Monday, February 18, 2013

Creating Your Sleuth

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.


Patricia Gligor said...

The main character in my Malone mystery series is Ann Malone Kern. Ann is thirty-two (in the first two books), a wife and the mother of two small children. As the series begins, she is rather shy and self-deprecating, not one to stand up for herself, although she will "go to the mat" for her family. As the series progresses, Ann changes and grows. She doesn't start out as an amateur sleuth but, due to circumstances, she's about to become one.

Morgan Mandel said...

Yes, it's very important to know your character,and in mysteries it often is the sleuth. If the author doesn't know that person inside and out, the reader won't be able to connect.

Morgan Mandel

Jana Richards said...

My all-time favorite sleuth is Miss Marple. On the outside she might appear a bit ditsy, but that disguises a sharp mind.


Marilyn Levinson said...

I think having a sleuth who starts out shy is a great idea. It leaves so much room for growth, while your readers cheer her on.

Marilyn Levinson said...

You're so right. Having readers connect to your sleuth is one of a mystery writer's goals.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I love Miss Marple, too. She's a great example of how valuable older people are in the scheme of things.

Terrie Curran said...

In my first book, All Booked Up, my plan was to have a young-ish (30's something) sleuth; she's in there all right, Sara Tewksbury, but not far into the writing, the senior professorial couple, Hortense and Basil Killingsley, insinuated themselves into the plot and hence my original 'plan' (such as it was) was subverted. And they made their way into my second work, ROTTEN EGGs, with nary a sight of Sara T. And so too, I have found, with plot--I have little or no idea of 'who-done-it' until the Killingsleys get going. I suppose I can account for their intrusion as I was a professor of medieval literature and I guess made the Killingsleys alter egos--she in historical linguistics and he in medieval history. I did enjoy making their research accurate!

Evelyn Cullet said...

My favorite sleuth is Lord Peter Wimsey. Even the name, Wimsey, sets the style of the novels as cozy. Mine sleuth is a reluctant 30 something woman who has no choice but to find the real killer or get arrested for a murder she didn't commit. Loved Giving Up the Ghost. Wish you'd do a sequel.

Mary Ricksen said...

To me one of the hardest things to write is mystery or suspense. You really have to have some imagination to make people anticipate reading on and get them to sit on the edge of their chairs enthralled!!!

Palmaltas said...

My goodness, I have many favorite literary sleuths and they are all very different. They include Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey but I also love Catherine Aird's C.D. Sloan and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion. Then there is the totally unbelievable but entertaining Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. I could go on and on but I'll stop with the above.

Anonymous said...

I tend to make my sleuths very flawed characters. They will never be or want to be Dudley Do-right

Marilyn Levinson said...

Sounds like your older couple were meant to be your sleuths. Keep them on cases!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Lord Peter is one of the Golden Greats for good reason.
One day I will write a sequel to Giving Up the Ghost. I'm so glad you loved the book. I must admit, Cam is one of my favorite characters.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Our mysteries and suspense must keep readers turning pages. Our characters make them want to come back for more.

Marilyn Levinson said...

We like so many of the same sleuths. And such a variety of personalities!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Writing Deputy,
You're in good company, as some famous sleuths are deeply flawed "human beings."

Donna Coe-Velleman said...

Love the name Lexie. :) I'm working on my first paranormal mystery and enjoy your posts very much.

Even though it's dated I like Philip Marlowe.

marja said...

I write two series and have two protagonists. One is a youngish female P.I., and the other is a Humphrey Bogart lookalike. Both are fun to write.

I love the premise for each of your characters and I'm sorry I haven't read any of your books yet. I plan to rectify that soon.
Marja McGraw

Marilyn Levinson said...

Donna, good luck with your paranormal. I think they're especially fun to write. Since you're writing a mystery, you might want to join LISinC. We've a meeting this Saturday.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I must read one of your books very soon, too. I hear such wonderful things about them.