Private 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.