31 March 2021

The Man Who Almost Wasn't There

I have been having trouble with a story I am thinking about writing.  Nothing odd about that, but the type of trouble is unusual for me.

This story is more or less a traditional mystery, meaning the protagonist follows a set of clues to figure out who is behind a crime.  Of course, this is exactly what people who don't read mysteries think a mystery is.

By my calculation, of my most recent ten published stories, only one falls into this category.  And some might consider even that one a stretch.

Usually when I work on a story of this type it proceeds in this order: a premise, a character who could work with that premise, and then the plot, i.e. clues.  I hate clues.  Dreaming them up is misery for me.

But in this case I have the premise and the clues were a cinch.  But my character remains a cipher. This is an amateur sleuth story, but all I know about him (because it's baked into the premise) is that he is a middle-aged man who lives in the country and keeps to himself.  Works at home or doesn't need to work. That's it.

I feel like he needs more connection to the story, to the crime he is trying to solve.  Sure, a good person would want the bad guy to get caught, but that doesn't justify all he does.  He needs some skin in the game.  The reader needs to care whether he keeps working on the case or just leaves it to the authorities.

Got any ideas?  I came up with three, or rather, three categories.

1. Danger.  Our hero is: a. in the Witness Protection Program, or b. in hiding for other reasons.  That builds enough suspense that we don't need more reason to care about what he's doing.

2. Personality.  He is: a. an extreme introvert, b. suffering from OCD, or c. dealing with some trauma, such as the death of a loved one.  Although he doesn't think of it this way, the case is helping him work on an issue.

3. Redemption. He feels guilt about something in his past and trying to solve the crime gives him a chance to make up for it.  

I think I am heading to 3., being a sucker for redemption stories.

Now I just have to write the damned thing.


  1. I think we need more than to care about what he's doing. We need a believable reason why he's connected to this crime. Is the victim a friend? A neighbor? If it's a stranger in town, this guy suddenly deciding to stick his nose into the murder seems hard to believe, even if he is trying to work through personal issues (your options two or three). So what's his personal connection to either the victim or the person accused or who fears he/she will be accused? Once you know that, it hopefully will give you more ideas.

    The Witness Protection Program/in hiding idea seems problematic to me. If you're in the WPP or otherwise in hiding, your goal is to keep your head down. If you think someone after you is in town and murdered someone you know, you call your contact and get moved immediately or you jump in your car and flee. You don't engage in investigation, which could make you even more visible to the killer. I would find someone doing that very hard to believe. If you'd really want to do that, you'd need to build in a good reason, such as your main character has been fleeing from state to state from the killer who once again has apparently tracked him down, killing another of his cleaning women. He's tired of running. He's going to take a stand. He doesn't know who's after him but he's going to find out. That type of thing.

  2. Bobby!

    4. Coronavirus. COVID-19. Self-quarantining. Trying to stay alive in a world with a death wish. A sensible and perhaps education person, perhaps one who already suffered a loss, doesn't need more of a reason to keep himself to himself.

    By the way, I need a new typewriter ribbon.

  3. He moved to the woods to live his dream of being a modern-day Thoreau, but he's become bored (with or without knowing it), and this gives him a chance to start get involved with something?

  4. Could he have something in common with the victim that makes him feel a connection? That might motivate him to look into the matter, even if the similiarity is irrelevant, like a love of pets or nature, or being a left-handed redhead. Maybe they both suffered from a disease or affliction (agoraphobia???) or have a speech impediment or color-blindness?

    This fascinates me, Rob, because I've never encountered the problem but see how it could come up in my own writing, too. That means I need to find an answer to your dilemma just in case...

  5. What I find most interesting is you wanting to make him a middle aged guy living in the country, mostly alone so I envision living like a hermit, hiding from life & people, a mystery right there. Why is he living the lifestyle he’s chosen (or was it thrust on him?) if he’s now pulled into a crime to try and help solve, is it because of that thing that sent him off to live in isolation? Finding the resolution to the crime will help him understand why he’s been hiding from the world? My two cents....good luck with the writing.

  6. Rob, I've experienced somewhat this same problem in some of the short stories that I have written (if they are what you call a "traditional" mystery, with a sleuth following clues). This is one reason that I try to avoid writing "amateur" sleuth mysteries ... part of your premise has to include why the amateur is (a) taking on what could be a dangerous activity for which they have no training (or time? Don't they have a full-time job?), and (b) sticking their nose into someone else's business.

    But be that as it may ... if you're sure that you want your protag to be the person you describe, you might consider some of what the other commenters have written (I think that Karen's question is especially relevant ... how did your protag end up in the lifestyle that you describe, and if he's looking to keep to himself, why is he getting involved in the mystery?

    In addition to Barb and Steve's suggestions, I'll humbly offer these for you to consider:
    (1) the victim and/or crime is somehow interfering with, or otherwise intruding upon, his life(style); (2) the victim is someone he knows, wants to know, or needs to protect; (3) he's being thought of as a suspect in the crime, so he needs to clear himself; (4) he wants something, and getting involved in solving the crime will give him what he wants (or will be a major step or two to getting him closer to getting it).

    Good luck with the story ... and please let us know how you solved your conundrum (after the story is done, of course!) and where we can find the finished version!

  7. When I don't know who my character is, I let him or her enter talking. They're usually pretty good about telling me who they are. In this case, your guy might be talking to himself...or his dog...or his last can of beans. If you were thinking of writing the story in third person, try writing it in first person, even if you change it later. I think it's hard to have no personality in first person, and your guy's personality may lead you to motivation for getting involved.

  8. Extreme introversion plus the need for redemption because of a perceived crime in the past, could make a character who is really hard to know. As Liz said above, let him do some talking, or at least write short letters or emails that reveal some of what's going on with him. Best of luck!

  9. Wow, great responses! I should say I'm now 4000 words into the story (I wasn't when I wrote this piece last week) and here is what I have figured out (I think): Our hero is living a lonely life because he holds himself partly responsible for something terrible that happened. He blunders onto a crime and tries to help, not realizing that he is seeking redemption along the way. One thing you didn't know is that this is all happening in a hurry, just a few hours. Barb, you are absolutely right about making the reader care. Steve, the character's connection to the victim is because of the disaster in his past. Liz, I love what you said about "enter talking." There's a blog piece waiting for you to write it! Again, thanks to all of yo for some terrific ideas.

  10. Maybe this is a nightmare and the man is a victim of the crime. His mind keeps cycling on the events and innuendos made by people he knows that led to his injury. The kicker - the perpetrator is already dead.


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