Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Were You Thinking?

A well-written mystery gets the reader deeply involved. The best mysteries give the reader the sense of interacting with the characters in the novel. That’s why, when characters are written well and the plot is strong, the reader often feels as though he or she could actually talk to the characters. If you’ve ever had the experience of wanting to call out to characters to warn them about danger, congratulate them for something they've done, or threaten to tell the sleuth the truth about them, you know the feeling of being involved.

Authors get readers involved by letting them know what the characters are thinking. Knowing what characters are thinking makes them more real to readers. Dialogue can be useful to show what characters are thinking, but it's not always reliable. After all, characters in mystery novels don’t always tell the truth. In fact, one of the the hallmarks of most mystery novels is that some of the characters lie; in some novels, they all do. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has often said that lies tell the sleuth as much as truth does, but it’s still easier to sort out the truth of a mystery and really get to know the characters when there are other ways to figure out what they’re thinking.

Some authors share what characters are thinking through point of view. Agatha Christie uses this strategy expertly. For example, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot investigates the murder of a French moneylender while she is en route from Paris to London. The novel begins with a scene in which a group of airplane passengers are boarding and taking their seats. Christie describes the scene, but in that first chapter, she also offers a snippet of what each of most of the characters is thinking. The changes in point of view don’t confuse the reader, either, because Christie makes it clear who is having each thought. This montage of thoughts helps the reader understand how each character reacts to being involved in the murder. Perhaps Christie's most elegant use of characters' inner thoughts, though, is in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, Christie shares the thoughts of each of the characters marooned on an island. Through those thoughts, the reader can feel the rising tension and the growing suspicion that the characters have of each other as they realize that one of them is a murderer.

Robin Cook also uses point of view to share characters’ thoughts and to give the reader a broader perspective on the developing mystery. For instance, in Seizure, Cook tells the story of Ashley Butler, a U.S. senator who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Butler is blocking a law that would support cloning research; at the same time, though, he wants researcher Daniel Lowell and his girlfriend, Stephanie D’Agostino to use a cloning technique to treat his Parkinson’s so that he can continue his work in the Senate. As the novel unfolds, Cook shares the characters’ thoughts through several point-of-view changes. He uses those thoughts to make the characters more real, to give perspective on the issue of cloning, and to heighten the suspense.

I share characters’ thoughts with the reader with point-of-view changes, too. In my Joel Williams series, I often “zoom in on” a particular character and describe what she or he is thinking. I want readers to get to know the characters, and knowing their thoughts helps in that process. I also want the reader to get different perspectives on the victim, as that helps in understanding how and why the victim dies. Describing different characters’ thoughts also gives the reader an interesting perspective on the fact of being suspected of murder, investigating a murder, or at least being involved in a murder case. I also share Joel Williams’ thoughts; that lets the reader know how he’s putting the pieces of the mystery puzzle together.

Susan B. Kelly also uses point-of-view changes in her Inspector Nick Trevellyan series. In Hope Against Hope, for instance, Trevellyan meets Alison Hope, a newcomer to the town of Hopbridge, in England’s West Country. As the two of them get to know each other, Kelly uses shifts in point of view to describe what each of those two major characters is thinking. Interestingly, we also learn much about these characters through Kelly’s description of their thoughts about each other.

Kelly also uses another way to share characters’ thoughts with the reader: she describes their reactions and behavior in careful (but not burdensome) detail. In Hope Against Hope, Alison Hope’s cousin Aidan is murdered, and Alison is suspected of the murder. Nick Trevellyan begins to investigate the murder. During the investigation, Kelly uses the characters’ reactions to the questions, as well as the different characters’ reactions to Alison, to show what they are thinking. Agatha Christie also uses this technique effectively. It’s especially evident in novels such as The Murder on the Links. In that novel, Poirot searches out the murderer of a wealthy Canadian √©migr√© to France. As he and Hastings interview the different characters and interact with them, Christie describes facial expressions, reactions of fear, surprise, etc., and other behaviors that give the reader interesting insights into what the characters are thinking. That also happens in Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, in which a famous archeologist’s wife is murdered, Christie makes a point of sharing each character’s reaction to the murder and to Poirot’s interrogation.

What’s tricky about judging characters' thoughts this way, though, is that if the reader isn’t careful, it’s easy to be led astray by the way in which the characters react. For instance, a character’s shocked reaction could mean he or she didn’t know the murder had occurred, or that he or she is frightened of being found out, or a number of other things. In fact, many authors (Caroline Graham is an example) use characters' reactions to keep the reader guessing. So while reactions and behavior can be effective ways to learn what a character is thinking, beware: things aren’t always what they seem.

What’s your view? How do your favorite authors reveal what the characters are thinking? How does that "pull you into" the story?


  1. "After all, characters in mystery novels don’t always tell the truth ..." I love reading these lies, but it is even better to write them! I think it may be because I am quite a truthful person in real life that I absolutely love having two characters say things which can´t both be true. So give me different versions of an event, and I am thrilled :D

  2. Dorte - I like writing characters' likes, too! I'm a truthful person, myself, so it's fun to put myself in the shoes of someone who's not. In fact, in my novels, there are always characters who tell lies to the police and to my sleuth. It's also interesting, both as a reader and a writer, to figure out what really happened based on people's different stories of the same event. I'm so glad you brought that up :).

  3. I *always* want to believe a character is innocent if I've read a short scene through his POV. I think, "It can't be Bobby! He was so upset about the discovery of the body!" Too funny. But if I think the suspect is sneaky or unlikeable in any way,via their POV scene, I peg her for the killer.

    Great technique to use! Thanks for this interesting post, Margot.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Other than its opening, my WIP is told entirely from 6 characters' POV. The reader sees the other 6 characters through their eyes (one of which is the victim). They all go through the same 4 days, but with their different agendas and loyalties each view the occurrences uniquely. It also allows me to have different things happening at the same time (which is handy!) I'm trying to make each of them very human so the reader sympathizes with all of them (to a degree). I can't pick a favourite; so hopefully the reader won't either!


  5. Elizabeth - That's the beauty of letting the reader know what a character is thinking. The author can "set the reader up" to like or dislike a character as the murderer. It's an interesting technique to give the reader clues or to toss a lot of red herrings in the reader's way.

  6. Elspeth - Your WIP really sounds interesting! It's an interesting idea, too, to get different perspectives on the victims. I agree with you, also, that using different POVs allows the author to talk about simultaneous happenings. I use POV for the same purpose sometimes.