October 15, 2020
Any fan of mysteries would be happy to tell you that mystery detectives come in all shapes and forms. Some are detectives because they want to be like Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Chet Gecko or Timmy Failure. Some would prefer not to be detectives (at least at first) but they find themselves dropped into a mystery they cannot avoid, which has happened in countless mysteries from Holes by Louis Sacher to series books including the Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner and the A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy. In this sort of series book, the characters become detectives through their experiences even though they didn't see themselves as detectives at the beginning.
Choose Your Detective
If you're writing your own mystery story (or beginning your own mystery series), one of the first things to begin with is the detective (or detective team). These days, a single main character tends to be preferred by publishers (but as with most rules, this can be broken) so if you do decide to have a detective team, you'll often have a single lead with sidekicks. Nancy Drew, for example, often worked with her friends Bess and George, but no one ever doubted that Nancy was the detective and the lead. We'll talk more about sidekicks in the next article.
What kinds of traits do you need in a detective? This is often a case of "the sky's the limit" since almost anyone can make a good detective, but for some people, you'll have to shape the circumstances of the story to keep the person moving. A very passive or timid detective will take considerable work on the part of the writer to keep the detective moving forward. We will need to believe the character's motivation would move a person with these traits forward. Sometimes beginning writers will simply abandon the early character traits and have the character turn into someone more active or bold, but that can be a problem when it comes to looking for a publisher (and pleasing readers.) A book will sell much more easily if the character's behavior is believable, consistent, and clearly motivated from beginning to end.
This means you'll have the easiest time if your main character is not passive or timid. But what are some other traits that should be included? One that occurs in nearly all book detectives is curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has also propelled many book detectives into the midst of the action. You'll usually need more than curiosity to keep the story moving, the motivation will have to become stronger as the obstacles become greater, otherwise most people would simply abandon the mystery. But curiosity and a lively mind are very helpful for getting a character going.
Engaging is Better Than Likable
Often you'll hear about how important it is for readers to like your main character. Or you'll get feedback suggesting your character wasn't likable. And it will be a bit easier to sell a book with a likable main character, but it isn't actually essential. Many story detectives aren't likable. You wouldn't want to hang out with them because they're annoying or full of themselves. There is a trait that is much more important than being likable, and that's being compelling or engaging. Readers need to want to see what the character does next.
Sometimes a main character can be a bit wacky and unpredictable. That can be very engaging because the reader is kept just a bit off-kilter and unsure of what is going to come next. A character who seems capable of anything is very interesting to hang out with on the page. This is what makes non-mystery characters like Pippi Longstocking or Amelia Bedelia so engaging. You never know what they will do next.
As an example of a wacky character in a mystery series, let's consider Timmy Failure from the series by Stephan Pastis. In the first book, Mistakes Were Made, we start with this line: "It's harder to drive a polar bear into somebody's living room than you'd think." From that line forward, the reader knows this book is going to be full of unpredictability. And readers eagerly turned pages to find out exactly how a polar bear ended up in a car driven by Timmy Failure.
Serious or Silly?
Another thing with mystery detectives is that some lend themselves better to silly stories than serious, and silly stories actually do quite well. Timmy Failure is a deeply flawed main character. He sees himself and those around him through a very warped glass. Readers quickly realize that and go along for the ride, knowing that Timmy's ridiculous choices will lead to interesting antics. One thing to note in a silly mystery is that the main character takes the events very seriously. That's part of what makes it funny. Timmy Failure is truly doing his best to create a detective agency that will become a worldwide success. It's just that his flaws and flawed choices result in mayhem, constantly.
This kind of silly storyline works in mystery series like the ones with Timmy Failure and Chet Gecko, but also works in stories that aren't mysteries as well. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Dork Dairies use the same mix of flawed main character who makes flawed choices leading to mayhem even though the main character is always taking the situation very seriously.
One of the things the very serious character in a silly mystery does is allow the reader to care about the main character. He may be a mess, but he's always trying really hard. And we tend to cheer for a character who is putting in real effort.
So, Any Rules at All?
Though even the most hard and fast rule can be broken, overall, I'd recommend active, curious detective characters who take the situation in the story very seriously and are strongly motivated to solve the mystery. The motivation might be deeply personal (finding a parent, finding out who stole your science project, etc.) or simply one of professional pride (proving your detective skills are up to the task) but it needs to be strong enough to keep the character moving.
After these traits, you really can mix in nearly anything as long as it works throughout the story the character is thrust into. Sometimes early choices for a character must be changed if they would completely prevent the eventual solution of the mystery (for example, if your main character is an agoraphobic, then you cannot simply make them decide to leave the house to pursue a clue. If you do decide to make a character act completely against a pre-set bit of characterization, you'll need to write to meet the challenge and that is hard. If you fail, it can kill a story's chances for sale.
Many people consider mystery stories to be formulaic, but the options are infinite within the form of the genre. A mystery is only as formulaic as the writer allows it to be. So throw your full creativity into yours and you make take us somewhere we've never been before with the main character that is distinctly yours. And we'll like it.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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