Part 1 – Characters
It’s been a while since I wrote about generating ideas for a murder mystery, leaving the reader in suspense about how actually to write the story once the idea begins to crystallize. With Murder Towers emerging from the traditional winter glut of parties and dinners, now seems like a good time to begin to put flesh on the bones of the story with a few more hints and tips on creating a mystery that is intriguing, challenging, entertaining and, importantly, solvable. This post is the next step in explaining how I go about writing a murder mystery party.
I wrote previously about briefly about characters. I always find that once the setting is determined, the characters are the next elements to develop, and provided you have created a cast of interesting suspects, elements that drive the plot such as motives and secrets begin to suggest themselves. Things usually work out best if you have a good mixture of characters, from the seemingly innocent and benign through to the out-and-out cads, cheats and scoundrels. Usually most should have skeletons in the closet and secrets to hide and one or more should be at the centre of lots of interactions so that most of the suspects have a motive to want them out of the way. If you’re writing a novel or even a play, you often have more time to establish complexities in a character, but when writing a murder mystery game it’s often advisable to start with some fairly stereotypical traits and stock characters. Subtleties and unexpected behaviours can be written into the character as you flesh out the details of the plot, but initially big, bold and obvious enables the actor to immediately get to grips with the character and encourages early engagement with the audience.
An Example – Mummy’s the Word
Perhaps the best way to describe this process is with an example. I was recently asked to produce a story set in Egypt during the early part of the 20th century. I had a list of those people who wanted to play roles, and their real-life characters also helped me to come up with a cast of suspects and character traits that could potentially lead to a web of intrigue and mystery. The required setting begins also to suggest Death on the Nile, the unearthing of tombs and ancient curses. Right from the start, therefore, I knew that I’d need an intrepid set of archaeologists and their support team, full of professional rivalries, potentially dangerous working environments and superstitions.
Starting with the archeologists, I created an expedition leader who was full of ambition and the desire to find fame and fortune in sun-parched lands. A typical Edwardian gentleman explorer, his expedition was funded by the an aristocratic lady-of-means and supported by mummy expert in very much in the “eccentric scientist” mould. Glancing through the list of actors, I was lucky enough to have a vet, who became the animal and environment-loving camel trainer, and an Egyptian, who became the curmudgeonly leader of the local workforce. Add a former army colonel, always good for a bit of banter, and a caring but somewhat incompetent expedition doctor and the cast is almost complete, ready for some elements of conflict and mystery.
What’s in a name?
Murder mystery dinner party games are usually played with the tongue planted very firmly in the cheek and finding suitable names can help establish the character traits early and also help everyone remember who is who. For that reason, puns can be good, and immediately suggest an occupation or character: consider the doctor, Dicky Ticker; chauffeur, Onslow Rhodes, the beautiful Gloria Slooks or the caring nanny, Molly Coddle as examples. If you’re using puns, however, you generally have to be consistent, otherwise guests will be looking at some names and thinking “I don’t get it” if there isn’t a joke in it. This can be particularly challenging for families all of whom share a surname, so last names such as Down, which has many possible options (Neil Down, Luke Down, Ben Down) can be useful. Sometimes I find that once I have a name for a character, this immediately suggests a set of characteristics and foibles, and launches the story off into new, unexpected directions. Double-barrelled names can also be useful, particularly for the aristocracy.
Returning to our example, the expedition leader needed a posh sounding name, and the name Sir Digby Hand suggested someone who eschewed modern technology in his expeditions and preferred to be in touch with the soil. His benefactor became Lady Cash-Down (see what I did with the double-barrel there?) and the labourer, Manu Duz (Man who does). Our Egyptologist was christened Emma, known as “Em”, Balmer, and the rest of the cast followed suit.
Once the characters are sketched out and named, we need to decide what dealings they have with everybody else in the story and begin to flesh out some possible secrets and motives for murder. Note that I still haven’t moved on to “plot” yet – I’ll get to it, I promise, but in the meantime you’ll have wait for the next exciting installment in the mind of a murder mystery writer.