinds an expensive piece of jewellery under his heel. Any action that seems completely out of character.
With these as starters you need to give the characters a secret and the lies they tell to cover up their secret. Building on secrets creates puzzles for your reader and sleuth to solve. Done well, the sleuth will solve the puzzle before the reader.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. She coaches writers on story, especially mysteries.
When Friends Become Enemies and Enemies Become Friends
Challenging your protagonist with obstacles adds intrigue and engagement for readers. Reversals, where what appears to be one thing turns into something else are great obstacles to throw at your protagonist. Just when the reader thinks they know, a reversal pivots the story. The protagonist experiences an unexpected challenge.
Action stories often have physical reversals such as a helicopter crash just as the hero is off to catch the bad guy. Character reversals imbue an emotional punch to any story genre.
Setting up character reversals takes a deep knowledge of your characters. You need a deep understanding of weaknesses and masks. For example,
Now think how your story would expand if both supporting characters were in your story. Will your protagonist see the manipulation of the employee? Will she triumph over the devastated woman by winning the man of her dreams?
Creating character reversal requires a deep understanding of your character. You’ll go far beyond physical description and dig into their inner makeup. Reveal the patterns, foibles, weaknesses, and strengths that belong to your character over time. You want to go from how they first appear in body language and speech to the change that emerges to challenge your protagonist.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
The more you add to your character’s list of inner turbulence, the more tools you have to reveal the reversal. In your story you will start with the appearance and gradually reveal the nature that changes the character’s action.
At some point in your story, an action or piece of dialogue will trigger revealing the character’s underpinnings, change their action, and cause your protagonist to rethink their next action.
Once you have given the reader a solid idea of your character, you can hint at the change to come. To make the reversal integral to the story, drop small hints early in Act 2. Use small clues that the reader and your protagonist may overlook—a gesture, a glance, a comment that doesn’t quite fit.
Build on the character’s underlying change so that by the time you are past the midpoint, their base character creates an obstacle for your protagonist.
Take Your Reader on the Ride
As you complicate the characters around the protagonist, you create problems. Obstacles are the meat of challenging your protagonist. Using character reversals challenges your hero to strive for the goal. A novel-length story provides ample space for you to challenge your protagonist with several character reversals.
Give your hero a bumpy ride. Your readers will love the ride.
Zara combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus Mysteries in southern Italy at the time of Ostrogoth rule.
Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash
Choose Your Challenge
Writers come up with many ways to establish the characters in their stories, especially the main character: character interviews, worst fear, early childhood, habits good and bad, etc. What readers want is action.
The easiest way to reconcile your wealth of knowledge about your character and engaging readers in the story is to confront your character with obstacles and challenges. Think of all the character background in the same way you do research:
Click to Tweet: Character background is like research. Only 20% actually shows up in your story.
Create the Challenges
As a storyteller, not just a character creator, find the challenges that reveal your character. The moment the character responds is the moment your reader is right there with the character. Each scene has some small or large difficulty where the character must respond in thought, word, or deed. When the character cares, your reader cares.
In traditional fiction and many genre’s this scene by scene challenge is the crux of getting your reader to turn the pages. As your character develops through the challenges your reader experiences the changes.
As your story and your main character progress, readers tune in to the changes. By the time your story reaches a climax, your reader knows your character, sympathizes with his situation and the final changes of the culmination of all those challenges along the way.
Your character becomes dynamic through her reactions to the challenges you create.
Wait! My Character Doesn't Change
Yes, some stories have a main character whose attributes connect them to a world they must change. The strengths of the character meet the challenges of outside forces and reshape (change) those challenges by enforcing their character traits. Thrillers, crime fiction, and mysteries often follow this story path. Miss Jane Marple doesn’t change. She uses her particular character strengths to reveal (change) the perpetrator.
Raymond Chandler depicts the perfect non-changing PI. This is the essence of a character who uses his attributes to change an imperfect world.
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Change is the Story Key
Call it change or transformation. Whether your character changes or changes the world around, the key to movement and dynamism in your story is the obstacles—great and small-—that build story tension and keep the reader turning pages.
Infographic from Reedsy
Reedsy came up with a great illustration of different dynamic characters. Different dynamics for great story.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.