Young Writer's Scene: Crime Scene #1

Issue 62

Young Writer's Scene

Crime Scene #1: Casting Characters


Elizabeth Chayne

Copyright © 2011, Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved


Do you like mysteries? Figuring out the murderer before the detective does? Are you the kind of person who never misses an episode of CSI (or any other cop show, for that matter)?

Have you considered trying your hand as a crime writer?

Not surprisingly, writing a logically water-tight mystery may be harder than you think. It takes work to make sure that the whole story can be laid out in an hour (including commercials!). For the next couple of months here at Writing for Young Writers, I’m going to lead you through the process of writing a mystery, from characters, plot, and various other components.

A lot of mysteries tend to start with characters. (Well, one character, at least: The detective.) So, let’s get started discussing the characters one might expect to come across in a mystery.

The bad guy: be it murderer, thief, or prankster, every mystery has to have a bad guy. Otherwise, there’s no point in calling the story a mystery. Although it is possible to make your bad guy someone who doesn’t previously appear in the story (as in cop shows where the serial killer is someone you only get to see at the last five minutes of the show), but it’s usually better to have the wrongdoer one of a pool of suspects. Part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to guess who the bad guy is before the detective does.

What kind of person should your bad guy be? Well, obviously, he has to be, um, bad. He has to be the kind of person who is capable of stealing an expensive piece of jewelry to pay off his debts. He has to be the kind of person who is not worried about letting someone else take the blame for his actions (or he would have just confessed right away). He also has to be somewhat smart at covering up his tracks (or your mystery would probably be only about a paragraph long.) But as for the rest, he can be charming or aggressive, easygoing or intense, just like any other character. An important thing not to do is heap your bad guy character with tons of negative qualities: this is like putting a big neon sign flashing murderer over the character’s head.

The detective: the detective is probably the most fun character to write about in a mystery. He is, you might say, the heart of the mystery. The kind of person your detective is sets the stage for the entire book.

To figure out the case, your detective should be someone fairly intelligent. His motive for pursuing the case should be a strong one, or he should be a determined person, one who would see the mystery through to the end and not give up halfway.

From Sherlock Holmes onwards, all detectives have had their little quirks. It might be a passion for tidiness, a love of flowers, or something else. But don’t just pick random hobbies out of a hat and tack them onto your detective. Always make sure that any oddities are in keeping with your detective’s personality, family background and time period, or he’ll end up being a cardboard character.

The sidekick: not always necessary in a mystery, but is a nice character to have around. Main functions are to brainstorm with your detective, and be awestruck by your detective’s brilliant deductions. Usually the sidekick will be a good friend of the detective’s, or possibly a romantic partner. The sidekick should serve as a secondary character, so even though he may provide hints that put the detective on the right track, his brilliance should never top the detective’s.

Other suspects: it would be pretty easy to solve the mystery if the only characters in the story were the detective and the bad guy. So you need a few other characters to fill in as suspects. But even though these other suspects are essentially “fillers”, you should still build their personalities and backgrounds up as carefully as you did for the detective and the culprit. You should try to think of these people as having lives outside of the crime. They did not randomly show up at the crime scene just so they could act as suspects—these other characters should have their own storylines in your head (although you may choose to only show enough of each storyline to keep the overall story going).

Other characters you may feel the need to include are police officers or even rival detectives (to compete with your detective and thus raise the tension level!) Unless you’re writing a murder mystery, you may also have a victim to deal with.

Now that you’ve got a handful of characters to start with, spend some time thinking about each of them: what do they look like? What kinds of things would they say or not say? How would they react to the same types of situations? If you feel inclined, you can draw up a “character sheet” for each person, listing their hair and eye color, height, personality, life motto and so on. It will help to have some notes to refer to as you’re writing the book—you don’t red-haired Jamie to suddenly have black hair two pages later for no reason whatsoever!