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Take the Mystery Out of Writing a Relatable Amateur Sleuth


Amateur sleuths have been solving crimes in popular literature for generations, so it's no surprise that this mystery subgenre remains one of the most popular among modern readers. Amateur sleuth stories tend to focus on a relatable protagonist who appeals to a broad demographic and a wide range of ages. No matter where you are in the writing process, the following six tips will take the mystery out of writing a relatable amateur sleuth so you can increase your chances of getting your amateur sleuth mystery published.

Demystifying Amateur Sleuth Story Writing

1. Base your amateur sleuth on someone you know in real life

Your amateur sleuth is the lens through which readers experience the story, so it is essential that you make this character feel familiar. According to enotes, The primary appeal of amateur sleuth novels lies in the personalities of the sleuths. Amateur sleuths possess primarily positive qualities, along with enough quirks and character flaws to make them believably human. Most readers tend to see themselves in a story's protagonist, and this is particularly true for the amateur sleuths who read amateur sleuth mystery novels in hopes of solving the case alongside the protagonist or possibly before the protagonist. As the Mysterious Matters blog explained, More than in any of the other subgenres, [amateur sleuth mystery] readers are looking for a protagonist who can be their alter ego. We want the protag to be likable but not a pushover; adventurous but not stupid; wise-cracking but not sarcastic; intelligent but down to earth. Since readers will identify with your amateur sleuth, they will balk at unbelievable qualities or actions that they deem implausible.

To create a protagonist who is believable and relatable, consider basing the character on yourself or someone close to you. Identify the protagonist's strengths and the positive qualities that will serve the character and advance the story, and then identify character flaws or core fears that might impede the protagonist's progress. Once you've identified some basic character flaws and fears, consider how those traits will work against the sleuth as he or she gets closer to solving the case.

To make your amateur sleuth feel even more believable, consider creating a backstory for your protagonist so you know his or her history and can better understand what motivates him or her. You don't need to give the reader the entire backstory, but creating a backstory will help you recognize if the character's motives feel insincere or contradictory.

2. The amateur sleuth's motivations must be believable

As the protagonist of your story, readers need to believe your amateur sleuth's motivations for getting involved in the mystery. Most writers explain the amateur sleuth's motivations by making the amateur sleuth personally invested in solving the crime. Perhaps the sleuth is related to the victim and is frustrated to discover that law enforcement isn't prioritizing the case. Maybe the amateur sleuth's significant other has been wrongly accused of murder, and the sleuth feels like the only person who can prove the significant other's innocence.

To establish a believable motivation that will resonate with readers, consult your protagonist's positive and negative qualities that you identified in Tip #1. If your protagonist values family relationships and is fiercely loyal, it will be believable when he or she decides to get involved in solving a family member's disappearance.

3. Give your amateur sleuth a valid way to obtain critical information

Now that you've established why your amateur sleuth is determined to solve the crime, decide how your sleuth will get access to the necessary information. One option is to give the sleuth a connection (such as a love interest, a family member, or a close friend) within the police department. Another option is to establish your amateur sleuth as an expert in an obscure field that is central to the crime, so he or she can identify discrepancies in publicly available evidence.

If you created a backstory for your amateur sleuth in Tip #1, you might discover that a previous life experience helped prepare your sleuth to solve this case. Once you decide how your sleuth will obtain pertinent information, discuss your concept with friends and loved ones and ask them if it feels believable. While it can feel intimidating to ask for input from your loved ones, doing so will improve your story and make it believable, so readers will accept that your amateur detective is capable of connecting clues and solving a crime.

4. Place your amateur sleuth in dangerous situations

Conflict is essential to a good story, so make sure to include conflict and some page-turning dangerous encounters for your protagonist. For an amateur sleuth, obtaining classified information and solving a crime is a dangerous endeavor. You've already established a valid and believable reason that your sleuth is invested in solving the crime regardless of the associated dangers (as discussed in Tip #2), so it will feel natural to readers when your sleuth remains committed to the case even in the face of danger.

You can also use the sleuth's inexperience to increase suspense and action when he or she encounters a suspected criminal. As mystery author Diane Kelly explained, The fact that amateur sleuths are generally unarmed and untrained in self-defense heightens the suspense when they go head-to-head with a potential criminal. You can also use your protagonist's inexperience in combat to add some humor to the dangerous situations and provide some levity.

Since the amateur sleuth chose to get involved with the mystery, some people might argue that amateur sleuths choose to put themselves in danger. If you want to further embrace this concept, consult the list of character flaws and fears you created in Tip #1 and brainstorm ways for those flaws and fears to intersect. For example, if your protagonist is impulsive and is also terrified of dogs, perhaps he or she jumps a fence to follow a suspect and encounters a vicious barking dog. By combining this character flaw with a fear, you have created many possible dangerous situations for your protagonist, and now you just have to decide which one to explore and include in the story.

5. Consider what role technology will play in your story

If you set your story in current times, your amateur sleuth will have access to a cell phone, social media, and the internet's interconnected research rabbit holes, and readers will expect the sleuth to use such technology. While cell phones, computers, and the internet might be useful in helping your sleuth solve the case, technology can also complicate your story by making people too accessible or too easy to track, and it can also make your story dated as technology continues to advance in the future. To avoid these issues, a lot of authors find ways to eliminate modern technology in their amateur sleuth stories.

Sarah E. Burr, author of the amateur sleuth mystery Trending Topic #Murder, explained why she made technology a central part of her story: Technology is very much a part of all our lives, but it seemed to be missing from this genre that I absolutely cherish. So, I began to toy with the idea of an amateur sleuth who used her extensive knowledge of the internet to unearth clues and dig up suspects.

If you don't want your amateur sleuth to use current technology, you could set your story in a time period before cell phones and the internet became ubiquitous, or you can create a believable reason that your sleuth doesn't use the latest technology. Readers will identify with your protagonist, so if you decide to set your story in current times but without technology, make sure to create a plausible reason that your tenacious and determined protagonist is not using the latest technology to solve this crime.

6. Give your amateur sleuth a support system

While it is possible to create a successful and relatable amateur sleuth who is a loner, your story will evoke more emotions in readers if you give your protagonist a close group of friends or a strong family. Creating strong supporting characters will help readers understand the protagonist while also creating a sense of community within the story. You can also use these friends and family members as red herrings: Perhaps you write one family member so he or she appears suspicious to readers, but the amateur sleuth fails to recognize the red flags in a family member.

Creating a support system for your amateur sleuth will also expand your options when the sleuth encounters danger, as discussed in Tip #4. If you've already introduced readers to the sleuth's loved ones and established the sleuth's strong relationships with these characters, it will make sense when those loved ones show up to help the amateur sleuth get out of a dangerous situation.

If you follow these six tips for taking the mystery out of writing a relatable amateur sleuth, you will be off to a great start on your amateur sleuth novel.

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