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Suspects: The Spice of Life in Your Mystery

Photo by SHUJA ZED on Unsplash

Create Awesome Suspects to Delight Your Readers

Mystery readers love to be tantalized. The clues, red herrings, and evidence you plant in your story lead them to guessing while your sleuth tries to reason out the possibilities. Your suspects weave the rich tapestry that keeps readers guessing.

I recently read A Murder of Crows by Ian Skewis. The psychology behind each character is deep and every character, including the detective, is flawed. Skewis reveals characters by peeling back those proverbial onion skins. Readers get deeper and deeper into what makes a character tick.

You may not be writing a mystery that tends toward psychological thriller, but revealing your characters’ personality draws readers into the story.

Why Readers Love Suspects

Your suspects are the meat of your mystery. Eventually your sleuth has to unearth which of the suspects is guilty. Give your sleuth, and your reader, possibilities.

Clues and evidence are hooks to get readers attention. Well-created characters keep readers turning pages. Those suspects have secrets and tell lies. They also have personal antagonisms, likes and dislikes. You build suspense when the detective must puzzle out those lies, get beyond the antagonisms, and discern which likes and dislikes are pertinent to solving the mystery.

The reason readers love suspects is because they present possibilities.

5 Ways to Make Your Suspects Intriguing

Know the understructure of your characters. Add details, backstory, and motivations in your Character Bible and weave them into your mystery. Write dialogue snippets. Describe their body language. The more layers you create, the more your reader wants to know more.

To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.

  • A foible that reveals a deep flaw
  • A traumatizing childhood experience that lies behind motivation
  • A stated motivation in conflict with deep-seated internal goals
  • An inner turbulence that causes them to make statements that can be interpreted several ways, or misinterpreted
  • Create a reversal that changes how they act in the story

When you give each suspect foibles, something to hide, and defense mechanisms to throw at your sleuth, you’ll keep your reader wondering.

A Practice Exercise

Use the image above as a starting point for three characters. Each one looks a bit shady. Now differentiate those characters.

  • Choose which one is your perp
  • Add the background details for each character
  • Choose the one clue for the perp that will alert your sleuth
  • Hide that one detail in the confusion of presenting the other characters

If you can work through the character differentiation for these three, you can do it for the suspects in your mystery.

Details Rule

When you know the understructure of your suspects, you’ll find casting suspicion on each one easier as they misbehave, tell small and big lies, and confound your sleuth and your readers. The character work you do for each suspect rewards you with details to use in your mystery.

​Zara Altair 

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