Mystery books tend to have lots of characters but it is usually easy to remember who’s who. This is because most people in books fall into recognisable character categories.
We may not have met them before but we know their type.
Let’s start with the protagonist
Every fiction book has a protagonist. This is almost always the main character, and is sometimes the narrator as well, telling their own story. There can be more than one protagonist, as the main character often has a partner, a love interest – or in the case of my own books – a friend.
Sometimes the protagonists don’t recognise each other as allies. So initially they don’t work together. This is a great way to introduce a ‘character arc’. That’s a writing term for how a character changes as a result of things that happen to them.
Where there is a protagonist, there must also be an antagonist
This person can be anything from a really evil villain, to someone with their own agenda – that gets in the way of the protagonist’s attempts to solve the mystery. They can be someone who repulses us, or someone who simply annoys us. At least until we learn their motivation and realise they are all right, after all.
Often we have no idea who the antagonist is, until the very end of the story. Books in which we think we know who the antagonist is, but then it turns out to be someone else, can be very satisfying.
A mystery is only a mystery if there is a problem to solve
This means there must be a victim. We tend to think of the victim as a dead body, but that’s not necessarily the case. It could just be a person who needs help. Often the victim explicitly asks for help, but a curious protagonist will always spot a mystery.
From a reader’s perspective, the victim is an intriguing character type. They can be a horrible person who creates sympathy for the antagonist. Or they can be a good person we want to get justice for. They tend to evoke strong, sometimes conflicting, feelings.
We live in an age of internet searches and YouTube channels
Still, it isn’t realistic for the protagonist to be able to find out everything on their own, particularly if they are not a trained detective. This is where the expert is needed, someone who can provide information that few other people know. Or that would be hard to find without knowing exactly what to search for.
For readers, the expert character represents an opportunity to learn something new and interesting. As well as collecting another piece of the puzzle.
Can I get a witness?
This is one of the most interesting character types because the witness can be so many things. Someone who has seen something but doesn’t understand its significance. A blackmailer who tries to use their knowledge to extort money. A person who is scared to tell the truth because the antagonist will know it was them. Someone who was up to no good when they became a witness. The person who provided help to the victim. Even the victim themselves.
This character type provides an endless source of ideas.
Which of these character types is your favourite?
Enjoyed this post?
You might also like A Discovery of Characters.