Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Makes Your Sleuth Come Undone?

We’ve spent the last month or so talking about our favorite sleuths--in particular, looking at what traits those characters need to be successful. We’ve talked about loyalty, a willing to take risks, audacity, intelligence, imagination, curiosity, a sense of humor, courage, being observant, persistence . . . wow, what’s left?!

How about a weakness? A flaw? A chink in the armor?

First, I need to backtrack and say that crafting characters is HARD for me. I’m all about the big, shiny premise, the red herrings, and the plot twists. But coming up with a believable character? Yikes, that takes time. A loooonnnnggg time, it seems. But one of the things that has helped my character-building immensely is a blog post I read a few years ago about a presentation by Cecil Castellucci. Cecil says to consider Superman when creating your main character*. In other words, your main character, sleuth or no, should have:
  • A special skill or superpower (well…he’s Superman!)
  • A flaw (Kryptonite)
  • A place of their own (Fortress of Solitude)
  • An arch enemy (Lex Luthor)
  • A love/passion (Lois Lane)
This simple idea has really helped me to create more well-rounded characters. I especially like the idea of each character having his/her own Kryptonite. To me, this is what makes the character real and interesting. Predictable, yet . . . not.

I especially enjoy it if the character comes up against their weakness in the plot. Think about it. If Harry Potter (yes, Harry’s a mystery, too) was only an amazing wizard battling the forces of evil, he would much be less interesting than an amazing wizard with a temper who’s hurting over the loss of his parents. Sammy Keyes has to hide a secret about where she lives, a fact that often gets in the way of her solving her mysteries. Enola Holmes struggles against the perceived roles of women in her times. One of my favorite sleuths, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce in THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, wrestles with a huge case of sibling rivalry. And Nancy Drew--well, I think this is why Nancy’s hard to go back and reread as an adult. She’s TOO perfect. Her only weakness is her tendency to get knocked unconscious in every book. And let’s face it, that could happen to any of us. :-)

What are your favorite character weaknesses?



  1. I love this simple break down of character essentials--thanks for this!

    I'm reading all the Edgar nominees in kid lit right now. Most of the protags are willing to break the rules to get what they want, and I like that, because there's no way I would be that brave myself :-)

    1. Hi F.T. Bradley, yes, I think what resonated with me was the simpleness of it. And yes, a willingness (or at least the NEED) to break the rules is a definite must.

  2. What a great post! Cecil's idea is such a helpful way to look at character development.

    Self-doubt might be one of my favorite flaws in a sleuth because it increases my suspense as a reader: what if the sleuth DOES have it all wrong and it was the butler all along?

    1. Thanks, Kristen. I love self-doubt,too. It's almost like an unreliable narrator. Lots of tension and unease!


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