27 January 2024

Five Ways to Rock Characterization in the Mystery Novel

I've taught fiction writing at college for over 20 years.  If I had to drill it down to one sentence, the number one thing I've learned is this:

Readers fall in love with characters, not plots.

Yes, plot is essential for a crime novel.  It's the glue that holds everything together.  But think about the crime series you have loved.

If I were to ask readers of the Goddaughter series what they love about it - and I have - they always say the humour, first.  But a close second is the protagonist, Gina Gallo, plus her wacky cousin Nico - and particularly, the banter between them.  If I ask what they liked about specific novels, like The Goddaughter Caper, they say, 'is that the one about the underground funeral parlour, or the art gallery heist?'  If I'm lucky, they say that.

Because most readers don't remember plots.  They remember characters.

They might remember that a plot was good.  That it was well-crafted.  That it took them by surprise.  And I hope that is true.  But my readers always tell me they go back for more because 'they want to find out what happens to Gina and Nico."  They don't want to say goodbye to their book friends.

Last week, I was asked to speak about characterization in the crime novel, at a library conference.  Here's what I presented:

➊  MAKE US CARE – You want to create a protagonist that the reader likes and can care about.

We are going to put your protagonist in danger, and readers need to like the character so that they will care about what happens, to keep reading.

In The Merry Widow Murders, I create sympathy for Lucy by showing her grief for her late husband, who died of TB after being gassed in WW-1.

She’s only in her 30s and she’s trying to move on, but the grief sneaks up on her with certain triggers, as it does for me.

➋  HAVE A SIDEKICK – A crime book should be ACTIVE – that is, it should move along at a good pace.

A secondary character who acts as a sidekick will allow your book to have lots of dialogue. Instead of your protagonist constantly in monologue thinking about the case, they can discuss it with their sidekick. This creates more white space on the page and moves a book more quickly.

In the Merry Widow Murders, Elf, a pickpocket- turned-maid is Lucy’s sidekick.

She also provides comic relief, as they banter constantly.

➌  MOTIVATION IS KEY – Why is your protagonist getting involved in the investigation? Why are they risking their LIFE? Someone has already killed once. They could do it again. There has to be realistic motivation why your main gal or guy would take on that risk.

In The Merry Widow Murders, Lucy and her sidekick maid Elf find a dead body in their stateroom.

They need to find the killer before the authorities suspect one of them for being the killer.

➍  3-5 GOOD SUSPECTS – A mystery book should give the reader a challenge.

That’s why we read them. You need to develop 3-5 possible suspects, make them different and well-drawn, each with sufficiently believable motivation for wanting to kill the victim.

➎  MAKE A REALLY GOOD VILLAINRemember that the killer is never a villain in his own eyes.

He has what he thinks is believable motivation for doing what he is doing. The world or someone has done him wrong, and he is only getting what he rightly deserves by committing this crime.

At the same time, KEEP THE VILLAIN HIDDEN. In a thriller, the antagonist can be known because the book is about the preventing of the crime. But in a mystery, you have to keep the identity of the killer hidden until the very last chapters. It takes real skill to accomplish this without giving it away early on.

I'll speak more on motivation in a future post.  Meanwhile, I hope you feel motivated to look at some of my books, including The Merry Widow Murders! Available at all the usual suspects.


  1. In the beginning, I focused on plot and characterization turned out to be a combination of instinct and luck. Then the penny dropped.

    Melodie, as you know I've read some (but not yet all) of your books. Your characters would understand Ted Lasso. I'd watched the first two seasons when it came out, but didn't see any of the third season until a few days ago. The interaction between the ruff, tuff, gruff Roy and his adoring niece (and friends) is marvelous. It's not all fun and games. At the end of the first season, a clip of a few seconds sheds light on the arrogant Jamie.

    The absolute best author at hiding bad guys was the great thriller writer Alistair MacLean. He was equally adept at hiding good guys, which may sound odd, but it worked. The only problem for me is that my mind tends to race ahead, and after a dozen novels, I began to figure out the guy-who-isn't-who-he-is.

    Great advice, Melodie.

    1. Thanks, Leigh! My first book written (which shall never see the light of day) taught me all a first book should. Even I found my protagonist annoying, by the end of several chapters! That clued me in that no amount of plot could save a book if one didn't care about the characters. Thanks for commenting!

    2. Leigh, I too read a lot of Alistair MacLean and noticed the very same thing. It's also common in the Mary Stewart romantic suspenses of the same era: two guys, one irascible & the other nice, and after reading a few you can always guess which one is the to-be-revealed villain.

  2. Lots of good advice!

  3. Definitely - I read mysteries for the characters, not the plot, which is why a lot of the intricately plotted adventure thrillers don't do it for me. If the protagonist is simply a character to take you through endless chases, I'm out. But give me a Gina Gallo, a Maigret and Mme. Maigret, a Jackson Lamb, a Miss Marple - somebody I can really care about - and I'll read them till the cows come home.

    1. Oh wow, I love that line: "If the protagonist is simply a character to take you through endless chases, I'm out." That's exactly what I've been trying to articulate in my own mind, about why I'm lukewarm on thrillers. Thanks for the kind words, Eve!

  4. So true! It's always the characters and the setting I care most about---their motivation, their mentality, personality. In televised series it's also the fashion and decor (Poirot, Miss Fisher's Mysteries). Most of the time I don't even try too hard to figure out the solution; I leave that to the writer!

  5. Trying to leave a message

  6. Okay that was weird. I couldn't respond! Doe, it's Melodie here, and I wanted to thank you for your comment! You made me think. I also love Poirot and Fisher for the time period, and I think that might have influenced me to write The Merry Widow Murders, which came out this year (1928 setting). Thanks for commenting!

  7. Another great column, Melodie! It's a solid mini-tutorial for newcomers to the genre too.

    1. Thank you, Eleanor! I'm missing teaching this stuff, I think :) Melodie

  8. Hi Melodie: Thanks for this - it's (in my opinion) bang on the money. I have always emphasized characters over plot because I am convinced that people are more interesting than events, assuming the author has the skill and determination to develop the personalities. And yes - villains rarely see themselves as such. Everyone, in fiction and reality, deserves to be multi-faceted and well-rounded.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, John! I love your point about people being more interesting than events. Will quote you on that. Melodie


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