Meet Interesting Strangers


Meet Interesting Strangers – Part two of the How to write a cozy series.  Part one is here (And I just realized I don’t have links on the books at the bottom, which I will fix. Sorry, I’ve been battling a bug.)

Okay, the first thing you must realize is that the most important part of a cozy mystery are the “fascinating people” you meet while solving the mystery. This means you must create your characters with certain things in mind.

Note that I said above that characters are the most important part of the cozy mystery.  This is no reason to panic, if characters don’t come to you naturally. It’s a reason to figure out how to assemble characters that will work in a cozy. For characters in general, I highly recommend Dwight Swain’s Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. (Again, small amount of your purchase goes to my associate’s account at no cost to you. Heck, feel free to buy your Christmas gifts after you click through ;)).  I never needed it, honestly, but it has helped friends and mentees for whom characters were a problem.

However, as it comes to cozy characters, remember the following list of characteristics:

  • They must be memorable – that means that if you create average Joe or Jane, you still have to give them interesting characteristics, or failing that an interesting hobby or interesting knowledge.
  • They can be smart and incredibly sane like Miss Marple, or a bit ditsy and totally insane like Stephanie Plum (there will be links at the end) or as in Murder She Wrote, they might be everyone’s aunt, who writes mysteries, and therefore sees a mystery in everything and can see through plots. (BTW don’t use that series as the basis for how mysteries are investigated. Dear Lord the handling of clues makes most of them inadmissible in court.)
  • You should think in terms of a series character, so give it some room to grow, but not too much, because series characters remain essentially themselves. They might overcome little challenges/fears, but ultimately they’re still themselves.
  • Have their story arc/romance whatever extend over many books. People will come back to see if the character will marry that nice boy. Trust me. Just don’t keep the story arc (not the essential personality, which remains the same) static.  I think that was a mistake with Stephanie Plum. I used to love those books, but  got older and grew up, and the character never did, and still lives like early-thirties, just starting out.
  • REMEMBER — this is important — eccentricities in fiction must be larger than in real life to be perceived as such.  In real life Stephanie Plum and half the cozy heroines, including my own Dyce Dare would be locked up in the madhouse. (So would half the characters in sitcoms) BUT on paper there is a tendency to see things as less extreme than in real life. So exaggerate all the interesting bits, or your character will come across as very very boring.
  • Give them something they care about and a past, and immerse them in a community.  Yes, this is important.  More on that later.
  • Make them attractive.  I don’t mean physically. You can do what you damn well please there. In fact, given that most readers are women for this sub-genre, you should give even physically attractive women a flaw, or a problem with the way they perceive themselves. But make them attractive personality wise.
    But Sarah, isn’t that difficult while making them complete loons?
    Well, first not all of them need to be loons.  Miss Marple is eminently sane. Mostly it’s in funny books that they’re loons. There’s a flaw in their perceptions, but they proceed logically from there, which is what makes it funny.
    However, try to have them stay away from the seven deadly sins. In more noir or hard boiled genres you can have your anti-hero and your smiling assassin, but in cozies, you want to empathize and sympathize with the MC.
    Perhaps the best way to explain this is to tell you I’ve seen it done wrong, and how.
    In Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum books, the main character is insane.  She will stretch “legality”a bit too much, by say, breaking into the home of a known criminal to look for evidence. She has an obsession with doughnuts. She’s convinced she’s fat. (A perception disputed by all the guys who fall in lust with her.) She is in love with her childhood sweetheart whom she “wants bad.”
    So someone looked at this and completely misread… well… everything. She created an obese character, who eats compulsively, and who discovers a corpse by breaking into the neighbor’s house to steal doughnuts.
    For some reason — drily — that series (traditionally published, btw) never got off the ground. I wonder why.
    Your character can have flaws and pecadillos, but make them essentially — to borrow a term from gaming — lawful good. Their intentions are always shining and pure, even if the execution is often flawed by their personality and/or knowledge issues.
  • Make it a fantasy.
    Cozies are, in a way, as much a fantasy as romance.  They’re essentially escapist literature.
    Though theoretically set in the real world, they’re not. The girl usually gets the guy, no matter how unlikely (or vice versa) and the path of true love can have weird glitches, but it ends up smooth. And your character will succeed in his work, or do well in his hobby, or become known as whatever their dream is.  That’s part of the fantasy. It doesn’t mean they can’t suffer reverses. Just don’t keep it stuck on the bummer too long.
  • Softpedal the unpleasant stuff.  Not just the corpse, but oh, how tough it is to raise a kid as a single mom, say.  Show it, but only to show how the plucky heroine/hero trucks right through it and doesn’t seem to notice how terrible things are (except for the black moment. More on that, when we get to structure.  Which I promise I will, plus give you a plug-and-play cheat sheet.)
    Remember cozies are escapist literature.  Which, no, doesn’t make it a lesser art form. It’s all in what you plug into it.

    Now, your reading list for “character” this time with links.

    The Murder at the Vicarage: A Miss Marple Mystery (Miss Marple Mysteries Book 1)

    (And I highly recommend all of Miss Marple, for sheer cozy escapism, btw.)

    The Thin Woman (Ellie Haskell Book 1)

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, No. 1): A Stephanie Plum Novel

Dipped, Stripped and Dead (Daring Finds Book 1)

Go forth, read and have a Happy Thanksgiving if you’re in the US. See you next week.


15 thoughts on “Meet Interesting Strangers

  1. I have a method for building a character which works pretty well for me – based on writing airman performance reports. The first sentence of APRs was the most difficult thing – because, just starting out.
    The key was to ask; ‘What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that person?’ What quality, ability or characteristic just leaps forward – and there’s the first sentence for the APR. The same for characters: what’s that first thing about them that springs to mind? Take that as the hook to hang the rest of the characters’ qualities upon.

  2. In cozies, you want to empathize and sympathize with the MC.

    This is the reason I have failed in most of my last attempts to find a new cozy series. I read about five chapters or so, and then think, “Why should I waste hours of my precious life spending time with this @#$!?”

    Of course, I’ve had this reaction even with what seem to be relatively popular cozies (Miss Fisher and Agatha Raisin), so maybe I’m just too picky about my detectives.

    1. Oh, yeah, the thing I didn’t tell you guys about the woman who broke in to steal doughnuts. SHE THEN EATS ALL THE DOUGHNUTS right there, in the same room with the corpse before she closes the door and runs off. She does not call the police or anything. Yeah. Ew.

      1. Ew. I don’t think I’ve run into any that bad, just ones with a general sense of “I am queen of the universe, and anything I choose to do is right simply because I have decided it.” Less “Lawful Good” and more “The Law and the Good are both determined by ME!”

        Donut Lady there seems like the mystery equivalent of the “everyone’s terrible, and there’s no such thing as a hero” fantasy novel.

      2. Sarah, you want some horror stories, r/entitledparents on reddit.

        I’ve had a few of them thrown at me for entertainment, and I’m instead wondering if our concept of crazy character is far more tame than reality could choke up (like a hairball.)

  3. It was interesting to me that between Stephanie Plum book #1 and Stephanie Plum book #2 there were adjustments in her rules. I read them so long ago but the biggest one I remember is that at the end of book one Stephanie is discovered to be “a natural” with a pistol. That got deep-sixed in book #2. (Her super power is persistence.)

      1. I just thought it was interesting that they took out the part where she was magically competent at something. I would just love to ask Evanovich what the decision making process was to make that change.

        1. Honey, she said somewhere she learned to plot from Uncle Scrooge comics (I’m not the only freak who reads them!) so it might not have been conscious. I always thought writing was a gonzo ride for her.

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