Sherlock Holmes. Jane Marple. Jack Reacher.
Three famous names with something important in common … aside from the fact that each solves crimes in mystery or thriller novels.
What is this common element? Readers love them.
The key to writing successful mysteries and thrillers doesn’t lie in careful plotting, clever crimes, or sneaky suspects. The heart of these stories beats in the chest of the sleuth.
Everyone enjoys a puzzle, and a tightly-woven plot is important, but readers return to a mystery (or thriller) series because they want to spend more time with a favorite hero(ine). Solving the puzzle is much more fun when you “ride along” with a friend, and a well-written sleuth is a reader’s friend indeed.
Before you sit down to commit—and solve—the initial crime in your manuscript, hunt down a compelling hero (or heroine) your readers will remember long after they turn the final page.
But how to create a successful sleuth?
Let’s look at a few of the characteristics that many successful fictional sleuths (and thriller heroes) have in common:
1. Unusual Occupations.
Mystery and thriller shelves are filled with police and FBI agents doing their best to catch the killer and save the world. But with so many “standard” crime solvers already in circulation, sometimes readers like to see a different kind of sleuth.
Brother Cadfael is a monk. Miss Marple, a widow. My detective, Hiro Hattori, is a master ninja.
Giving your hero an unusual occupation opens new worlds for the reader and offers the writer a different range of crime-solving skills to utilize.
2. Battle Scars.
In his popular screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder recommends giving every character “a limp and an eyepatch” to distinguish him (or her) from other characters in the scene. That applies to novels, too; a good detective always has an unusual “tell.”
The characteristic can relate to physical appearance or you can give her a definitive tic or reaction that sets her apart. My detective, Hiro Hattori, raises an eyebrow for ironic effect. In addition to adding uniqueness, these characteristics offer effective shorthand for a character’s mood or thought.
3. A Trunk Full of Baggage.
Jack Reacher has a shadowed past, and lives like he’s on the run. Miss Marple never married, and she’s crotchety as the day is long.
Nobody’s perfect, including your hero. Everyone has experienced disappointment, injury, and broken dreams . . . your sleuth should too. Whether the suffering happens onstage or off is up to you. But readers respond to damaged heroes, and watching a character overcome her own problems to help someone else is compelling on many levels.
4. Keep the Skeletons IN the Closet (Mostly).
Good detectives or thriller heroes feel like real people, which means the writer needs to create an extensive and detailed backstory for the character.
But readers hate backstory.
Flights of memory, or fancy, interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract from the sleuth’s objective: solving the crime. The answer? Treat your detective’s backstory like a good mystery: drop some clues, but don’t reveal the entire thing.
By keeping your hero’s skeletons IN the closet, except for occasional peeks, you’ll keep your readers engaged, intrigued, and eager for the next reveal.
5. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone … Take This.
Most sleuths have a sidekick, a pet, or both, and they serve an important purpose. Pets and sidekicks humanize the hero(ine) and draw the reader closer. Incorporating one, or both, allows the writer to bring the reader right into the story, alongside the sleuth, and to see the sleuth behaving like a human being as well as a hero.
You don’t have to integrate all of these tips to create a fantastic, compelling sleuth. Select the ones that work for you, and ignore the ones that don’t. Even if you integrate just one or two, you’ll find your hero growing more intriguing, to you as well as your readers.