Sherlock Holmes. Jane Marple. Jack Reacher.
Three famous names with something important in common … aside from the fact that each of them solves crimes in mystery or thriller novels.
What is this common element?
Readers love them.
The key to writing successful mysteries and thrillers doesn’t lie in careful plotting, clever crimes, or sneaky suspects. The heart of these stories beats in the chest of the sleuth.
Everyone enjoys a puzzle, and a tightly-woven plot is important, but readers return to a mystery (or thriller) series because they want to spend more time with a favorite hero(ine). Solving the puzzle is much more fun when you “ride along” with a friend, and a well-written sleuth is a reader’s friend indeed.
So before you sit down to commit—and solve—the initial crime in your manuscript, hunt down a compelling hero (or heroine) your readers will remember long after they turn the final page.
How do you “find” such a person? Let’s look at a few of the characteristics that most successful sleuths (and thriller-heroes) have in common:
1. Unusual Occupations. Many authors assume a sleuth must be a professional. The mystery and thriller shelves are filled with FBI agents, police, and forensic specialists doing their best to catch the killer and save the world.
But with so many “standard” crime solvers already in circulation, sometimes readers like to see a different kind of sleuth.
Brother Cadfael is a monk. Miss Marple, a widow. My own detective, Hiro Hattori, is a ninja.
Giving your hero a lesser-known occupation opens new worlds for the reader and also allows you a different range of crime-solving skills. Be creative! Your readers will love the change.
2. A Limp, An Eyepatch, and Battle Scars. In his popular screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder recommends giving every character “a limp and an eyepatch” to distinguish him (or her) from the other characters in the scene. The idea applies to novels, too, and a good detective always has an unusual physical characteristic (or “tell”).
The characteristic can either relate your sleuth’s physical appearance—Is he missing an eye or a finger? Does she dye her eyebrows green?—or you can use it to establish a mood or reaction. My detective, Hiro Hattori, has a tendency to raise an eyebrow for ironic effect. His sidekick, Father Mateo, runs a hand through his hair when distressed or upset.
In addition to adding uniqueness and depth of character, physical characteristics can become an effective shorthand for a character’s mood or thought.
3. And Also, a Trunk Full of Baggage. Special Agent Gibbs (of NCIS) lost his wife and daughter (they were murdered by a drug lord). Jack Reacher has a shadowed past, and lives like he’s on the run. Miss Marple never married, and she’s crotchety as the day is long.
Nobody’s perfect, and your sleuth should not be, either. Every person has experienced disappointment, injury, and unresolved issues (or broken dreams). Your hero needs to suffer, too.
Whether the suffering happens onstage (for example, the death of a family member) or off (a tragedy or problem in the past) is up to you. But you must do something. Readers respond to damaged heroes. Watching a character overcome her own problems to help someone else is compelling on many levels.
Take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Use your plot or series to help him recover.
Your readers will love you—and your detective—for it.
4. Keep the Skeletons IN the Closet (Mostly). A good detective or thriller hero must feel like a real person, which almost always involves an extensive and detailed backstory.
Readers hate backstory. Flights of memory, or fancy, interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract from the sleuth’s objective: solving the crime.
The answer? Treat your detective’s backstory like a good mystery: drop some clues, but don’t reveal the entire thing. Spread the story across the series. Hide it in the stories like an Easter bunny dropping chocolate eggs. (Don’t spend too long on that metaphor. You don’t want to think about where those “chocolates” come from…)
By keeping your hero’s skeletons IN the closet, except for occasional peeks, you’ll keep your readers engaged, intrigued, and eager for the next reveal.
5. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone … Some sleuths do solve crimes alone, but most of them have a sidekick, a pet, or both. Sidekicks serve an important purpose (which, hopefully, I’ll get to share in more detail next month). Pets do too. They humanize the hero(ine) and draw the reader closer. Incorporating one, or both, allows the writer to bring the reader right into the story, alongside the sleuth, and to see the sleuth behaving like a human being as well as a hero.
The choices are limitless, and the options as wide as your imagination.
You don’t have to integrate all of these tips to create a fantastic, compelling sleuth. Select the ones that work for you, and ignore the ones that don’t. Even if you work with only one or two of these options, you’ll find your hero becoming increasingly three-dimensional and intriguing … characteristics that keep your readers coming back for more.
Have you ever thought about writing a mystery? How about a thriller? Do you use some or all of these elements when creating your protagonists? (They work in other genres too, you know!)
Susan Spann is a California publishing and business attorney who also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Her second novel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases July 15, 2014. Susan’s legal practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).
Reblogged this on ldbush21.
While I write non-fiction, I enjoyed this informative post, Susan. Thank you, and best of luck BLADE.
I’m really glad you enjoyed it – and thank you so much for the good wishes! Best of luck with your projects also!
Excellent post, Susan! Mystery isn’t my thing, but emotion and deep characters are. The only mystery writer I’ve read is Dick Francis – but I’ve read ALL of them! I started, because he writes about horses (mostly racing and steeple chasing) and I’m a horse nut. But I was sucked in and carried from book to book by the unlikely hero… a quiet, unassuming Englishman. But he’s got a keen brain, and notices details. And when he’s in trouble, even tortured, Francis wrote it so well, so subtly and in keeping with the character, I fell in love with the hero.
In the hands of a good writer, the most ordinary person can become extraordinary! Thanks for the great post!
Thank you Laura. I think the techniques for a good mystery protagonist translate across to many other genres too – and you’re right that Dick Francis also has a fantastic and detailed hero. I like his books too!
Excellent information. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you Lisa – I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Whenever I think of Sherlock Holmes (the original), a picture comes to mind of an unusual hat and a pipe. Perhaps distinctive clothing/props could be point number six.
Sherlock Holmes(from the books) always brings to mind his height for me, along with the way he liked to show up the official police force. 😉
Props are absolutely important details. I normally consider them part of the “limp and an eyepatch” section, but they could easily be added as a sixth point, because they can be very distinctive in and of themselves.
I love this post, Susan.
Even for those of us who aren’t mystery writers, there are great take-aways from this post.
I’m so glad Orly! It was fun to write, and I hope people find some useful pieces in there even if they’re not writing mystery or thriller. 🙂
Hey Orly, as a fellow horse-nut, have you read Dick Francis?
Thanks for this post. I am writing my revising my first mystery. The first thing I did when I started writing it was to come up with a “biography” of the heroine with her backstory and quirks. I agree that most of the mysteries I have enjoyed over the years are because I love the hero/heroine.
PS Miss Marple was not a widow. She was a spinster.
WHOOPS! You’re right! I’d forgotten that Miss Marple never married. Good catch – and teach me to proofread a little more closely!
I do the same thing you did – I write a little biography of each main character, to make sure that I have his or her story together before I start writing. It helps so much when it comes to making them real, doesn’t it?
Susan, although I am a book nut who crosses genres like busy avenues in Mid-town Manhattan, I have always had a secret love affair with mysteries. Starting with Nancy Drew and following with Agatha, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock and on to dozens and dozens of others. I follow series and love to read all of a particular mystery writer, even when they have two sleuths like John Sanford, Robert Parker and others. I also follow dozens of “cozies” and become attached to the quirky way some of them solve the crime 🙂
Naturally, my first freshman attempts at writing were in that genre. I also cross-genre with my writing, but my first love will always be mysteries. My main sleuth is a photo-journalist and her heart break is that her stories are set in the middle of the Vietnam war, the civil rights and protests era of the sixties, always torn between her love of photo-art for art’s sake and her need to find the truth behind her photographs. Of course, she uses photography to solve her crimes and has some interesting help-mates. Broken, bent and determined, the sleuth needs to be more of the focal point than the one crime, or in her case, series of crimes.
Thanks so much for this post, since we mostly discuss romance or WF here … and thanks for taking a side bar from the legal to your fascinating mystery 🙂 Your research must be as complicated as your fish tanks !!
What a wonderful post! Of course, I’ve come to expect that here at WITS. I write romantic suspense and was interested in how many people after finishing my first book wanted to know when the next one about those characters would be out. In point of fact, I didn’t start out with a series in mind. So the second book, out next month is a whole new set of folks. Now the third book will pick up on a supporting character from the first and from there to hopefully 3 others. As plot driven as I am as a writer, I guess it really is the characters who readers latch on to. Great points here. I’ll be keeping and sharing. 🙂
great post, thank you. I have a potential sleuth hidden under dust and bookworms in an old cardboard box. Time to drag him out into fresh air.
This was a very interesting and helpful blog. I pinned it on Pinterest as suggested above. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m sure you’ll continue to have great success with all you future novels.
Great advice! And a lot of it would apply to regular characters too! Thank you!