Unpleasant Characters in Mysteries

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by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Unpleasant characters are tough for any genre.  But for mysteries, they present special challenges.

My editors from Penguin would often bring up concerns they had with unpleasant characters in my manuscripts.

My feeling is that unpleasant characters are incredibly useful in mysteries. They provide motive.  They provide realism. They can even provide humor.

Although I find these characters helpful, I do recognize the pitfalls.  Unpleasant characters are tricky for mysteries (and, likely, for most genres).

The unpleasant protagonist/sleuth:

If you’re telling your story from the point of view of the sleuth, the readers see the story world through his or her eyes.  Readers frequently express a desire to identify in some way with protagonists.

So this is the trickiest of all to write.  I’m constantly questioning how far to go with the unpleasant edge for my main characters.  After all, these are people that I want readers to want to spend time with.

But I remain drawn to characters who are cranky, impatient, or easily irritated. The challenge is to make them appealing at the same time.

Save the Cat has gotten both praise and criticism (from some corners for being formulamatic).  I think that they get at least one big thing right.  We need the reader to root for our protagonist. We need them to want the crime solved or the world saved or whatever goal our protagonist is working toward. It’s good to give something that makes readers pull for and like our character.  A sense of humor definitely helps.  Or kindness under the crustiness. Or a soft spot for children and animals.

Once our protagonist is accepted by readers, it gets easier in later books…as long as we don’t step over the line or make the unpleasantness excessive. To me, it should just a natural (and often comedic) part of a multifaceted character.

The unpleasant victim:

For me, it’s certainly easier to write the mystery if the victim is unpleasant. Who wouldn’t want to kill him?  But then you have to ask: why should the reader care who killed the victim?  Maybe it seems as though the character’s death was good riddance.

In this case, it helps to either have a victim who seems good and is later revealed to be unpleasant (via interviews with suspects or eyewitnesses), or to focus on the process of unraveling the puzzle instead of the tragedy of the crime.  I ordinarily choose to focus on the process. Solving mysteries is what the sleuth does…and it doesn’t matter if the victim was a Sunday school teacher or a blackmailer.  With any luck, the reader gets caught up with the interactive sleuthing a mystery provides and puts less importance on the victim.

The unpleasant suspect: 

This was usually the most troubling area of all to my editors, although I find the unpleasant protagonist more challenging to write.

My editors’ main concern was that readers would want the unpleasant suspect to be the killer.  Then, if I wrote the unpleasant character to be the killer,  the reader wouldn’t be surprised at the outcome (because it was what they wanted/believed to be true).

I changed a murderer once for this reason, but lately I’ve taken a step back from that approach. I’ll either add more unpleasant qualities for the other suspects, or else I’ll smooth some of the rough edges off of the killer. For me, the surprise ending is one of the most important elements of a mystery and I’ll sacrifice a lot for a satisfying conclusion.

You can also write unpleasant and unlikeable recurring characters to act as foils for the main character.  This can be a great way to set up subplot conflict and tension for your sleuth.  I do this with the Erma Sherman character in my Myrtle Clover series. Erma is a disaster…and lives next door to my sleuth. She’ll do anything to avoid her.

Do you write unpleasant characters? How do you make them appealing for readers?

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9 thoughts on “Unpleasant Characters in Mysteries

  1. You know, Elizabeth, I think unpleasant characters can add a lot to a mystery, even if they’re neither the victim nor the killer. They can add suspense, and they can ‘flesh out’ a character’s world.

  2. I can see where that would be tricky for mystery.

    My 5th book centered on a character who’d proven herself unlikable in the other books. I had to focus on why she was such a pain in the you-know-what and show what motivated her to say and do things. Plus I got to show a softer side of her. She was the biggest pain to write but ironically that was the best of the five stories.

  3. Hi Elizabeth – character traits are important, as too side kicks. I get attracted to a character for a while and then get bored as I read more books – I guess I was growing as a reader at that stage. I don’t like horrors – so it’s finding the right mix for your book and thus your characters. The side kick or the professor/expert tucked away can bring evil or good into the story line … cheers and have a good Easter … Hilary

    1. You’re so right…it depends on the book, genre, and characters. Sidekicks are incredibly important to mysteries and can provide a POV that the sleuth doesn’t have (or conflict, if needed, too). Happy Easter to you!

  4. The main character in my Moxie’s Problem novel starts out as an obnoxious teenager. Readers hated her (they told me so. One reviewer said obnoxious was an understatement)). By the end of the story, the readers were rooting for Moxie as she grew into a determined, strong-minded young woman.
    So yes, unpleasant characters are useful. They are also a lot of fun to writer abut.

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