Doyle had Holmes. Poe had Dupin. Christie had Poirot and Marple. Famous detective stories from inside the folds of history are often overshadowed, quite rightfully, by the prominent investigators that feature within their pages. This is because their writers have imbued their profiles with qualities that give them color, gluing you to the page. Much of the fun we derive from a detective yarn finds its source in our ability to witness the many dire straits the characters find themselves in. In this first post of Demystifying the Mystery, I will be exploring why these characters have this effect and how you can recreate it in your own mystery narratives.
The key to making our protagonists come alive on the page is through the use of three special elements: idiosyncrasies, proclivities and flaws. The last thing anyone wants to read is a story containing an idyllic figure who faces trials without fault or failure. Not only is this boring from a storytelling standpoint, it’s also not engaging, for both you as a writer and your audience at large. Creating characters who are challenging, deep, and in some cases, disparate from your own personality makes it feel like a journey every time you let them breathe on the page. You get in touch with what makes them tick over time, setting in motion ways to develop and torture them as you go along.
Idiosyncrasies, our first element, are the things that truly make us individuals who stand out in the proverbial crowd. They are aspects of our character that definitively make us “characters,” because they are reactions or mannerisms that are unique to us. Unlike more routine-based proclivities, idiosyncrasies become things that define you.
It is these same features that make our most famous fictional detectives unique. Poe’s Dupin is in many ways an automaton to the eye; his scientific, enigma-obsessed behavior makes him largely unresponsive to human interaction, setting him apart from the crowd. In many ways, he feels separate from the rest of humanity, able to get inside people’s heads to see their own thoughts and understand them intensely, perhaps more than they understand themselves. In the same fashion, Doyle’s Holmes can create profiles of others by spending just a moment with them, able to uncover from their demeanor alone what they’ve had to eat recently, what part of the country they’ve come from by the scuffs on their clothes, and why they may be seeking his services.
These traits are what connect us to the characters at the heart of the mystery story. We marvel at these figures because they do things we wish we could even half as well, and, because they are closeted and very much a species all their own, they feel foreign and fascinating to eyes that have long grown accustomed to the regularities of life. When adding these qualities to your own characters, they don’t have to be as impressive or far-reaching as the near-superhuman reasoning of Holmes and Dupin, but they should be traits others in the narrative lack. The main goal is to make them worthy of audience interest, so finding a nice balance between eccentric and everyday will ensure that you aren’t aping Doyle and Poe, or worse, making them too banal and commonplace.
Proclivities, the next element, are best described as the unique routines that we all keep consistent in our everyday lives. These features of our character could describe our morning schedules, sense of dress, tastes in food and scores of other habits. While many writers gift characters with an intense intellect to explain their ability to unravel the mysteries they face, exploring the ritualistic practices that fill the lives and routines of your characters make them into separate beings entirely. For instance, while Holmes keeps his spare tobacco in a Persian slipper by the fireplace in Baker Street, has indexes intensely alphabetized, steeples his fingers when in thought and dirties himself with chemical residue from his experiments, Poirot is obsessive to the point of ruin about his clothing, becomes erratic when his suits are so much as scuffed, and wears pince-nez reading glasses that are held in place only by the pinch they have on his nose.
By exploring your character’s proclivities, you can craft a portrait of them separate from their professional work, digging deep into who they are when others aren’t looking. Perhaps, for instance, your character spends her days reading voraciously about psychology to better understand the lawbreakers she faces daily, but in her spare time she has an obsession with jazz, is anal retentive about her hair, and has a fascination with the color blue that dictates much of her dress and decoration.
The final key integral to creating an engaging and fascinating central protagonist, their character flaws, often become the most vital way to connect audiences to them and their worlds. The thing that is so hard-hitting about flaws is that they make our characters like us: damaged, tormented, imperfect and lost, in varying degrees. While the previous two elements may not instantly be viewed as detrimental traits, fl
aws are the things that make our failings and those of our characters clear to the eye, despite our attempts to mask them. Creating flaws for your central character can become the most engrossing and eye-opening part of the creative process, because while their peculiar features, strict routines and tendencies are acutely visible, the things that truly define them, their shortcomings, can often be the things they try to hide the most.
Often the best way to approach adding flaws to your characters is to create backstories for them that highlight events pointing to their faults. Perhaps, for instance, your detective comes from a life of crime and is repenting for his youthful sins through the penance of police work. Or, maybe your character has lost faith in the system and the corruption that drives it, causing her to blur moral lines and go off the book to do what she sees as right. Audiences are fascinated and drawn to characters who can do extraordinary things in their public lives, but who are then brought to crumble in private by the demons threatening to burst from their souls. Creating interesting flaws for your characters is perhaps the biggest step you take in your creation of them, because they will be more challenged by these aspects of themselves than any mystery they face, and those flaws can often be their continued undoing.
Having outlines for your characters will help you to get a sense of who they are and how they fit into your story, while also opening up opportunities for you to place conflicts in their path. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example, who seeks the solace of cocaine when cases run dry and his mind stales. In this case the flaw and his professional life intersect intimately and destructively. Drawbacks to your characters can become the greatest source of interest to you as a writer, as they can provide interesting subplots to the main mystery at the heart of your story. Consider, then, the detective from earlier who is attempting to make up for their sordid past by becoming an officer of the law. What happens when a vengeful face from their younger days comes back to haunt them and their newfound career? In much the same fashion, what if the cop who crosses into moral gray areas to do the right thing is found out or blackmailed for the act, despite the fact that their heart was in the right place?
Each of the flaws you give to your characters, big or small, will make them human and relatable in the eyes of your audience. While the idiosyncrasies and proclivities of our characters become the things that set them apart and make them special in a unique fashion, their flaws are the viruses in the data that connect them to all of us, and make them the most engaging as characters in the action.