Mystery Writers: do you create your sleuth’s personality and characteristics, or does he/she come to you fully-developed like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and ready to snoop?
Just as both nature and nurture have a hand in the makings of a human being, various elements go into your sleuth’s development. One is the trends of the day. In the Thirties and Forties sleuths were tough PIs. These days anything goes. We’ve grumpy investigators, independent female lawyers, science-oriented CSIs. Your sleuth can be a judge, a homicide detective or amateur sleuth. Even a dog, a cat, or a 12-year-old girl. It depends on the type of mystery you’re writing—cozy, police procedural, traditional.
Your sleuth is the most important character in your book. This is especially true for those of us who write series. He/she is the hero, the character who IDs the murderer and solves the crime. Some sleuths have achieved world-wide renown. Consider Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Phillip Marlowe, and Ellery Queen. When Hercules Poirot “died,” his obituary was printed in The New York Times.
Your sleuth sets the tone of your book. Is she intelligent but flaky? Is he somber and beset by demons from his past? Your sleuth views the world from specific perspective. He/she has a particular method of solving problems, both personal and those related to the mystery. He/she has strengths and weaknesses, and people in his/her life who are supportive (best friend, spouse, lover) or a thorn in his/her side (competitor, disagreeable boss.) Always give your sleuth personal issues to deal with, and plenty of room to develop and grow.
A word about quirky characteristics. Like many TV viewers, I fell in love with Monk. I also enjoy watching the new series “Elementary,” which takes great liberties with the characters of Sherlock and Watson. But be careful not to go overboard. Your sleuth’s neuroses and/or disabilities are not simply window dressing, to be discarded in the middle of a novel. If, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, your sleuth almost never leaves home, be prepared to set your books around this situation.
My sleuths are all female, but of various ages and in different stages of their life. Lydia Krause, in my Twin Lakes books A Murderer Among Us and Murder in the Air, is a 58-year-old widow who has sold her company and moved to a retirement community to start a new life. Lydia is feisty and smart, yet sensitive and a bit vulnerable. She solves mysteries as she makes new friends and finds love along the way.
Gabbie Meyerson, in Giving Up the Ghost, is in her thirties. Newly-divorced, she takes a teaching job in a small Long Island village. She deals with high school bullies as she finds out who murdered Cameron Leeds, the ghost who shares her cottage above Long Island Sound.
Lexie Driscoll is the sleuth in my new series, The Golden Age of Mystery Book Club. The first, Murder a la Christie, makes its debut this year with L&L Dreamspell. Forty-eight-year-old Lexie is a bright college professor with poor judgment when it comes to men. Her first husband left her when she was pregnant with their son. Her second husband burned down her house with himself inside. Low on funds, Lexie agrees to lead a Golden Age of Mystery book club for her best friend’s wealthy neighbors. House-sitting in the upscale community, she feels like she’s inhabiting a Christie novel. When murder rears its ugly head, she employs Hercules Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s methods of deduction to solve the crimes.
Please leave a comment and tell me who your favorite literary sleuth is, or a bit about your sleuth.