More on writing the first-person mystery
Published: November 26, 2010
|In the January 2011 issue of The Writer, Brendan Dubois, an award-winning author of 12 novels and more than 100 short stories, offered some basic ways to lay the framework for a mystery story written in the first person. Following is some additional material from him related to this topic.|
Here are a couple of exercises that will help you create a first-person narrator who is three-dimensional and real:
1. Write a dossier on your main character. In other words, create what’s known in the spy community as a “legend,” a history of your fictional narrator from birth to present day. However—and I can’t stress this enough—do NOT use this dossier as an excuse to dump the entire thing in chapter one of your novel! Rather, use it as a tool so that as a story progresses, you can sometimes drop in tidbits of background information about your narrator. Be stingy in giving this information out. In book one of my Lewis Cole detective series, I made Cole an only child with no close living relatives. It took until book five until I reached a point where it seemed appropriate to mention the time and circumstance of his parents’ deaths.
In your dossier, you’ll want to answer the following questions:
• Where was your main character born?
• Does he have brothers and sisters? If so, does he stay in close contact with them?
• What kind of education does he have?
• What is his employment background? What kind of jobs has he had, and for how long?
• What outside interests or hobbies does he have?
• Does he live in an apartment? A house? A condo? Is he a neat freak or a slob?
• Is your character married, or does he have a significant other?
2. Once your dossier is complete, it’s time to dig into your character’s mind and personality. Address the following questions:
• List five strengths of your narrator, attributes you can be proud of, such as loyalty, honesty, and other great Boy Scout traits.
• Since none of us is perfect, what five faults does your main character have? A short fuse? Easily frustrated? Forgetful of family members’ birthdays?
• What frightens your character the most? It doesn’t have to be the big-ticket items like death, taxes or dying in a plane crash. How about being in debt? Or powerful thunderstorms? Or drowning?
• Now, what pleases your character the most? A fine meal with friends? A day alone at an art museum? Watching old noir movies from the 1940s?
• What causes your main character to toss everything aside to right a wrong? And again, it doesn’t have to be something major like preventing a murder. What would your narrator do if she found somebody abusing a dog? Or laughing at a disabled vet? Or pushing aside a senior citizen at a shopping center?
Now that you have answered these two questions, look back … and you’ll see how someone who might have been a sketchy, two-dimensional character has come alive in three dimensions … and more importantly, has become a real person, a person your reader will instantly take to.
Before and After
Making a character real
• How do you describe your first-person character without the obvious prop of a mirror?
When writing a first-person novel, the first big roadblock is to describe how your character looks, how old he or she is, and how the character might be doing that day. Often, the first draft involves the ever handy reflecting glass.
Here’s an example of how I might describe my narrator Lewis Cole, a retired Department of Defense research analyst and magazine columnist, who investigates things mysterious in and around the New Hampshire seacoast.
I got out of the shower and wiped myself down, taking a good look in the mirror. My pale blue eyes stared back at me as I used the towel. I noted that my brown hair, flecked with gray, was too long, and that luckily I had a hair appointment for tomorrow for a trim.
My upper torso was fairly well-muscled, though I was in better shape back in college, twenty years ago, when I worked out on a regular basis. Now, as I rubbed myself down, I noticed how my shoulders ached from yesterday’s exertions. I finished drying off and with my old lean running legs, I went into the bedroom to get dressed.
In the second draft, you can describe your narrator without using that darn mirror. Here’s another version that describes Cole without having him stare at himself.
After showering I got dressed, wincing as I slipped a sweatshirt over my shoulders. They ached from yesterday’s workout and I ruefully recalled what better shape I was in two decades ago in college, when I didn’t have to worry so much about exercising. Downstairs I grabbed a water bottle from the refrigerator and saw a little business card on the door from my hairdresser: Carla’s Supercuts. Carla is in her mid-30s, brassy, funny, and always teases that whenever she gives me a trim, she’ll either add highlights to my brown hair or finally get rid of the gray flecks. And when I tell her no go, she leans in and whispers, “But Lewis, with those Paul Newman eyes, I could really spruce you up.”
See the difference? Instead of a recitation of descriptions that sounds like a weather report, the second example not only makes the character more real, but puts him in the reader’s eye.