The Solution to the Pop-Up Character Syndrome in Mysteries

During a critique session, years ago, one of our group members submitted a first-chapter of a novel she was working on. Members of the group had taken her pages home, read it over for the month, marked it up, and then we all came back to discuss–which is our M.O. Rarely is it the case that a group of our size concurs on an issue (there’s always one or two dissenters somewhere) but this one was unanimous:

Too many characters, too soon. It read like a pop-up shooting gallery.

I think that this is a verrrry common writing sin/mistake/problem, found particularly in the mystery genre. Let’s face it, the structure of a mystery requires a lot of characters. You’ve gotta have the investigator, the criminal, the red herrings, the random other people who interfere in the investigation…and let’s not forget the victim in this hubbub. How can a writer possibly avoid this chaotic assortment of characters? How on earth do you sort out the madness?

Well, if we’re following Agatha Christie’s example (and we are) then you do this: slow the heck down!

There’s this feeling when you’re writing a mystery that you must have everyone onstage now–so you can get to the murder–so you can get to the puzzle–so you can get to the next part that is sooo awesome!

Hold up, bub.

A mystery also requires that the reader understand who these characters are, what their relationships are, and what the possible motives are. If you don’t get that down, then the reader will actually be bored with your amazing plot twists because the reader won’t follow what’s going on.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery (and I believe her first book in general–but don’t quote me, I’ll have to double check), Christie shows an amazing ability to introduce characters. And it’s because she takes her time. Two chapters go by before the murder occurs.

Each character gets his/her own introductory section. And guess what? It could go on for more than a paragraph. Don’t think that you have to go: “This is Sally. She beautiful and is in debt up to her eyeballs [to steal a line from one of my favorite commercials]. She was once in love with Tony [who you have given a previous paragraph of introduction to] but married Lou on a drunken weekend in Tibet” and then proceed with the action. That brief description tells us a little about Sally, and gives credence to a motive somewhere (maybe). But there’s no emotional involvement, there’s nothing to give us more about her personality, there’s nothing to make us invest in her.

Now, let’s look at the Dame her-own-self:

“I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.”
~Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

And that’s just the intro paragraph for this woman. Off the bat we know several things about her: energetic, generous, rich, handsome, raised kids who weren’t hers, etc. Christie then proceeds to explain Mrs. Cavendish and her family in more detail. We meet her stepson, John, and the narrator, Hastings, as they discuss the people they’re about to arrive at Styles. John gives the rundown on the family situation, and that dialogue description is backed up by Hastings’ own recollections about the family. The family takes a chapter by itself.

Then the next chapter is all about the family’s interactions.

Guess what? None of it is boring. When a reader picks up a mystery, she is expecting a puzzle, and she will want to know the puzzle pieces. So, as a writer, you have more time than you think you do.

Have you ever fallen prey to the ‘pop-up’ character trap? How do you avoid it? Is this a problem for other genres?



One response to “The Solution to the Pop-Up Character Syndrome in Mysteries”

  1. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Waa, this one's gone too! I barely remember what I said… Do you have it saved anywhere? I might have kept it in my Gmail.

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