Mystery is all about puzzle. Deeper characters provide more puzzling challenges to your sleuth. Your sleuth is challenged
by the obstacles the other characters throw his way. One of the best ways to create a puzzle for your sleuth is to give each character a secret and a lie. Or more than one.
Secrets and the lies characters use to preserve the secret add a human dimension to characters. Whether it’s the villain or a suspect each character has things they don’t want others to know.
Your sleuth is challenged by diving through the lies to get to the truth that lies underneath. Ultimately, he must separate the various truths to get to the one that reveals the killer.
How to Create the Secret
As you create background details for each character in your character bible, add two sections. One for the secret and one for the lies the character tells to hide the secret.
Along with the character’s context in the story, his ability to lie to hide a personal secret is a device you can use to confound your sleuth.
The lie doesn’t have to be about the murder. It can be anything that particular character wants to hide from public knowledge. An affair, a gambling habit, a fear of public speaking are all fair game.
You’ll need to know about your character’s personality and their role in the story to come up with a suitable lie that fits the character. Creating a strong character background is essential to create a believable lie that fits the character.
I like to think of it as casting the best characters possible to make the story work.
The Two Lies Each Character Tells
Once you identify the character’s secret, you need to devise the lies he tells to cover up the secret. The lies are at two different levels.
You can add another layer or two of lies, especially if the character is a main suspect. Your sleuth will keep pushing, and you want those defenses ready.
Humanize Your Characters
Everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden. Adding secrets and lies to your characters gives them depth as characters in your mystery as well as
obstacles for your sleuth.
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Body Details to Improve Your Story
Most writers don’t think of anatomy and physiology when they are creating a story, but you can enhance reader engagement with body part details. If you find your characters all nodding in agreement or sighing in resignation, try expanding your view of the character.
Every emotion sets off physical responses in the body. You can use the details of these responses to enrich your story.
The next time a character has a response, think of their whole body from head to toe. What are their hands doing? How are they breathing? What is their body position? Use one of those responses in your story.
Many writers act out a scene to get a better feel for how characters feel. You may feel self-conscious the first time you try, but putting yourself in your characters’ roles and physically acting out a scene gives you details you wouldn’t think of typing on your computer.
Your Head-to-Toe Checklist
Think about every part of your character’s body to create detailed reactions. You be on your way to creating vibrant and complex characters. You’ll make your characters knowable to the reader and the details create empathy. They’ll know when your sleuth has a worthy opponent and when a suspect is lying. And, they’ll know your sleuth’s reactions to those characters.
Each time you need to create action between characters give each character a body review. Here’s a list to help you go from top to bottom.
The reactions you use for each character depends on the point of view (POV) in the scene. Your sleuth can’t know what’s going on internally - brain, stomach - but she can use her powers of observation to note other physical reactions.
Breathe Life Into Your Characters
Readers identify with physical reactions. They understand because they experience these reactions themselves. Tie the physical reactions to emotions bring characters alive.
Seasoned writers use this technique as they write. Beginning writers may focus on these bodily reactions during editing. In the speed of just getting it written you may write He nodded. During editing you have time to expand the physical reactions.
Two handbooks can help you work with these details:
Both books are available in both digital and print format. They are both great reference guides when writing character reactions. Add them to your library.
Realistic detail brings your characters alive for your readers. Use one or two examples for each reaction (don’t overload your reader) to keep them engaged, sympathetic, and turning pages.
Why Casting Your Characters Helps Your Mystery
To make your character function in your story world, you need to create details that set each one apart from the others. While the most important feature of your character in the story is the context, how they serve the story, help your readers identify each character with details.
Thriller writer Dana Haynes recently spoke at my local Sisters in Crime chapter. He advised something I’ve been doing for years, “Cast your characters.” Use film actors and personalities to embody your character as you write. It doesn’t matter if they are living. What you want is the sense of how they move and speak.
I cast footballer Ádám Bogdán as one of Argolicus’ bodyguards, in my present work in progress The Grain Merchant. I wanted the energy and fierceness always in my head when writing.
You can differentiate your characters with distinct character traits. It’s OK to borrow from those famous people. Use your character Bible to keep notes so when you bring a character back after 50 pages, you know the details.
Create a background for each one of your characters. Some writers use a binder, others use built in character notes from software like Scrivener or StoryShop. Whatever tool you choose, enumerate the character traits that differentiate the character to make them memorable for your reader.
You’ll guide your readers through the maze of characters you create with specific details. If a character gets left behind for 50 pages, one outstanding detail will refresh your reader’s memory.
Borrow freely from your actor. As well as physical and personality traits, your actor may inspire the perfect secret and the lies your character constructs to make them a suspicious suspect.
The actor’s voice and speech patterns will help you write dialogue unique to each character.
When you cast each character, you’ll have an immediate fix on their personality as you write. You’ll have a red head with attitude, a debonair ex-husband, or a sultry, pouting mistress. (Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Gloria Graham.)
Your Casting Call
Once you have your character’s context in the story, start searching for your cast.
If you already have an actor in mind, gather some images and put them in your character Bible. If you need to get a better fix on a character, perform an online search with terms like sex, age, and hair color. A broad search will give you plenty of results. Narrow your choices down to one or possibly two.
This selection process helps you understand your character, because from the wide range of choices, you’ll see that many don’t fit. And, you’ll discover that an actor you hadn’t thought about, is just the right persona.
Both the search and the final choice will help you write a character that readers remember.
A Scene is a Revelation
A story is a sequence of small moments. The first moment is make or break for getting your reader involved.
Writing advice for beginning novelists can be confusing, like to start with a hook or show the hero’s everyday world. It’s easy to go way off track by starting with a sex scene to “grab” reader attention and then go on to something else that proves that first scene is extraneous. Or, in the everyday world the hero wakes up, looks in the mirror in the bathroom complete with a physical description, and then goes to the kitchen to make breakfast.
Neither of these devices gets your reader into the story. That’s your job at the beginning. Reassure readers that the story you promised feels like the genre they want, gets your protagonist in action right away, and delivers a dilemma that keeps them reading for more.
What Readers Want in the First Chapter
Readers want to know your mystery is worth their time and emotional involvement. Deliver the goods up front.
Once you know what needs to be at the beginning, you can start your opening scene.
The Opening Scene
So, how do you go from a hook to the protagonist’s ordinary world in a mystery? The best way to navigate that opening scene is through emotional states. Starting with physical details can lead a beginning writer in the wrong direction. Jump right in to how your detective feels. Every scene needs an emotional turn, so starting with a feeling gets your reader onboard emotionally.
Start with your sleuth in the middle of something in his everyday world. Give him a want. It can be small - returning spoiled cabbage to the grocery store, attempting to reach a partner/friend/girlfriend. Show his emotions - disgust, anger, eager to connect for tonight’s dinner/bowling night/ date. Show his emotions.
Something impedes your sleuth’s progress. Aim to make this happen on the first page. A stranger/opposition/friend asks for help/tells him to drop tonight’s date/pushes him down as they flee (your choice). The stranger can be a key suspect as the mystery unfolds or the murder victim or your sleuth left his weapon at home or lost a phone connection or… Show your sleuth’s emotional response to this interruption.
The key is to cause a disturbance, something prickly, in the protagonist’s world. Now you are bringing your reader into the story. Your sleuth and your reader will experience an emotional change from the beginning to the end of the scene.
Each emotional response ties your reader to your hero in ways just telling action will not do. Focus on the emotional world of your protagonist. Represent the emotions through action and dialogue. When the protagonist’s emotion change you bring the reader into the story.
You Don’t Have to Get it Right, Just Get It
Experienced authors may go back to edit, rewrite, or even change the first scene. On your first round, if you focus on the emotional tenor and the change your sleuth experiences, you’ll be well on your way to bringing your reader into the story.
Meet reader expectations right away with genre, tone, main character and a weakness and a strength while constructing a scene based on an emotional shift.
The purpose of story is to give the reader an emotional interpretation of the world. Focus your opening scene on that interpretation. Disturb your character in their world. Give him a prickle.
Photo by Joao Ferreira Gomes on Unsplash
The Hidden Backstory of a Mystery
The villain and the victim are star characters in your mystery. As the story unfolds for the reader the focus is on your sleuth, but the relationship of these supporting characters are the crux of the resolution.
In a traditional mystery the puzzle pieces the sleuth uncovers are based on the relationship between the victim and the villain. As you construct your story, you reveal the layers of the victim’s life as your sleuth learns more and more about the victim’s world.
At various places in your story, you set up clues for the sleuth that reveal the connection between the victim and the villain. Part of the fun of writing your mystery is hiding those clues to baffle your sleuth and keep your reader guessing.
The Relationship Web
The background work you do in character development builds the relationship between the villain and the victim. The more you know about these main mystery characters, the richer your story details will be.
Make no mistake, the victim is a character in your story, not just a dead body.
In order for your sleuth to discover the villain, he must understand the victim. Your sleuth explores the victim’s world to find clues and suspects related to the victim’s death. Once the murder is discovered
- usually near the beginning of your mystery - your work as a storyteller is to reveal the victim’s character through the eyes of others and the clues.
As you develop the character background for your victim, know their relationship with all the suspects, but focus on the relationship with the villain. Create at least two and up to four secrets about the victim. Then reveal them through the story through physical clues and dialogue from other characters.
Some secrets may be red herrings that make another character look guilty and at least one will reveal the villain’s identity.
Throughout most of your mystery, the villain is one of several suspects. Create a rich background. You’ll give yourself a variety of puzzle pieces to drop into your story. Go beyond the villain as a character role. Give her a name, a background with relationships, a physical fallibility, and emotional weakness.
In your background, focus on the relationship between the villain and the victim. Their relationship is the basis for the murder and the sleuth’s involvement. Think of ways the two connected, then the ways things went wrong, and finally the one incident that tipped the villain to murder.
Like any story research, you may use only 20% of the relationship you create. Experienced writers know that rich background allows for opportunities to use details as they are writing. Even, you, the writer, may not know which details you will use in your mystery until you are writing. That is why the deeper the relationship background you build between the villain and the victim, the more you have to use at the right moment in your story.
The Two Key Characters
The relationship between the villain and the victim is germane to creating a strong mystery. Without their relationship, there would be no murder. A rich background of their relationship arms you with a variety of ways to hide the villain as a suspect. The more you know about the villain, the more you have to hide in your story. Those hidden clues challenge your reader to solve the puzzle.
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Discovery and Your Sleuth
Once a crime is discovered and your sleuth takes on finding the killer, his next step is to unearth possible suspects. As he visits close friends, work colleagues, the coffee shop owner where the victim went each morning, your sleuth begins to
create a picture of the victim’s world.
The picture your sleuth develops is like the blind men and the elephant. Each person he interviews has their own version of who the victim was and how the victim operated in the world. As a writer, you lead your reader through a maze of conflicting perceptions about the victim.
In a mystery novel, the discovery process occurs in the first half of the middle up to the midpoint. Your sleuth collects evidence and attempts to sort out the victim’s life through interviews with the people attached to the victim, the suspects.
The main way your sleuth interacts with those suspects is through dialogue. This is your opportunity to play.
Dialogue in Discovery
Your sleuth learns about the suspects through their demeanor, dress, and actions. But, dialogue is the most direct way you can set up your mystery. Every suspect has their personal secrets. As your sleuth asks questions, the suspect works to keep the secret a secret. The secret may or may not bear on the victim’s death.
Your sleuth, and your readers, must interpret what each suspect says to discover the truth. Your job as a writer is to make each suspect as suspicious as possible. What they say and how they act toward the sleuth creates the suspicion.
You have several avenues to use in dialogue to heighten the suspicion.
Enhance your suspect’s dialogue by giving each suspect a unique voice. Social position, craft or occupation, family heritage, and personality influence how they speak. Color the dialogue with the suspect’s unique attributes. Doing so, you will minimize your need to add dialogue tags. The reader will know who is speaking.
A Middle Without A Sag
The discovery process in a mystery sets out the puzzle pieces. In this section of your mystery novel, the sleuth is gathering information, collecting the pieces. He is nowhere near solving the mystery, and neither is your reader.
Each scene with a new suspect is a chance to plant doubt in your reader’s mind. Dialogue with each suspect reveals more of the victim’s world as your sleuth tries to understand the victim and why they were killed
. As you raise questions in the reader’s mind, you build conflict for the sleuth and keep readers turning pages.
Need more help with your mystery? Coaching can help you get to The End. http://bit.ly/MysteryWritingCoach
Create Awesome Suspects to Delight Your Readers
Mystery readers love to be tantalized. The clues, red herrings, and evidence you plant in your story lead them to guessing while your sleuth tries to reason out the possibilities. Your suspects weave the rich tapestry that keeps readers guessing.
I recently read A Murder of Crows by Ian Skewis. The psychology behind each character is deep and every character, including the detective, is flawed. Skewis reveals characters by peeling back those proverbial onion skins. Readers get deeper and deeper into what makes a character tick.
You may not be writing a mystery that tends toward psychological thriller, but revealing your characters’ personality draws readers into the story.
Why Readers Love Suspects
Your suspects are the meat of your mystery. Eventually your sleuth has to unearth which of the suspects is guilty. Give your sleuth, and your reader, possibilities.
Clues and evidence are hooks to get readers attention. Well-created characters keep readers turning pages. Those suspects have secrets and tell lies. They also have personal antagonisms, likes and dislikes. You build suspense when the detective must puzzle out those lies, get beyond the antagonisms, and discern which likes and dislikes are pertinent to solving the mystery.
The reason readers love suspects is because they present possibilities.
5 Ways to Make Your Suspects Intriguing
Know the understructure of your characters. Add details, backstory, and motivations in your Character Bible and weave them into your mystery. Write dialogue snippets. Describe their body language. The more layers you create, the more your reader wants to know more.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
When you give each suspect foibles, something to hide, and defense mechanisms to throw at your sleuth, you’ll keep your reader wondering.
A Practice Exercise
Use the image above as a starting point for three characters. Each one looks a bit shady. Now differentiate those characters.
If you can work through the character differentiation for these three, you can do it for the suspects in your mystery.
When you know the understructure of your suspects, you’ll find casting suspicion on each one easier as they misbehave, tell small and big lies, and confound your sleuth and your readers. The character work you do for each suspect rewards you with details to use in your mystery.
Challenge Your Sleuth With Mysterious Suspects
Suspects are the lifeblood of your mystery. Without them your mystery sleuth would have no challenges and solve the mystery in an instant. While evidence, clues, and red herrings help your reader keep guessing, the suspects provide personal interaction with your sleuth. That interaction is the story world that keeps your reader turning pages.
Your challenge as a mystery writer is to create characters that challenge your sleuth. Your detective must track down, examine, and determine each suspect’s relationship to the victim. Each interaction with a suspect drives your sleuth - and your reader - toward the final solution.
Four Steps to Create a Suspicious Character
Each suspect had a relationship with the victim. Use that relationship to provide insight into the victim’s world. But, each suspect also has a private life. That private life is what drives the interaction with your sleuth.
Start your suspect by building a rich background.
Go way beyond The Thug as a character. Give the thug a name, a background with relationships, a physical fallibility, and emotional weakness. Adrian McKinty creates a memorable layered hitman, Markov, in his novel Falling Glass in a relationship with his girlfriend which up the stakes of his assignment.
Authors like Ruth Rendell, Ann Cleeves, and Elizabeth George build their mysteries on deep psychological character portrayals. Even if you are not writing a “psychological” mystery, you’ll build reader engagement by delving into your characters.
The Suspense Secret
The more readers see your characters hiding secrets the more they engage in solving the mystery. Your sleuth works hard to uncover the secrets suspects hide. Your readers will work just as hard as suspects throw up screens and hide personal secrets.
The secrets your suspects harbor do not need to be related to the murder. A suspect can appear suspicious by hiding a personal secret that doesn’t relate to the victim or the murder. The very act of attempting to hide a secret creates tension in your story. Tension keeps readers turning pages.
Rich supporting characters give your readers an engaging reading experience. The obstacles they create for your sleuth are obstacles for readers who are trying to solve the mystery.
Not the Villain, The Obstacle Maker
Enrich your mystery with an opponent who gives your detective problems. The opponent has a role quite different from the villain’s role. The villain in a mystery is the one who committed the murder. From Agatha Christie's Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot to the neighbor Grannen in the Swedish television series Beck.
The opponent is a character who causes trouble for your hero, the detective. They may be a rival, or a love or ex-spouse, or a neighbor… But somehow, villainous or bumbling, they are connected to the detective and oppose your central character.
Just like the sidekick, the opponent can be any age or sex. Their main role in the story is to cause problems and throw up obstacles for the detective. These obstacles force your detective to show qualities and personality characteristics that deepen your reader’s understanding of the central character.
The opponent creates obstacles that personally affect the detective and often hinder the murder investigation.
It’s up to your writer imagination to come up with ways to thwart your detective.
Sleuth Character Expansion
Depending on the opponent’s character and role in the mystery, each obstacle creates and opportunity for the mystery writer to expand your reader’s knowledge of the sleuth.
Because the opponent is outside the sleuth’s investigation, the interactions between the two characters are personal. These interactions reveal character traits the sleuth may not use in the pursuit of a murder inquiry.
Again, your writer imagination is the key to creating situations that emphasize your sleuth’s traits by interacting with the opponent.
The Free Character for Mystery Writers
The opponent complicates the sleuth’s life but not the mystery. The opponent can be a fun addition to your mystery because they don’t have to be part of the solution. As a novelist, you have a free hand in creating the sleuth’s opponent. Make the opponent as likeable or unlikable as you want and then insert them into the story to reveal your sleuth’s character traits. Readers will relate to your character and the misadventures created by the opponent.
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.
Photo by Gaumont - © 2000
A Sidekick Amplifies Your Sleuth and the Story
The sidekick is a traditional literary archetype that will enhance your mystery novel. The sidekick can be a working partner or a friend. The sidekick’s role in the story will vary depending on how you choose to amplify your sleuth with the sidekick. The ways your sidekick can mirror your sleuth depends on his story role.
Although some sleuths work alone, using a sidekick in your mystery can illustrate your sleuth’s weaknesses or strengthen his personal traits. When you expand your protagonist with interaction with a sidekick, reader’s engage with your story.
The Role of the Sidekick
The sidekick has a special role in your story and that is to accompany the hero on his quest. In a mystery, the sidekick helps your sleuth track down the murderer.
The sidekick is not necessarily a mentor. The role of the mentor is to appear periodically and provide sage advice. Your sidekick doesn’t have to do this. The sidekick wouldn’t be a sidekick if he wasn’t there through thick and thin.
Your sleuth and the sidekick have a connection that sets them on the trail of discovery to find the murderer. Even if the sidekick is assigned to your sleuth - this often happens in police crime novels - they both are set on solving the mystery.
How The Sidekick Mirrors Your Detective
Because the sidekick and the sleuth work together, they have something in common. It may be a knowledge of police procedure or a common interest. In the film The Crimson Rivers, thoughtful Pierre Niemans (Jean Reno) works with action-oriented Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel). Though they are often at odds on procedure, they both have the goal of finding the killer. John D. MacDonald created Meyer, the economist, to help readers understand Travis McGee in his long-running series.
The sidekick holds up a mirror to your sleuth by highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the sidekick compensates for the weaknesses by having an opposite personality or style of response. Some sidekicks may pick up the slack, others may not. The sidekick can highlight the strengths by pointing them out when your sleuth meets an obstacle.
Points to Consider as You Create Your Sleuth’s Sidekick
As a writer, you have a lot of leeway as you create your sleuth’s sidekick. Your sidekick can be male or female, younger or older or the same age, new to the game or an old hand. It’s up to you to create a sidekick that will accompany your sleuth on the discovery journey.
The Sidekick Supports Your Sleuth
Your sidekick supports your sleuth physically and emotionally as they work to solve the whodunit puzzle.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.