Posted by: nancycurteman | May 29, 2011

How to Ensure Your Mystery Novel Protagonist Takes Control

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Killer Ideas

In a mystery novel, the protagonist must take control. A passive protagonist will bore the average mystery buff. Take a close look at your story sleuth to determine whether events around her “just drop from the sky” or whether her considered decisions enable her to triumph over multiple crises and conflicts. This is especially important in mysteries because traditionally the protagonist faces danger. She has to have a believable reason for putting herself in harm’s way.

Furthermore, your sleuth’s every action must have some effect on the storyline. Her decisions and actions drive the plot,  so they must have a rational basis.

What is the key to a proactive sleuth? Motivation.

Provide your sleuth with both interior and exterior motivations. Exterior motivation relates to meeting a measurable goal—find her kidnapped sister, prove the murderer killed again,  recover her mother’s stolen wedding ring. The protagonist is aware of an exterior goal. Exterior motivation involves conflict with an opponent who presents an obstacle to the achievement of the goal. It becomes the foundation of the mystery story.

Interior motivation is about the protagonist’s interior need or drive—guilt that she let her sister go out alone, blinding pain at the senseless murder of her friend, a sense of justice. It deals with inner struggles. Interior motivation is usually slower-moving than exterior motivation and takes longer for the protagonist to become aware of it and overcome it. However, it is critical to the story because the reasons the protagonist seeks to solve the plot problem go deep into her inner character. Something inside drives the sleuth toward her goal.

One more important point about motivation: Character motivation must drive the mystery novel not author motivation. A mystery writer doesn’t send a character into harms way because he needs a suspenseful scene to perk up his novel. The character is motivated to conquer her own fear and sneak into the villain’s lair to free her sister because she knows her sister will die if she doesn’t do something.

The bottom line is this: If a reader doesn’t understand the motivation driving the character to face conflicts and crises, he won’t believe in the story and will conclude that the entire episode is contrived.

More Writing Tips:

Developing Characters is No Mystery
How to Create Sympathetic Mystery Novel Characters
How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel
The Romantic  Heroine in a Mystery Novel
How to Write Character Arc in a Mystery Novel

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Responses

  1. Thanks again. 🙂

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  2. As always, thanks for writing such great useful posts Nancy 🙂

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  3. I SO MUCH agree with you on this completely! I’d hate reading a mystery novel thinking that I could do a better job than the protagonist at finding and acting on the clues. Perish the thought! Blessings to you, Nancy…

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    • The world of mystery novels is so broad—everything from light cozy to hard core crime. It is difficult to recommend books without knowing the type of mystery you enjoy reading. I haven’t read Ilustrado. Tell me more about it.

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    • People in real life don’t do things without reasons. Why should story people?

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  4. Thankyou for your tips and perspective as an author. Any good book suggestions at the moment?…Have you read Ilustrado?… I thought I might try it,,,,

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    • The world of mystery novels is so broad—everything from light cozy to hard core crime. It is difficult to recommend books without knowing the type of mystery you enjoy reading. I haven’t read Ilustrado. Tell me more about it.

      Like

  5. Good advice as always, Nancy.

    Characters have to act believably, based on their external and internal motivation, or I lose interest.

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