Lots of articles exist on the ‘net about good ways to create a rich protagonist in a story, whether they be sleuth or otherwise. So why do I like “Developing and Introducing The Sleuth in Your Mystery Novel” by Hallie Ephron (Writer’s Digest, March/April 2015, pp. 56-58)?
In simplest explanation, it’s because the article divides the tips into two separate sections — developing the sleuth and introducing the sleuth.
Developing the sleuth takes the reader through the main tips that are common to most articles, or at least the first three of five are common. First and foremost, they start with basic appearance — what do they wear, and what does it say about them? Dowdy clothes or upscale business suit? Fashionably chic or jeans and t-shirt? Nobody would ever mistake Kinsey Millhone, blue-collar PI, with her cousin in the books who’s an upmarket lawyer, even though the two of them look alike. Nor Miss Marple for Jessica Fletcher.
Second, she talks about disequilibrium, although most people would call it motivation (either intrinsic or extrinsic). Separate from the “case”, what in their life do they want to change? Usually this is described as more the character arc that you have in mind for their overall backstory, even though the case might only be a small segment of that journey. This ties in well with her third area, the background of the character.
However, the last two areas often don’t make it to the pop-psych list of tips. Number four on her list is the particular skills or talents that the sleuth has that makes them a bit “different” (Kinsey Millhone isn’t a fighter like Spenser, but she is doggedly persistent; most lawyer sleuths don’t have the sophistication in a courtroom scene of Perry Mason, which in part is why Mason always had Della Street and Paul Drake to compensate with skills in other areas).
And last, she talks about their demeanour under stress. This is a great little characteristic that often is what management and organizational behaviour specialists look at in terms of character/personality/style. Stress brings out your baser instincts, your so-called “natural management style”, and for some in management studies, that is a particularly revealing “tell”. For example, a manager may be warm and fuzzy because they think that is what a good managers should do. And when things are going well, they walk around the office, stop and talk to people, etc.
But when something big is going on, they hyper-focus and stop doing those things — they stick to their knitting, and focus on what matters to them when they don’t have time to think it through. Often it is how you know something is wrong for someone, they stop acting like their “normal” outgoing self and suddenly start acting like their “real” self (focused internally, etc.). It is a great way to have OB discussions at work too — what stresses you out, and what signs would we see externally to know you’re stressed? For some it is as simple as junk food showing up on their desk instead of the normal carrots and celery; for others, they stop having big social conversations and tend to just answer in short sentences. It`s something you rarely see in tips on character development, with most pop-psych tips focusing more on writing a mini-biography of them or figuring out where they are in childbirth order.
However, what I really like in the article is how she focuses her attention on first impressions — how we are introduced to a sleuth for the very first time. What we see, what they’re doing, what we think is important for a reader to know right away. Sue Grafton frequently did literal introductions of Kinsey Millhone, a quick paragraph where Kinsey would say, “I’m 33 years old, twice-divorced, single…” and does her entire backstory in that one single paragraph. Sure, it’s more elaborate in the very first book, but in subsequent books, the exposition is a single paragraph.
The article gives three great examples of introductions through description, dialogue or jumping straight into action. And while most articles about character development never talk about the intro, the intro can be everything. It tells you who they are right off the bat. Sometimes it is a feint, and maybe they’re undercover, so you’re not REALLY seeing the sleuth. But that tells you something too about how they approach undercover work.
The article was excerpted from her book, and I may have to track down a copy. I really like what she did here…