The Mystery Novel Versus the Character Novel
Whether it be romance, mystery, fantasy, or character-driven fiction, getting feedback on your writing from those who are also in the same genre, can be useful. They understand the conventions of that genre. A friend once wanted me to read his murder mystery novel. I did my level best to get out of it because I knew that even though I would try not to, I would tend to use the rules of thumb I use in my own writing.
This post discusses the differences between writing a murder mystery and a character-driven novel. (At least from my point of view—there are lots of books on writing for your genre.)
The mystery novel
The plot is all and a very standard one at that. The required components of a mystery:
- Identification of murderer
Now, as you know, good mystery writers can weave their way around this formula to make entertaining fiction. But if you remove any of these elements, it’s not a murder mystery (or an unsatisfying one if the murderer isn’t identified).
The characters are in the service of the story. So you’ll always have a detective of some kind and also usually a sidekick (think Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Hastings to Hercule Poirot) to whom she can confide her amazing conclusions. There have to be at least two and maybe more people with motives to kill the victim.
Given this relatively rigid structure, character sometimes gets subordinated to plot so that characters get pushed around to show up at the right place and time so that the next step of the mystery can unfold.
Character-driven narratives tend to take a character and let it roam where it may. Unless the deviation is explained, characters’ actions and thoughts usually need to be consistent with the personality given.
Typically, at least the main protagonist has to grow or change in some way before the end of the novel. He has to be different in some way at the end compared to who he was at the beginning.
The plot to some extent gets its shape from the needs of the character. So asking questions like Is the protagonist credible? is much more important for a character-driven novel than a mystery. If the main character isn’t credible, then the plot which unfolds is likely also to be incredible.
Character driven novels might not have endings which tie everything up and still be satisfying but mystery novels must get to the who dun it.
So, this is just an example of how different genres have different conventions which you violate at your peril. You need to understand the particular requirements of your genre to satisfy the readers of that type of fiction.