How Many Suspects is Enough?

How Many Suspects is Enough?

Be Good to Your Reader

Choosing suspects for your mystery novel begins when you flesh out your story idea in the planning stages. As you create your character bible adding suspects to your mystery novel you aim for a balance between enough characters to challenge your sleuth and your reader and too few suspects. 

If your mystery has only two or three suspects your reader won’t feel challenged. You will be challenged creating material to flesh out a novel of 65,000 to 85,000 words. If you have ten or more suspects you’ll confuse your reader. They’ll find it hard to keep all the suspects clear in their head. Which one was George? Was he the tailor or the neighbor? When was he introduced?

Whenever you stop a reader in your story you run the risk of them being unsatisfied or putting down your book and not returning. For an average length mystery (65,000 to 80,000 words) choose between five and eight suspects.

Introduce Your Suspects

Introduce each suspects so your reader has a clear idea of their identity and their context in the story. Each character forms an impression with your reader so they recognize that character as they appear throughout the story.

  • Introduce each suspect separately. Give your reader a sense of who they are, how they communicate, and a visual clue to use as a quick refresher when the character appears later in your mystery.
  • Use specific details for each suspect to help fix their identity for your reader. Make those details specific to that suspect. For instance, if two of your suspects race bicycles, give each a set of specifics that are separate from the other. Avoid overlap between characters.
  • Give each suspect a distinct name. Create names that are 
    unique to each suspect that don’t sound alike. Spelling and sound need to be as different as possible. Avoid confusions like one character named Jim and the other James. 
  • Use story context to help readers identify suspects. How did they know the victim? What was their relationship to the victim? How does the character interact with your sleuth? 

You won’t go wrong by starting with the context for each suspect and then working out the details. You can always change red hair to blond, or change a character’s name. The context helps your reader understand that suspect’s role in the story.

​Zara Altair

Photo by Hannah Lim on Unsplash

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