How do you get readers to connect with your Sleuth?

canstockphoto1131704A memorable murder is essential for a memorable murder mystery. However, readers don’t turn the pages because they care about an unfortunate corpse. They want to help the cool kids solve the mystery.

That means your murder mystery has to start with an interesting sleuth.

Being smart, attractive, and witty with the puns doesn’t cut it. In a murder mystery (and really any modern novel) an interesting protagonist has a character trait that readers identify with. They feel a connection to the character, and can empathize with what makes that character tick. When you think about it, characters that have a strong desire to achieve something – whether that’s overcoming an internal struggle or finding love, freedom, forgiveness, acceptance – have the strongest impact on readers.

There’s an inherent tension in wanting the Protagonist to achieve his desire, but also knowing that he may fail. It makes great character drama.

So how do you write this?

Well, first establish the Protagonist’s desire. This is different from solving the murder mystery. This is an individual and deeply personal need of your main character. It could be to reconcile with a family member, to seek forgiveness for a past accident, to return home, to overcome an addiction, etc. What would be unique to your main character’s life or personality?

Second, define what obstacles are keeping your main character from achieving this desire. If it’s to reconcile with a family member, what’s keeping them apart? What’s preventing him from receiving or accepting forgiveness? Why can’t he go home? Is there an enabler in his life that’s preventing him from overcoming the addiction?

Finally, establish the stakes. What terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t achieve his desire? Will he never find love? Lose his family? Never see his son again?

This internal drive serves to make the Protagonist relatable to readers. This desire should affect the main plot as well, providing a stumbling block or two while solving the murder. And, if you can come full circle, tie both plots together in the end so that the Protagonist achieving his desire allows him to ultimately identify and catch the murderer.

Does your sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

canstockphoto11602983I just finished a manuscript in which a mystery is solved by an amateur sleuth who hates technology. It’s an interesting premise. Surprisingly though, the sleuth’s aversion to laptops, cell phones, iPods and treadmills had no impact on the story. It had nothing to do with the mystery or in any way helped him figure out the whodunit or capture the murderer. He just complained about technology.

After reading it, I asked the author why she gave the main character that quirk. She told me that she was trying to make the sleuth interesting, to give him a memorable personality trait. As it turns out, her writer’s group read her story and told her that the main character was too bland, and that she needed to spice him up. So she came up with that personality quirk and inserted some new dialog.

That got me to thinking: how do you make an offbeat quirk a natural part of a character’s personality?

Offbeat characteristics can be fun to write, but if not done correctly, they can be distracting to the reader. In the story I just read, it was clearly not an organic part of the narrative. It was tacked on and it felt like it. And to fix that story, two things need to happen. Number one, the sleuth’s extremely negative reaction to geeky coolness should — in some way — help him solve the murder. Number two is rooting the quirk within the character’s history.

For the most part, supporting characters can have odd, outrageous quirks without delving into that character’s pathos. The same can’t be said for main characters. Their back stories need to be more developed and should provide an explanation for the abnormal behavior. Cause and effect comes into play. You’ve got ask, “What experiences would produce that trait?”

If your sleuth is going to have a quirky personality trait, he better have a history to back it up.

Want to read more? Check out:
Quirky Character Traits

Private Eyes: Getting a PI involved in a murder mystery

canstockphoto13971872Ironically, the Private Investigator is a staple of the murder mystery genre. In real life, the PI almost never works a murder investigation. That job is left to professional police forces. But whether their goal is truth, justice, the American Way or putting bread on the table, the PI can still get involved in your mystery through a lot of ways.

  • A friend or family member may retain your PI’s services after an initial homicide investigation has hit a dead end.
  • Search for a missing person – especially if police believe that person is voluntarily missing. When that person is found dead, the PI is now heavily involved.
  • Skip traces – and not just persons who take off after making bail, but subcontractors who take initial payment for construction work then disappear or runaway teens. Whether the skip is found dead or is a suspect in another murder, the PI is now on the case.
  • An attorney may hire a PI to find someone who witnessed a crime, or find a witness who has disappeared. Again, it brings the PI’s involvement in through the back door.
  • An insurance agency may hire a PI to research the circumstances of an accident that led to a large payout, especially when arson is involved. Of course, this leads the PI to getting involved with the suspect.
  • An embittered spouse may hire a PI to prove a loved one’s infidelity. It’s the oldest plot in the book, but can still put the PI on the murder trail.



Heroes & Heroines: 3 Tips for writing a kick-ass Protagonist

canstockphoto11443939Sure, a strong plot is important. But, at the soul of a good story is a hero with a problem, and the more compelling that hero is, the better the story will be. Perfect, two-dimensional protagonists don’t create suspenseful, page-turners. That requires interesting, jump-off-the-page, grab-the-readers-by-the-throat heroes and heroines. The ones you keep thinking about long after you finish the book’s last page.

If you’re looking for some ideas to breathe life into your sleuth, here’s a place to start.

Give your hero skin in the game

Sure, your hero is capable of getting involved in the murder investigation, but why should she? Sometimes, just having a reason to act (i.e it’s her job) isn’t enough. So raise the stakes. The risk of loss is a powerful motivation. The greater and more personal that loss is, the more believable it is when the hero goes to unbelievable measures.

Give your character the capacity to change

Growth is often the heart of a story. It can take a series of plot events and imbue them with depth and meaning, creating a tale worth telling. A developed, believable hero is affected and changed by the experiences, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Either way, she’s not quite the same person she was when the story begun.

Consider giving your hero a secret

Transpicuous, straight-forward characters are predictable, and predictable reads boring. So what if your sleuth is hiding a secret of her own? Let your protagonist be a little cryptic. What if she’s doing something or reacts a certain way that the reader doesn’t understand at first. Your readers will turn the page to learn what that secret is, why she is hiding it and how it will affect the story.

Want to read more? Check out:

Tips to Create a Memorable Sleuth

Creating Your Hero by Finding Your Inner Madonna

Eight Life Lessons: Ideas for Themes and Character Arcs

Amateur Sleuths – How your next door neighbor solves crimes

canstockphoto1499758There are three kinds of sleuths in a murder mystery:

  1. Law Enforcement – the city cop, sheriff, deputy, district attorney, Federal agent or military law enforcer
  2. Private Investigator – the hired PI, the retired or ex-cop
  3. Amateur Sleuth – lawyer,  reporter, any private citizen who gets accidentally involved or has a vested interest and chooses to become involved in the criminal investigation

Personally, the Amateur Sleuth is my favorite to read and, as an author, I love coming up with all kinds of ways to plunge my Protagonist into the throws of a good murder investigation. Here are a few ideas that I’ve collected over the years.

Giving your Amateur Sleuth reason to solve the murder

  • Comes to aid of another
  • Curiosity
  • Defense Attorney seeks the truth
  • Hired as a bounty hunter
  • Hired to find a suspect
  • Mistaken identity
  • To bring a crime to police’s attention
  • To claim a reward
  • To get an exclusive story
  • To settle an old score
  • To write a book
  • Prevent own demise
  • Protect another from harm
  • Prove another’s innocence
  • Prove a crime was committed
  • Prove own innocence when suspected of the murder


Creating your Heroine by finding your inner Madonna

1sbdcwPgu0HlOver the weekend, I was searching the net for character ideas, and was hoping to pattern an under-developed heroine around the personality of an established celebrity. That’s when I came across this interesting quiz on a blog titled “What Madonna Are You?

I was surprised to find so many interesting personality profiles attached to one person. Obviously, Madonna changes her image and hair color with every new album, but I never noticed the personality diversity. It’s astonishing to see how different one persona has been from another, and I realized there’s a treasure trove of personality arch types here. I think you could pull three individual characters from this list into one book, and no one would ever realize they were all patterned off the Material Girl.

If you’re looking for inspiration for a female character, take a look through the list below. And, for anyone who’s curious, it turns out that I’m the “No Pants Madonna.” Who knew?


Tips to Create a Memorable Sleuth

canstockphoto13971872Private Detective Kinsey Millhone. Phillip Marlowe. Sam Spade. Miss Jane Marple. Hercule Poirot.

The sleuth in your story comes from a long line of memorable protagonists who identified and eliminated suspects, detected the minutest of clues and solved the unsolvable that came before. They have a balance of psychological depth and endearing personality quirks. Plots revolve around the believability of their deduction skills. So how does your sleuth compare?

If Holmes, Marple, Marlowe, et al, have taught us anything, it’s that your sleuth doesn’t have to be real, but believable. Their actions don’t have to real either, but they do have to be plausible.

Here are a few ideas to create a credible sleuth:

1. Give your Sleuth a motivation (outside solving the mystery)
An interesting character wants (often, NEEDS) something. To find a missing relative; to rekindle a past love; to better his position at work; to have a family; to further an environmental or political issue; the list goes on. They are driven by that desire, and spend an entire story trying to fulfill it. Your reader needs to know what compels your Protagonist. What are her motives? Yes, the sleuth will ultimately have a mystery to solve, but the protagonist’s motivation should fall beyond that plot. Often, his or her motivational pursuit will lead them into the middle of the mystery waiting to be solved. Sometimes it commits them to solve it. For other stories, the mystery may be in direct conflict with that motivation.

2. Place conflict in your Sleuth’s path
You’ve already established that your Protagonist has a need. Now put something or someone in his way. The Sheriff doesn’t believe the relative is missing; the past love has a new boyfriend; the boss’ son is also up for the promotion, and the list goes on. Position your sleuth between hard choices: choices that compete with one another.

3. Give your Sleuth strengths
Everyone is an expert at something. Your Protagonist should be as well. Maybe he has an eidetic memory; can calculate complicated equations in her head; has psychic visions; knows every baseball statistic since 1932; can recite all the state capitals; can whip up the best beef wellington in town. The sleuth must be capable of solving the murder and her strengths should play a key role in the investigation, if not critical to solving the murder. Also, strengths (or weaknesses) can be unique, fun and quirky, and have an unexpected impact on the story.

4. Give your Sleuth a weaknesses
Your  sleuth is not all-seeing, all-knowing — otherwise, what’s the point. She’d proactively prevent the murder from occurring in the first place. So, since your sleuth is a well-rounded human, he has fears and weaknesses. Maybe he’s socially awkward; is afraid of heights; can’t speak to large groups; hates children; fears spiders; spends too much money; has a car that is continually breaking down. Be careful with the weakness though. Your protagonist must be likable. And while a flawless sleuth is not a very interesting one, don’t over do it. If the weakness isn’t endearing (or worse, actually off-putting) you’ll lose your reader’s willingness to join in their adventure.

5. Connect the Motivation, Strengths and weakness to the Sleuth’s backstory
Your sleuth probably already has a history. You know where she grew-up and went to school. He met a girl and lost her. yada yada yada. Now how did that history shape her? When did he discover his strengths? Did he learn a lesson of responsibility? What events in her childhood imprinted her weakness? How has she struggled to overcome it?  Give your sleuth backbone. There is nothing admirable about a sleuth who stumbles into and solves a mystery through happenstance and coincidence.The events in your sleuth’s life should have cosmically prepared her to overcome the obstacles thrown at her in your book. You see, she’s just like us, PLUS. We all have all have lives and homes and jobs and friends — and few of us end up in books.