How to Write a Unique Detective Character

Posted on Oct 15, 2023

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Written by P.J McNulty

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Detective fiction, a genre that has captivated readers with its intriguing plots and intellectual challenges, has long been a staple of literature.

From the fog-laden streets of Victorian London to the crime-riddled back alleys of modern cities, these stories allow readers to experience justice secondhand, all while engaging in a thrilling mental game.

However, the genre’s popularity comes with a caveat: a landscape overcrowded with clichéd detectives, each a shadow of greats from literary history, lacking originality.

This article serves as an alternative for fiction writers and aspiring authors, encouraging you to create a detective character who is not only unique but also compelling—a character who stands out in the crowded realm of crime fiction.

This guide to how to write a unique detective character covers:

  1. What makes a detective character boring?
  2. Why a clichéd detective character doesn’t work
  3. How to go beyond clichéd detective characters
  4. How to add depth and complexity to your detective
  5. Why story setting can boost the uniqueness of your detective
  6. How to research an authentic detective character
  7. Writing exercises to help you craft a better detective
  8. How to draw inspiration from famous detective characters

Let’s start with one of the fundamentals – what makes a detective character boring, predictable, and generally ineffective?

What makes a detective character boring?

Before you can break away from cliché, you need to recognize it.

The detective genre, rich and varied as it is, has become a breeding ground for certain stereotypical characters—those who, regardless of the name or setting, seem all too familiar.

These archetypes, while successful in the past, are often overused, predictable, and lacking depth in today’s fiction world.

Let’s dissect some of these typical detective clichés.

1. The Hard-Boiled Detective

This detective is the quintessential tough guy, a cynical character who patrols the mean streets of a corrupt city, often nursing a drink in a dimly-lit bar.

He’s usually a loner, disillusioned by the world’s evils, yet adhering to his own moral code.

While this archetype was groundbreaking in the era of Raymond Chandler, it’s now so commonplace that it’s become predictable.

The key to innovating here is to humanize this character, exploring vulnerabilities beneath the tough exterior, and veering away from expected norms.

2. The Infallible Sleuth

Impossibly intelligent, this detective solves complex puzzles with ease, never sets a foot wrong, and is always several steps ahead.

While characters like Sherlock Holmes have left an indelible mark, a detective without flaws can be unrelatable.

Strive for balance by giving your sleuth challenges that test not only their intellect but also their emotions and values, creating a multifaceted character that readers can connect with.

3. The Tormented Genius

Often brilliant but socially awkward or troubled, this cliché involves a detective with a dark past or mental struggles that both hinder and aid their investigative abilities.

While this complexity can be engaging, it’s essential not to let their torment overshadow their character development.

Remember, they should grow over time, and their personal struggles should be a component of their character, not their defining feature.

Why a clichéd detective character doesn’t work

The danger of clichés extends beyond mere predictability.

They can be detrimental to your story in ways that might not be immediately apparent.

Consider the following risks associated with clichéd characters:

1. Predictability leading to reader disengagement.

2. Lack of emotional connection due to unrelatable perfection or over-the-top flaws.

3. Difficulty in establishing a unique voice or perspective.

4. The character becomes a type, rather than a fully-fledged individual.

5. Readers may feel they’ve read the same story before, just with different names and settings.

How to go beyond clichéd detective characters

Understanding clichés is the first step, but true creativity lies in transcending them.

Start by deconstructing these clichés:

What fundamental human truths or conflicts are they based on?

How can these be presented in a fresh, engaging way?

Perhaps your hard-boiled detective has an unexpected hobby or your infallible sleuth is challenged by mundane, everyday tasks.

It’s about adding layers that surprise and delight readers, making your sleuth feel like a real person with their own unique responses to the world.

Additionally, consider the narrative beyond your detective.

The character’s environment, the supporting cast, and even the nature of the mysteries they solve can offer avenues for innovation.

Maybe your detective operates in a setting seldom seen in detective fiction, or they have a sidekick who challenges genre norms.

Let every aspect of your story inform and be informed by your detective’s unique qualities.

How to add depth and complexity to your detective

Creating a detective with depth and complexity involves more than just assigning them a mysterious case to solve; it’s about crafting a character as intricate and engaging as the crimes they unravel.

Your detective should feel like a fully realized person, with their own history, motivations, fears, and desires.

Let’s delve into how we can infuse our detectives with this much-needed depth.

1. Creating a nuanced backstory

A character’s past shapes who they are in the present.

Construct a backstory for your detective that does more than tick the boxes of typical tragic past events.

Perhaps they had a unique upbringing or faced an ethical dilemma that altered their perspective.

This history should inform their decision-making, showing readers that they’re a product of their experiences, which enhances their relatability and complexity.

2. Writing a detective with strengths & relatable flaws

A flawless character is not only unrealistic but also unrelatable.

Your detective can be highly skilled, but they should also have authentic flaws—maybe they’re wonderfully analytical but struggle with personal relationships, or perhaps they’re courageous in the face of danger but wrestle with self-doubt.

These contradictions aren’t just interesting; they mirror the complexities of real people, making your character resonate more deeply with readers.

How to give your detective personality and a unique voice

Having a unique personality and voice goes beyond just how your detective speaks or the quirky traits they possess.

It’s about creating a character whose worldview, attitude, and voice are distinct, making them memorable without even a mention of their name.

Here’s how you can achieve this:

The Importance of dialogue that reflects your detective’s personality

Dialogue isn’t just about conveying information; it’s a way to showcase your detective’s personality.

Their word choice, rhythm of speech, and even the jokes they make (or don’t make) can provide deep insights into their character.

Are they succinct or rambly, sarcastic or solemn?

Ensure their dialogue is reflective of their personality and different from other characters.

How to use character quirks without overdoing them

While it’s tempting to load your detective with quirks, less is often more.

Choose one or two notable quirks and use them purposefully—maybe your detective is a culinary whiz who uses food analogies or has an unexpected phobia.

These quirks should feel like natural extensions of the character, not just tacked on for the sake of uniqueness.

How to give your detective character a fresh perspective

Bringing a fresh perspective to your detective character involves rethinking their role, outlook, and even the world they inhabit.

Let’s explore ways to breathe new life into your detective character:

Give your detective a unique demographic or worldview

Move beyond the typical demographic molds for detectives.

Perhaps your detective comes from a cultural background seldom represented in detective fiction, or their profession prior to becoming a sleuth was unexpected.

Diverse experiences foster diverse thoughts and actions, which can add a significant layer of originality to your character.

Locate your detective in an intriguing location or period of time

An unconventional setting can be a goldmine for originality.

Imagine a detective solving mysteries aboard an interstellar spaceship or in a neo-medieval society.

How would historical events of a specific era shape their methods?

The environment can challenge your detective in unique ways, influencing their development and the nature of the crimes they solve.

How supporting characters can enhance your main detective character

Supporting characters serve as more than just plot devices or sidekicks; they are mirrors that reflect, define, and challenge the main character.

Through interactions with friends, foes, and others, different facets of your detective’s personality, background, and values are revealed.

These relationships can add tension, provide comic relief, or introduce moral dilemmas, contributing to a multi-dimensional protagonist.

Also, these secondary characters can be particularly useful in showing growth in your detective.

How your main character responds to others, how they change over time in relation to these interactions, offers a way for the reader to gauge their development.

A static character like a detective might solve the case, but one who evolves through their relationships will capture the reader’s heart and mind, staying with them long after the mystery is solved.

Why story setting can boost the uniqueness of your detective

Your detective’s surrounding environment is integral to their character.

It can either complement their nature or starkly contrast it, both of which offer unique possibilities for your storytelling.

Consider these environments in relation to your detective:

1. A chaotic city for a detective craving order.

2. A small, close-knit town for a detective with a secretive past.

3. A futuristic utopia for a cynical, world-weary detective.

4. A bustling metropolis for a detective experiencing loneliness amidst the crowd.

5. A war-torn region for a detective searching for personal peace.

How to use narrative style to enhance the appeal of your detective

The narrative style you choose for your detective story doesn’t just convey events; it’s a vehicle for showcasing your detective’s unique character.

First-person narratives allow a deep dive into the detective’s psyche, presenting an opportunity to display their innermost thoughts and idiosyncrasies. This intimate perspective lets readers walk in the detective’s shoes, experiencing their victories, setbacks, and revelations in a profoundly personal way.

On the other hand, a third-person narrative offers a broader view of the detective’s world, providing a more detached observation of the character’s actions and interactions, often allowing for a more extensive exploration of the setting or the perspectives of other characters.

Whichever approach you choose, ensure it serves to highlight the uniqueness of your detective, enriching the story while distinguishing your character from the many detectives populating the genre.

Remember, it’s not just about the mystery they are solving; it’s about who they are and how they see the world around them.

How to research an authentic detective character

To write a detective character who’s not only unique but believable requires you to delve deep into research.

Understanding real investigative work, typical criminal behavior, cultural nuances, or historical periods lends credibility to your writing, allowing your detective to operate in a world that feels real and palpable to the reader.

Here are five research methods that will fortify your detective story with the element of authenticity:

1. Interviews with law enforcement or private investigators

First-hand accounts from professionals in the field can offer invaluable insights into the realities of investigative work.

This direct approach can help you understand procedures, mindset, and the emotional toll that this line of work can take, bringing a level of authenticity to your character that’s hard to achieve otherwise.

2. Reading true crime and detective memoirs

These sources provide a look into the intricacies of real cases and the people who solve them.

You’ll gain perspective on investigative techniques, the nature of interactions with victims and criminals, and the bureaucracy within the justice system, all adding layers of realism to your narrative.

3. Academic articles on criminology and psychology

Understanding the mindset of criminals and the methodology behind criminal investigations can elevate your story.

Articles on behavioral psychology, profiling, and criminology offer deep insights that can help in crafting a detective character who employs realistic methods and faces believable challenges.

4. Historical research for period pieces

If your detective story is set in the past, understanding the era is crucial.

This means researching not just the big historical events, but the day-to-day life, societal norms, legal practices, and available technology of the time.

This helps in creating a setting that’s an accurate backdrop for your character’s actions and decisions.

5. Cultural immersion for diverse settings

If your detective operates in a culture different from your own, it’s vital to be humble and portray that culture with respect and humility.

This can involve studying literature, documentaries, and engaging with members of that culture.

Comprehending nuances, values, and social norms ensures your character’s behavior and the storyline remain as respectful and accurate as possible.

Writing exercises to craft a better detective

Practicing specific writing exercises can hone your skills, allowing you to create a more vivid, compelling detective character.

Here are five exercises designed to refine different aspects of your writing:

1. Dialogue drills

Write a series of conversations between your detective and other characters to practice distinctive voice and effective dialogue.

2. First-person narratives

Try writing a personal diary from your detective’s point of view to delve deeper into their psyche.

3. Setting descriptions

Detail various potential crime scenes or important locations in your story to set a vivid stage for your detective’s investigations.

4. Character profiles

Write detailed backgrounds for each supporting character to understand how they’ll interact with your detective.

5. Conflict scenarios

Create different confrontation scenes to explore your detective’s reaction to stress, danger, or moral dilemmas.

How to use self-editing questions to enhance your detective

Critical self-editing is essential in ensuring your detective character remains unique and engaging.

As you review your drafts, ask yourself these seven relevant questions:

1. Does my detective have a distinct voice that sets them apart from other characters?

2. Are their motivations clear and compelling?

3. Do their actions and decisions reflect their personality and background?

4. Are their strengths and weaknesses balanced?

5. How do they evolve over the course of the story?

6. Are their relationships with other characters dynamic and meaningful?

7. Does the setting challenge and complement my detective’s traits?

How to get useful feedback on your detective story

No piece of writing, especially one as complex as a detective story, comes out perfect in the first draft.

Feedback and revision are crucial stages in the writing process, serving to refine your story and character.

Beta readers and writing groups

Sharing your work with beta readers or a writing group can provide you with valuable outside perspectives.

They can point out elements that aren’t working, identify parts that readers might find confusing, and help you see your character from a reader’s perspective.

This feedback is crucial for understanding how your detective is perceived and where improvements can be made.

Feedback from professional editors

While beta readers and writing groups offer great insights, a professional editor brings technical expertise to the table.

They can help with structural issues, plot inconsistencies, and character development problems, ensuring your detective not only stands out as unique but is presented in a polished, professional manuscript.

Remember, your first draft is just the beginning; refining your detective character is a process of revision and acceptance of constructive criticism.

How to draw inspiration from famous detective characters

As you strive to create a standout sleuth, it’s invaluable to study detectives from stories who have captured readers’ imaginations for years.

Analyzing what makes them tick can provide inspiration and insight for your own character creation.

Here are five iconic detectives and what sets them apart:

1. Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Holmes’ enduring appeal stems from his brilliant deductive skills, his peculiar habits, and a personality that can be as cold and analytical as it is passionate about justice. The key to his character is the balance between his towering intellect and his noticeable shortcomings, such as his social awkwardness and his struggles with boredom.

2. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This Belgian detective, with his meticulous nature and elegant mustache, is a master of ‘order and method.’ Poirot’s distinctiveness comes from his sharp intellect, attention to detail, and—unusually for a genre often populated by hard-boiled types—his gentle demeanor and vanity, which provide a humorous counterbalance to the seriousness of his investigations.

3. Sam Spade (Dashiell Hammett)

The protagonist of “The Maltese Falcon” stands out for his moral ambiguity, a sharp contrast to detectives who have clear-cut ethical guidelines. Spade’s cynical exterior, inner code of honor, and willingness to manipulate make him a complex character who defies expectations, playing both sides to solve the crime and do what he sees as just.

4. Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson)

The hacker heroine of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is not a detective in the traditional sense, which is part of her appeal. She’s a survivor of trauma who channels her anger and fear into solving crimes. Her social awkwardness, technical prowess, and sense of justice turned vulnerability into strength, making her one of the most unique characters in modern fiction.

5. Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly)

This LAPD detective’s relentless pursuit of justice for murder victims combines with personal demons stemming from a troubled past. What sets Bosch apart is his unwavering commitment to the truth, even when it costs him personally or professionally, and his deep empathy for the victims, reflecting the human cost of crime.

7 main takeaways for crafting a unique detective character

It can be a lot of information to take in when you first learn to write a unique detective character.

Try not to worry if it feels slightly overwhelming.

We’ve summarized the seven main takeaways regarding crafting your own detective here:

1. Depth is more important than quirks; a fully fleshed character resonates more than a list of traits.

2. Flaws aren’t just weaknesses; they’re opportunities for growth and reader connection.

3. A detective’s past is a treasure trove of motivations, conflicts, and narrative richness.

4. Setting and character should influence and reflect each other, adding layers to the story.

5. Supporting characters are mirrors and foils, revealing facets of your detective.

6. Authenticity in procedure and psychology enhances believability, grounding your character.

7. Embrace revisions; feedback and a willingness to refine are your allies in honing your story.

Are you ready to craft your own unique detective character?

Crafting a unique detective in a crowded field is no small feat.

Reflect on what makes existing detectives reader favorites and use this knowledge to avoid clichés and add depth to your character.

Yes, it’s a process filled with revisions and challenges, but creating a memorable, complex detective is worth the effort.

Now’s the time to take action and see what kind of sleuth you’re capable of creating.

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