Getting a Grip on Gripping Characters: YA Mystery Writing

The bookstore where my action takes place -- and my teen sleuth makes choices.

The Vermont bookstore where my action takes place — and my teen sleuth makes choices.

You know that expression, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears?” I’ve been told it’s from Zen buddhism, but it’s also very much current. I’ve found another side to it as a writer: When I’m ready to learn something, I’ll suddenly find examples of it everywhere.

This season’s writing took me to a pressing question: What makes a character in a mystery grab your attention? In Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, why do we trust and care about Gamache so much? Same question, different face and pace, for Hayley Snow in Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic mysteries. And urgently, for prickly and challenging teen characters like Jade in Kim Harrington’s YA mystery The Dead and Buried — is there a magic paintbrush of words that these authors use to describe their characters, so that we fall for them?

In January, I took an online master course through Sisters in Crime New England, called “The Story Arc,” with Ramona DeFelice Long. I expected to learn about plot and the pace of a good mystery. And yes, that was in the course. But most of all, to my utter astonishment, what I learned was the answer to the question that was consuming me: How do I present my teen sleuth in the current WIP in ways that make her a compelling character? What do I say, how do I write it?

Answer: Show, don’t tell.

Right, that’s the very short version. What I learned in the course is that a compelling character in a compelling story has strengths and weaknesses. How the person grabs us is directly related to how we experience that person’s character, through the person’s ACTIONS.

Yes, I think I probably knew that ahead of time … after all, there’s always a moment when I wonder, “Should I show this person holding a pet or cuddling a small sibling?” But Ramona delivered the complex version in her master course, a version that involves a moment of decision, a moment of despair, and good use of a showdown and denouement.

Lessons for me: (1) “Master class” means complex and useful learning situations (oh my, the homework!). (2) Deep and memorable characters don’t just “come from magical writers” — they can come from applying skills and guidelines. (3) When the student is ready, the right lesson appears.

About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of reading, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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3 Responses to Getting a Grip on Gripping Characters: YA Mystery Writing

  1. dayparker says:

    Great advice! Thanks!

  2. B. Abbott says:

    OMG, I’ve been to that bookstore! I’ll have to look for the book when it’s out. Great writing tips, too!

  3. Great to hear from you, Day — I’m always reminding myself that I don’t have to be a “genius” writer to write a good book; I need to use the skills and do the work, and push myself harder (with cheer). Although that sounds “hard” it’s do-able, so it keeps me optimistic. B, you can check out the first draft, bookstore included, here ( … but it doesn’t have the character depth that the next draft will have! Getting better makes me smile.

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