I don’t believe in a strict separation of plot and character, so when I hear some writers emphasize one more than another, I feel the story will be flat, and it usually is. So it was hard for me to split this article into two posts with one dealing with plot and the other characters.
But if I didn’t, the article would have been too long, so here we are with part two. There might be some overlap with last week’s post, but like it said, the two don’t split so well for me. Everything dealing with plot necessarily involves character, and visa versa. The whole story is interesting people doing interesting things. But here are some ideas for character development for mystery writing.
As a plot becomes more intricate within the mystery, so do the characters. In fact, it is impossible to have undercooked characters in a mystery, much less any story. But is seems clear that the more we as readers learn about the mystery, the more fascinating the characters must seem.
This is a chance for mystery writers to have wonderful characters in their heads, but face the discipline to reveal their layers slowly, a little bit at a time, with the same pace as the plot’s unfolding. Still, it seems to me that mystery characters have the potential to be the best written people in literature. They must be for the mystery to be a success.
No Minor Characters
One thing I have noticed in all mystery stories is that there are no minor characters. There may seem to be unimportant people as the tale begins, but as things develop, we find these minor characters have big roles in figuring out the puzzle.
The quiet old lady on the train, the old friend accidentally bumped into, even the stolid butler, all of them can blend into the color of the story, only to emerge as the murderer or the spy or the accomplice. This is one of the things about mysteries that make them so appealing.
Weave Characters Together
As the individual characters develop throughout the telling of a great mystery, so do their interconnectivity. Two people who do not even seem to know each other can end up having an affair. People with no apparent connection may have all gone to school with the murder victim. Possibly, people from various shades of society might have all been equally swindled by the same person. Even names may change, for example, John Brown might have been born Johann von Braun.
Use Historical Events & People
In the Sherlock Holmes’s movies I referenced last week, there were real people used in each story. Holmes meets Teddy Roosevelt on his way to Victoria Falls. Also, the jewel thief was a con artist posing as Gulielmo Marconi. In another movie set in Vienna he meets Sigmund Freud, as well as a young American spy who went by Ned Elliot, who ended up being Elliot Ness (not entirely real, but real to us).
If you’re going to go to exotic locations, use real historical figures to add color to the drama. They can help your hero detective, or in the case of Freud, almost foil them (seriously, can you imaging Holmes and Freud on the same train?).
I wrote a mystery short story once. Not my best work. The plot was mildly interesting, but the characters were dull, like something from a Rudy Anaya novel. Maybe I’ll rewrite it someday, but with my own advice to make both the plot as well as the characters more appealing.
I’m sure you know plenty of writers. Any of them mystery writers? Share this with them. I’m sure it’ll help them out. And if you write mysteries, let me know what you think in the Comment section below.