But He’s So Obvious

As anyone familiar with the mystery genre knows, readers engage actively in trying to solve the puzzle, and all possible culprits go up on a mental suspect board. That’s just like a detective’s board, on which suspects and relevant clues are mounted with pushpins. Among the possibilities is usually an obvious suspect, a character advanced by the author early on with damning clues.

If you think in terms of the guessing game, one of the primary functions of this character is to mask the other suspects. I often use the hunting term, a “blind,” to describe this process. While a reader really hopes that the obvious suspect is not the culprit, because she is so obvious, the possibility cannot be discarded. If new clues come up, they must be mounted on the board. The reader can never dismiss the obvious suspect because of this uncertainty. It could be that the author is going to end with a lousy twist—the one we guessed all along.

To maximize the obvious suspect’s utility as the book goes on, the character works best if you continue occasionally to give him extra clues. A good deal of confusion can also be sown if the character is obnoxious or domineering or some other antisocial trait that raises the reader’s hackles. Since their function is to distract, merely being ostentatious can help your cause.

There is another aspect that should be pointed out. You cannot be tricky by neglect. If the evidence strongly implicates the character, the reader will not ever give up believing that he could be “it.” Even if the character is dropped for hundreds of pages, he is tainted by the association forever. He simply cannot become a satisfying twist. So you might as well use him to hide the others.

The last point I’ll raise in this regard is the topic of switching the role to another character as the book goes on. In this scheme, the obvious suspect—who has never been satisfying to a true mystery buff—is supplanted by another suspect to whom disturbing later revelations are attached. Because the reader is constantly sifting through clues, dramatic weight added to an emerging character can have the effect of putting two obvious suspects on the board. Now the distractions are doubled. The reader still doesn’t want to choose the obvious suspect, but isn’t this new character becoming too obvious? Meanwhile, the true fiend remains lurking in the shadows of your blinds.

Exercise: Pick a character who has both motivation and relationship, and have several significant facts attached to him early. Now decide how that character can continue to hog the reader’s attention by force of exaggerated personality. As with any suspect, draw up a list of clues. Make sure you hold some back for later, so the reader cannot forget him entirely. Now draw up a shorter list for a second obvious character. How do the two characters complement each other?

“A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
—Sidney Sheldon

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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