In my case, recognizing aspects of character became key to my storytelling process. Many mysteries are about someone being hired to solve someone else’s problem, or stumbling into someone else’s issue. For me, I tend to write about people with personal mysteries in their lives and stumble into something larger. Personally, I enjoy figuring out clues and puzzles and have keen interest in the details; however, without a viewpoint to invest in, my experience is that following the cold, hard facts isn’t enough.
In fact, it would take time before I recognized myself as a mystery and crime writer. It took writing about an investigative journalist in a near future exposing deception, to a 1950s-newspaper staff driven to uncover the truth, followed by a golden age radio actress determined to find her husband, then a post-Prohibition singer wanting to find out how her father died, that I finally started to figure out these were all variants of the amateur sleuth. The idea took some effort to wrap my head around since amateur sleuths are often associated with cozy mystery; my works try to revive the tone of the traditional pulp era with perspectives and topics geared to a modern audience’s sensibilities. The publisher I’ve worked with, Pro Se Productions, is part of a group that has worked to etch out the term “New Pulp” for this style of writing; notice I said style, which doesn’t prevent it from being a mystery in any sense.
In every case, I found something in each of the character’s pasts to mine in order to have that play a key role in the story. For “Tragic Like a Torch Song” in THE DAME DID IT anthology, the tie-in was obvious in that her motivation is finding her father’s killer. In the stand-alone short story “Ghost of the Airwaves,” available as an e-book, radio actress Abigail Hanson finds her drive in wanting to know who killed her husband, further motivated by knowing that an anonymous tipster wants to help. While I created the investigative reporter in “Cover Story,” I needed to follow a set of guidelines established by the ARIA KALSAN universe creator; my character’s personal story and motivation to uncover the mystery allowed me to access a world someone else developed and bring a part of myself to it. Most challenging of all these situations would be doing “Pretty as a Picture,” my first published story for Pro Se Productions in the anthology NEWSHOUNDS; here, not only did a series bible pre-define the world, but also the backstories of all the major characters, and I pulled a piece of the backstory of one of the characters and got permission from the publisher to flesh it out and use that element to drive the mystery.
From these diverse experiences, I gained an awareness that mystery and crime are universal, and not limited by time, geographic location, or even planet. What all of my stories did have in common would be something out of a character (usually the lead’s) past that deeply and directly affected the story line, though in the more action adventure driven tales I struggle with the character through-line sometimes needing to take a back seat. I know some people write very well putting plot front and center and just using character archetypes, but that’s not my style of writing.
I advise other writers to leverage character in their own mystery and crime stories, and see if it works for them. Granted, the main reason people read is to discover who did it and follow the trail of clues with the sleuth, or if the danger can be prevented in time with a crime suspense or thriller. However, the approach of individual characters, and how their weaknesses might hamper their success, must not be undervalued. While this is obvious to a degree, as I mentioned, others have found success solely relying on archetypes because they can build complex and captivating enough puzzles and tell plots at breakneck speed so that a reader can’t stop reading. Each author’s unique voice is what counts.
Focusing on the “mystery of character,” not just in a character’s attributes but in the audience trying to figure out the puzzle of the lead of the story, strongly came into play for my latest short story, which I feel is more suspenseful crime than my prior stories. Called “Hidden History” and featured in EXPLORER PULP, the lead character is someone who unwillingly assumed someone else’s identity after a traumatic accident, and now her past catches up with her. As she gets pulled into her old life, clues begin to surface that the accident may not have been one at all. Here, the mystery of the lead’s identity and the greater mysteries of the plot are strongly interwoven. While technically the protagonist, it feels awkward to characterize her as such. That actually proved to be part of the fun of it, not to have everything be easily defined. Having a mystery to uncover about the character kept it intriguing and interesting for me as well, which hopefully translates to an interested readership as well.