At a mystery writers’ conference last summer, I was drifting a bit as the long day was starting to catch up with me, when the presenter’s statement jolted me wide awake.

“Mysteries are not about the mystery; they’re about the characters.”

My first thought: “Say what?” Second thought: “Damn, he’s right.”

“Two weeks after the reader has finished a mystery,” the presenter continued, “they’ve forgotten most of the plot, but if it was a good story, they remember the characters.”

 I knew, as a mystery reader, that this rang true.

 But why is it true? my inquisitive, analytical little mind asked. And I’ve been pondering that question ever since. I’m not sure I have the answer, but here are my thoughts.

We are surrounded by two things every day. One, we are surrounded by ordinary people: butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. Two, unfortunately in American society today, we are also surrounded by violence.

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, which has the distinction of having dropped off of the top ten list of worst crime cities in the country in the last few years (it was #11 in 2010). The TV show, Homicide (1993-1999), was set in Baltimore. When my husband and I are staying at our summer cottage in Maryland we refer to the local Baltimore news broadcast as the “litany of murders.”

Okay, before you decide to click over to some less depressing blog, I am going to lighten up here.

So why in the world are murder mysteries and thrillers in the top three genres on anybody’s list? Why do we turn to murder–that depressing gruesome thing we hear about every night on the evening news–when we want to relax and be entertained?

Because we, as ordinary people, are fascinated by the idea of extraordinary things happening to other ordinary people like us. We want to see how the characters deal with the murder. If we find the characters engaging, if we can relate to them, then we are hooked.

When the everyday-person, could-be-you-or-me protagonist in a mystery is brave and daring, we are empowered. When s/he is scared, we swallow the lump in our own throats. When s/he is sad, our eyes tear up.

We project ourselves into these ordinary people who are struggling with out-of-the-ordinary situations. We are proud of their successes, mournful for their losses, terrified by the risks they must take, and relieved beyond measure when they are okay in the end.

 In the past, when people have asked me why I love to read mysteries, I have said, “Because they are as far away from my own life as I can get. They are great escapes.” This is true, since I’m not in the habit of stumbling over dead bodies.

But I now realize that this statement is not entirely true. I love mysteries because they are about people like me! Just not in situations like those I normally encounter in daily life. I love to see how these people, i.e., me, deal with the challenges of extraordinary events.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Why do you love mysteries? Do you agree or disagree that they are mainly about the characters?

Posted by: Kassandra Lamb

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  • Reply
    April 21, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I never thought about this but it's so true. If I think back to the recent mysteries I enjoyed, I do remember the characters and their drama, not so much the plot. Interesting.

  • Reply
    Lynn Franklin
    May 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Great post, Kassandra, and I totally agree. Readers' interest in the characters is probably why mystery series are so popular — people want to follow favorite characters. Heck, I'd have followed Huckleberry Finn and Jim if Twain had written a series. Lee Child once gave a talk in which he stressed the importance of characters, saying readers asked for the next “Jack Reacher” story, not “Lee Child.” Now there's a depressing thought . . .

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 11, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      Sorry, Lynn, I was away and just saw your comment.

      Yes, as authors, we have to put aside our egos and let the characters have center-stage.

      Good to hear from you. Hope all is well!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Our reply function is acting up. Hope you saw my reply, Lynn. If not, I will try to recreate it.

    Yes, we as authors have to put our egos aside and let the characters have center stage.

    Thanks for coming by! Hope all is well with you.

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