Mystery Suspects: 3 Clues to Managing Suspects in Your Mystery to Keep Readers Going to The End

Five characters in a lineup from the film The Usual Suspects.

Suspects Are The Nuts and Bolts of Creating Your Mystery’s Puzzle

Mystery readers love a puzzle. And they want to solve that puzzle before your detective. But, as a novel writer, you don’t want that to happen. You want to keep your reader guessing until the end, when your sleuth, through their expert skills, reveals the true villain. That’s the role of your mystery suspects.

You have a murder to solve. You create a detective to solve the murder. You have a villain who committed the crime. These elements form the base of your mystery story. But your suspects set the shape of the puzzle.

You need three-dimensional characters with unique traits to baffle your reader and keep them guessing.

What Makes A Good Mystery Suspect?

For a good mystery, the prime job of your suspect is to keep your reader guessing. To make that work, you need to connect the reader to each suspect, make them memorable, and raise questions about their authenticity.

Each suspect needs to be distinct. From their name to their personality to their underlying motives, each character will stay in your reader’s mind if they are unique.

Creating suspects is much more than putting them in a lineup in your head—Suspect 1, Suspect 2, Suspect 3. Your reader will be confused if the suspects are similar. Aim to make each one as distinctive as possible.

When a suspect reappears after 50 pages, your reader needs to identify them right way. You don’t want them asking if Sally is the one with the Border Terrier who wins all the agility trials, or was she the one who covers her home with endless needlepoint samplers?

How to Differentiate Your Suspects

  • Give each suspect a unique name. Start each name with a separate letter of the alphabet. For example, Sally and Susie or Jim and John are too close. Instead, try diverse names like Sally and Genevieve or Jim and Arturo.
  • Give each suspect an instantly recognizable physical characteristic. A perpetual frown. Flame-red hair. A limp. A lisp. Something that helps your reader remember the character from their last appearance in your story.
  • Diversify suspect relationships to the victim. A friend, a business partner, a relationship rival, a relative, an opponent, a resentful neighbor.
  • Each suspect needs a unique reason for disliking or hating the victim.
  • Every suspect needs a secret to cover up. It may have nothing to do with the murder, but it’s an underlying motive for not being forthcoming with your detective.

The idea is to create a circle of relevant suspects who have unique traits, relationships to the victim, and reasons to lie. Remember, the suspect’s role is to keep the reader guessing.

How Many Suspects Should You Have?

While you want to keep the reader guessing, you don’t want to confuse them. Confused readers may stop reading. That’s why you need an ideal number of suspects—not too few, not too many.

Too few suspects will make it easier for your reader to eliminate possibilities. If you have less than three suspects, your reader won’t feel challenged.

When you create too many suspects, your reader may feel confused, but not challenged. They are reading your book because they want the challenge of guessing the villain.

Aim for four to eight suspects in your novel. You’ll have just enough suspects to perplex your reader and the sleuth.

Great Suspects Make the Reader Care

The mystery genre is all about giving your reader a guessing game. Your detective leads the reader through the story. Suspects put the puzzle in context. Each suspect has a role to play in guiding the detective toward the final solution.

Your reader knows one suspect is the villain.

In their interactions with the detective, the suspects give and conceal. They create context for your reader about how they fit into the story. Each suspect knows the victim differently. Each suspect interacts with your sleuth, exhibiting their personality traits, manner of speaking, and motivations to help or hinder your sleuth’s investigation.

When you build curiosity and connection to each suspect, you deepen the reader’s involvement in the story. If they like a suspect, their emotional response may be—No, no, don’t make it be her.

And if the reader dislikes a suspect, they will root for the detective to understand the suspect’s relationship to the victim.

Distinct and rich character development makes each suspect relatable to your reader. Plus, well-developed suspects help you raise questions and build tension through their interactions with the sleuth.

PRO TIP: If you are writing a psychological mystery like P.D. James, Elizabeth George, or Ann Cleeves, going deep into your characters gives your reader more to ponder.

Manage Your Mystery Suspects To Give Your Reader Satisfaction

When building your mystery, it’s important to paint a picture of the type of people you want to introduce. Give each suspect a full description, complete with unique identifiers. Those identifiers will fix the character in the reader’s mind.

You can do this in a variety of ways, such as using mystery suspects that readers will care about and understand. Those emotional connections bond the reader to the characters and the story.

Remember that the more details you provide, the greater the satisfaction for your reader.

featured image placeholder

Similar Posts