Who is involved? THE CHARACTERS
To write a good mystery you need interesting characters.
To write a great mystery you have to know who they are,
how they see themselves, and how they are seen by others.
Who dies? THE VICTIM
Who dies can be quite different in a written story than at a mystery party. In fiction writing, a writer has the ability to be subtle; in live events, not so much. The dead person in a novel can be good or bad or both. At a party, there is no room for subtly. The dead person is always the deepest, darkest villain who truly deserves to die. Not one tear will be shed as he (or she) drops down in pain, rises up gasping for breath, pulling over chairs and knocking over lamps as he finally stumbles his miserable way out of this world.
Case in point: In Midnight at the Oasis, the Sultan of Haberdashery with his drug sniffing camel Alice, is the villain. Well, the camel gets to live. The Sultan – no. A truly detestable bad guy, he gives everyone he comes in contact with a good reason for wanting him dead. Blackmail, burglary and betrayal are just of few of his horrendous habits. The Sultan has control over something which the killer and other suspects want; their hearts, their freedom, their pocketbooks. Motive is all about being in control at its bottom line.
Who did it? The SUSPECTS
Now that we know who dies, who are the suspects?
If you are writing a story then there are more characters than suspects.
If you are writing a story then you have more time and literary tools to make your characters interesting so they do not have to immediately stand out in the same way they do in a script
If you are writing an interactive entertainment script, then all the characters are suspects. The best mystery entertainment is always over the top! Colourful characters are just more fun and able to get away with extreme behavior. This helps your audience relax and enjoy themselves; it makes it easier for them to participate as well. Since no one is acting ‘normal’ it gives guests permission to act a little melodramatic as well.
Who muddies the water? THE WITNESSES
SUSPECT THE WITNESSES WHO WITNESS THE SUSPECTS
Unreliable witnesses belong to the ‘what appeared to happen’
part of the mystery.
They will be proven unreliable by the time the detective realizes
‘what actually happened’.
Some witnesses aren’t aware they’re unreliable. Their senses fail them. They misinterpret things. They’ve been fed information by an unreliable source themselves. Or perhaps they are deliberately unreliable. They have something to hide. They don’t want to be involved. They have a grudge against the detective.
Who has a secret? EVERYONE
WHAT IS BEING HIDDEN?
WHAT IS BEING COVERED UP?
If it’s a mystery party, ALL of your characters should have a secret; IF you are writing a story only some of them will. Their secret may, or may not have anything to do with the crime under investigation. Either way, they will try and cover something up to hide it. A bad cover-up tells you you’re dealing with an amateur.
Who’s guilty? THE VILLAIN
The villain is the meanest, most miserable, dirty rotten scoundrel anyone ever met. I like to murder him early and the watch the effect he had on others cause them to unravel – in a fun way : )
Who Solves it? THE DETECTIVE
Raymond Chandler gives us the best description of a detective ever in the following quote:
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.” Raymond Chandler exert from The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
A Good DETECTIVE, and a Good VILLAIN both know:
How to Size Someone Up
That Edgar Allen Poe sure knew how to size up a guy. Here’s a marvelous quote from his famous short story The Purloined Letter.
The speaker is an eight year old boy who is always winning at a game of marbles where you guess whether the person is holding an odd or even number of marbles in their closed hand. He figured out how his opponents would play based on their astuteness. When asked how he identified the other’s intelligence he replied :
“’When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”
Make Your Characters Stand Out With Characterizations
ADVISE FROM THE EXPERTS
“A character who is thought-out is not born, he or she is contrived. A born character is round, a thought-out character is flat.”
Donald E. Westlake
”I find characters who are at cross-purposes with society, or opposed to society in some way, interesting because they are by definition the underdogs.”
Attributed to both Albert Maltz and Mark Hellinger
“Every murder turns on a bright hot light, and a lot of people… have to walk out of the shadows.”
Donald E. Westlake
“Once he became a series character, I made the conscious choice that he would never act like a series character, never wink at the reader, never pull his punches. Better for him, better for me.”
“A thief believes everybody steals.”
Commentary: It goes further than this. People unconsciously believe that everyone thinks the same way they do regarding basic paradigms . For instance if a character is selfish they will believe that everyone acts from their own selfish interests. It is only a character with some degree of maturity that can understand people can be different from themselves at a deep level.