Know Your Characters
Strong characters keep your readers engaged with your story. You may have a dastardly crime and a sleuth on the trail of the perpetrator, but without characters with distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses, blind spots and passions, it can fall flat.
Make your crime story come to life with three-dimensional characters. You must know the internal logic of each of your characters to portray them as relatable and realistic.
Why are your characters so important in crime novels?
Crime writer Joe Ide said in a recent article on crime characters:
I think one essential skill for a writer is empathy—the ability to get inside someone’s head and see the world through their eyes. Not to judge, but to understand how they make sense of things from their own point of view. Without that insight, you have no idea what your character will do in any given situation. Their actions have to fit their own logic, their own needs. The task as a writer is connecting their point of view with their behavior.
Without strongly established characters, there's nothing to hold your plot together—no motivations, enriching backstories, or tensions. Get inside your character’s head to understand how they respond to the world and other characters in your story.
The reason to understand your characters’ inner logic is to bring them alive as they relate and interact with each other. Each character has specific logic behind what they say—dialogue—and how they act and react to the other characters—action.
Each character’s personal bias and opinions, loves and hates, timidity or audacity motivate their action. One character may love or hate another character. Emotions don’t need to be rational, but they must follow your character’s internal logic.
For example, your detective may think his commanding officer is an interfering micromanager, and his snitch gives him half-baked information. The way your hero talks to these two characters, as well as his body language, will be different.
Research: How to Access Real Police Professionals
However much you know about your characters’ personalities, for a crime novel, you’ll also need to know about your detective’s working environment.
If you are not in law enforcement, you need to understand procedures on how law enforcement works on a daily basis and how a special situation in your story may impact your detective.
The best tactic is to get to know an individual who has the same role as your sleuth. Some local agencies have outreach programs or public relations officers that can help you find someone.
The FBI works with writers to help you get the details right through the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit. You need to submit an application. If you are approved, you can schedule an interview to ask specific questions.
In your imagination, you’ll create special circumstances for your crime. You can help your detective protagonist by knowing the correct procedures and practicalities. You can find supportive online groups with active and retired law enforcement officials to guide you, like:
Add books written by cops for writers to your reference library.
Because you are writing fiction, you have some leeway, but strive to make your sleuth and the actions they take as realistic as possible.
Who You Need in Your Crime Fiction Cast
You’ll want to keep all your character backgrounds in one place so you can reference details as you write. Create a character bible to organize all your characters from your protagonist and antagonist down to the walk-on that appears once or twice in your story.
Your sleuth is the reader’s guide through your crime-solving story. Make him or her empathetic and memorable.
Your protagonist has skills. They know what they are doing when it comes to tracking down criminals.
As a person, you’ll know enough to get him or her to respond in character in any situation. You’ll know enough that when you work with your editor (later on) and they suggest a bit of dialogue for your detective, you can disagree with confidence: He wouldn’t say that.
Create the humanity that gets readers involved with Internal motivations and flaws. A flaw doesn’t need to be big, just a trait that gets in his or her way. They can be short-tempered, have a physical limitation, focus on details and miss the big picture, or have any one flaw that causes problems.
PRO TIP: Avoid alcoholism as a defining characteristic of your detective. It’s overused, overdone, and is now a cliché.
Villains come from all walks of life and in every shape, size, and sex. One thing they are not is dumb.
Your villain must be worthy of the hunt, challenging your hero to discover and reveal who they are.
They create smoke screens, lie convincingly, leer, and win. They committed the crime and their purpose in the story is to outwit your detective’s skills.
The best approach to understanding your villain is to look at their world view. In the villain’s eyes, their beliefs and actions are justified.
The villain may feel unjustly harmed by the victim. Or his killing may feel, to him, like justifiable revenge. Or, her cold-blooded calculation is rational in her belief system.
However you conceive the villain’s motivation, throughout the story, they will remain firm that their world is correct and the killing justified. So, your villain is right in their world while wrong in the world of your story.
The more you know about the victim and their world, the easier it is to construct the puzzle of your crime story. Without the victim, you’d have no crime to solve. Even though the victim may be a corpse when your story starts, they are the fulcrum around which the story pivots.
Basics you need to know:
- The victim’s relationship to the villain
- The victim’s relationship to each of the suspects
- A broad stroke backstory of the victim’s life that will enrich connections to the characters
- The specific action the victim took to incur the villain’s ultimate strike
- The victim’s world — usually unknown to the sleuth
Creating Your Novel's Supporting Cast
The detective, the villain, and the victim create the base of your crime story, but they function in a world filled with characters. These characters bring the world of the story to life. Supporting characters bring out the traits—good and bad—of your main characters as they interact.
Crime novels often have particular supporting character roles. Think of your characters as making up a web. Each character you include should be connected to one of your central three characters in some way:
Think of them in terms of their link to the main three, or their purpose to the story. If they don’t link or serve a purpose, consider whether you need that character.
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 that they present possibilities.
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 crime novel.
The detective’s partner is the opposite of your protagonist. They serve as a mirror to highlight the protagonist’s 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, and others may not. They can also highlight the strengths by pointing them out when your sleuth meets an obstacle.
The sidekick’s role is to make your sleuth protagonist more likeable for your readers.
Keep your sleuth and sidekick connected. If you create an antagonistic sidekick, be sure to make the connection between the two characters strong.
If you create an antagonistic sidekick just to be antagonistic, rethink your sidekick or create a new, more sympathetic and supportive sidekick.
The sidekick and the sleuth take the discovery journey together, not separately.
The Villain’s Minion(s)
A villainous minion is an optional character. In the same way as the sidekick mirrors the detective, the villain’s minion(s) can be used to amplify his or her traits.
The villain may trust the minion or hold them in disdain, but every interaction expands the reader’s view of the villain.
The Love Interest
A love interest is a frequent character in crime novels, but they are also optional.
Readers like to read about the crime, the hunt and hopefully the capture of the suspect. So, make sure any romantic encounters are a subplot.
Having a relationship with someone else enlarges the reader’s understanding of your detective. That relationship can be fraught with tension, cause trouble for your hero, or relieve her tension. Just make sure their relationship is not a major theme of the story.
Don’t forget to include minor characters. They provide the local color for your novel’s world.
Male or female, good or bad, they make your story relatable as your detective navigates the path to discovering and apprehending the villain.
Your Story, Your World, Your Characters
Crime novels revolve around the detective’s hunt for the perpetrator. The rest of the story relies on your imagination as a writer. The nature of the crime, the setting, and the cast of characters are all your choice.
Populate your story with unique and vivid characters to capture your reader’s attention. The details you use and the way your characters speak and act bring your story to life in their imagination.
The work you do creating your characters pays off with ardent fans. Be ready to write more.