Creative Writing Mystery And Crime 2023-03-20 00:00

How to Write a Mystery Detective Character: 6 Steps for Success

a detective in a doorway

  1. The Lure of Mystery Sleuths
  2. Your Sleuth Leads the Reader through the Story
  3. Six Steps to Create a Mystery Sleuth Readers Will Love
  4. Your Sleuth, the Suspects and the Reader

The Lure of Mystery Sleuths

From Maigret and Poirot to Kinsey Millhone and Bosch, mystery readers love to love the protagonist.

Quirky, funny, quick-tempered, logical or illogical—readers are lured in by the detective who solves the mystery.

You can name a few of your favorites: Montalbano, Harry Hole, Philip Marlowe, Thomas Lynley, Sam Spade, Arkady Renko, Morse, John Rebus, Jack Reacher, Adam Dalgliesh, Perry Mason, Vera Stanhope, Kurt Wallander, Lew Archer, Miss Marple, George Gently, Mike Hammer, and more…

You and millions of others know these characters by name. In detective fiction, people may not remember the author’s name (sigh!) but they always remember the character. And that’s what you want from your readers.

You want them to love your mystery character enough to care about the story.

Your Sleuth Leads the Reader through the Story

Whatever the style and theme of your crime novel, readers expect certain story events.

  1. The Victim - discovery of the corpse.

  2. The Evidence Hunt - discovering, identifying, and examining the evidence and clues that point to who committed the murder.

  3. Worrying The Perpetrator - as the sleuth gets closer (either physically, mentally, or both) the perpetrator’s anxiety grows.

  4. The Summation - The sleuth reveals how and why the crime was committed.

The reader expects these elements and expects to follow along with the sleuth through the discovery stages. Because no matter how great the villain, your detective—professional or amateur—is the main protagonist of your story, and your reader wants to enjoy going on the hunt with your sleuth.

Six Steps to Create a Mystery Sleuth Readers Will Love

In order to sleuth your sleuth, forget regular character creation advice. You’ll want to dig deep into creating your sleuth—one you like writing about and one readers love.  

1. Make a list of your 10 favorite detectives.

Twenty is better, but start with 10.

2. Think about what you like about each of those characters.

And, what you don’t like. Create a list of the stand-out traits gleaned from those favorites.

3. What positive character traits do you want for your detective?

Start a wish list. It will grow.

4. What is your detective’s main flaw?

This doesn’t have to be a huge problem, just a trait that gets in his or her way. Does he focus on details so much he misses the big picture? Is she intolerant of certain behaviors? What frightens him? Is she short tempered? Does he have a physical limitation? The world is your oyster when it comes to flaws. One big one is enough.

5. Fill in the details.

Build your character. Physical description—height, weight, hair, eyes, distinguishing characteristic. The wound from childhood that doesn’t heal.

Her home—apartment, house in the woods, middle of the city. Location—big city, small town, East Coast, West Coast, the prairie flatlands. Keep filling in details.

6. Create noticeable dialogue.

Two or three things your sleuth says that reflect her character and how she approaches solving the puzzle.

It could be a repeated phrase like “little grey cells” or a short “Nope!” every time someone asks a question. Let the dialogue phrases reflect your sleuth’s character traits, like being thoughtful or impulsive.

Just like all novel research, you may only use 20% of what you know, but some tiny detail may be just what you need in your story. The more you know about your detective, the easier it is to put him or her in any situation.

This strategy leads you through from concept to details. You’ll create a character based on premises and traits matching your personal themes as a writer for the story you create.

Your Sleuth, the Suspects and the Reader

Your sleuth will meet a variety of characters in his or her search for the killer. When you know your sleuth’s core beliefs and traits, his encounters with each suspect will reflect his personality.

She may have all her buttons pushed but stay in control, or lose her temper, according to the way you have created the character.

As much as your reader enjoys solving the puzzle alongside your sleuth, the way your sleuth acts and reacts is what keeps readers engaged. And, your character lives in their mind long after they have read your book.  

Mystery writer Judy Alter relates, “A reader once swore to me she saw Kelly O’Connell going into her favorite restaurant.“ When you create an engaging sleuth, ready to meet any obstacle, readers identify with them to the point they feel real.

Want to write your own spine-tingling mystery? Register for Crime Writers' Week, April 24-27.

Learn from bestselling authors like Janice Hallett, Ajay Chowdhury, and Sophie Hannah.

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