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How to write a murder mystery – characters.

Article by Bryan Hallett

Crime fiction in general and murder mystery in particular is a popular staple of bookshops, theatre and television drama, and is a genre often tackled by new writers. This article is written from the standpoint of someone who writes mysteries for theatre performance, but the lessons and techniques can be applied to any media.

However you wish to present your mystery, there are at least three vital elements to a ripping mystery: characters and plot. So often the budding writer gets so bogged down in developing a complex web of intrigue that the all important element of character development is missed entirely and consequently we hardly care what happens to them.

I strongly advise that a murder mystery, in what ever form, should start with the development of characters who fit closely into the environment you have chosen for your story. Plot will come later, and actually flow from the characters you have created.

So, let’s begin with the environment. Murder mysteries set in a 1930s English mansion have been done, pardon the pun, to death, but there are reasons for their popularity. For starters, this setting instantly gives the writer a set of stock characters with whom the reader/watcher will already be partly familiar. Secondly the confined setting often means that the list of suspects is immediately obvious. I’m certainly not advocating that you avoid such a setting, but there are hundreds of other situations which can give rise to a similar set of conditions. Consider, for example, a submarine, an office party, a medieval banquet, an Antarctic expedition, a spaceship, a cruise ship, a town council meeting – the list can go on and on.

Once you’ve picked your place you can easily begin to think of a series of characters. Let’s concentrate on the submarine for now to get an idea of how this might work. We obviously need a captain, and let’s add a couple of officers and ratings for good measure. We shall want to make the trip a little interesting along the way, so let’s throw in a mysterious passenger and his beautiful wife. We don’t even need to name our gallant crew at the moment – but we can begin to sketch in the characteristics that can point the way to an interesting plot.

So then, our captain. He needs a bit of backstroke. Let’s make him a gruff old sea-dog who demands high standards and is nearing retirement. He has a fear of water developed after his wife drowned in a pleasure boat accident. We can go on this way with all of our major players, and then the interesting part starts – working out their relationship with other characters.

I usually do this by drawing a bubble diagram and connecting each character to each of the others with an arrow describing their relationship. For example:

Captain ———–> blames for death of his wife ———-> Officer 1.

Captain ———–> was once engaged to ——————-> Beautiful wife.

Eventually we have a web of interconnections that begin to suggest a framework for a story. Some of these interconnections may fall by the wayside or be changed as we progress, but it’s a good start.

Now go back to your characters and assign them names. If you are planning a comical story these names could suggest their characteristics (eg Captain Stable), or you may want something more sombre. Add a few more notes on their character then you are ready to begin on part 2 – the plot…

About the Author

Bryan Hallett runs a successful Murder Mystery company, Murder To Measure, based in the South West UK. He has hosted dozens or murders himself and is still without a criminal record.

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