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43 Ways to Ruin a Mystery Novel: Part 1 – Characters

43 Ways to Ruin a Mystery Novel: Part 1 – Characters

You’ve probably read all the tips on how to construct a mesmerizing mystery, replete with intriguing characters, interesting storylines, and enough red herrings to tickle your sleuthing abilities in a complex whodunit. 

But we would like to share with you all the ways you can ruin a potentially riveting mystery, causing us to put down your book and ban you from our reading list forever.

  1. Create unlikeable protagonists (self-centered, immoral, snobby) that your reader doesn’t care for or relate to. That way your reader won’t care what happens to them. No reason to read further.
  1. Use an unfamiliar dialect out of your comfort zone. Be so enamored with an unusual adjective that you use it repeatedly, sometimes even on the same page “she was resplendent as she surveyed the resplendent field of blooming daffodils.” Better yet, use the wrong word repeatedly within three pages, such as ‘reticent’ when you meant to use ‘reluctant.’
  1. Box yourself into a corner by having strong suspects, all with legit alibis. Therefore, you have to introduce a surprise entity, not a personality with background, history, and motive, on the last page who, ta-da, ends up being the killer. Nobody cares.
  1. Create an arrogant protagonist who thinks they know more than the cops and withholds info from them so that they can be the hero who solves the crime. Which, predictably, almost gets them killed so they thenhave to be rescued from the very same police that they’ve deemed too dumb to handle the case.
  1. Make careless assumptions that endanger others and ruin reputations — the “plucky” (yes, always plucky) investigative journalist who unreservedly believes a nasty rumor about a newly hired policeman and assumes that the police chief hasn’t heard this rumor (despite the rumor making the rounds of the town’s gossip mill) and feels it’s their duty to educate the Chief of Police about their bad hire. The reader can hardly root for such a sloppy “investigative reporter” (and by extension, sloppy author) and such a judgmental hero who condemns without evidence.
  1. Use the exact same sentence twice on the same page or in the same book, such as, “It was like there was a neon sign above his head that said ‘this is the one.’ That’s a lot of neon signs.
  1. Rely on spell check to correct your bad grammar: ‘he had went;’ ‘for him and I;’ ‘he had drank the poison;’ confusing who’s/whose, it’s/its, and their/they’re. Nothing destroys our interest in a story more than feeling like we’re teachers grading an English essay.
  1. Give a character some quirky way of speaking that is so annoying your readers want them dead on page 2. What are ‘YOUSE’ up to? 
  1. Create a series where the hero/heroine is completely stagnant and boring. Why are they still burning toast in Book 3 when they ostensibly own a successful bakery?
  1. Give your protagonist lots of opportunities to boast about how they like to be their own hero, yet have never saved themselves from a bad situation and need to be rescued by others.
  1. Create such a despicable victim that you don’t want the murder solved because it was well deserved. Or when a despicable person is murdered by an equally despicable person, the reader doesn’t care.
  1. Omit any consequences to evil in a novel full of undesirable characters who are utterly devoid of any redeeming qualities. Your reader will be uplifted and satisfied that evil wins.
  1. Forget critical attributes of your character: he was a staid accountant in life, but in the afterlife, he is a cave-diver who is terrible at math. 

Join us in our next post where we’ll illustrate more hidden pitfalls that alienate your readers and ruin a perfectly good mystery. We’ve read them all.

Meet Gretchen Schneider and Anne Rose

Gretchen and Anne are a mother/daughter reading/writing team. Daughter Gretchen Schneider has been (secretly) writing a fantasy book, spurred by her childhood memories of She-Ra and Xena Warrior Princess, and inspired by Scribbler. When not at her job (and sometimes even then!), she can be found with book in hand. Mom is Anne Rose has been publishing nonfiction articles for 40 years and has been reading classic novels since she learned to read.

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