Part 2 – the killer
A while ago I wrote about how to start writing a murder mystery, focusing upon the characters rather than the plot. All of our mysteries start with assembling a draft set of characters that fit within the overall theme of the story, finally allowing us to begin considering who should be killed off.
In any story there needs to be a web of inter-relationships between characters, with the prime focus of these relationships being that of the victim or victims. Ideally most, it not all, of the suspects should have a relationship with the victim(s) which might prompt them to consider killing them, so I always draw up some sort of chart early on that helps define and refine this important aspect.
Web of intrigue
I usually keep the prime suspects below 10 or so, otherwise the story can get too convoluted, but if the party is larger there may be additional victims which may or may not have been killed by those suspected of earlier crimes.
Having established motives we then need to consider the crime itself and ways that guests can rule out suspects to be left with just one guilty party. A successful murderer needs three things:
- A means: a way of killing the victim
- A motive: as established above, a reason they’d want the victim dead, and
- An opportunity: to be at the right place at the right time.
Let’s assume that the victim is killed out of sight of the other guests after the main course. Who left the room after this point? They have an opportunity. If someone didn’t leave, it wasn’t them, but did the guests notice who left and who didn’t?
Also, who at a motive BEFORE the victim was killed. Perhaps we discover a secret will after the death of the victim and the benefactor is surprised by it… in that case, why would he or she kill the victim?
Perhaps the means of death is beyond some of the suspects. Who had access to poison or could make a bomb, rewire a circuit or accurately fire a gun? You should establish these points early in the plot as you set up the actual murder. Motive always sets someone up as a potential murderer and means and opportunity always allows them to be eliminated. Play fair, and the guests will all have an equal opportunity to work out whodunnit.
Murder to Measure has been dealing death and deception for nearly 10 years now (watch this space for 10th anniversary specials), and in that time we’ve performed at hundreds of private parties, with enthusiastic guests baying for blood and retribution over perceived wrongs. We’ve had bloodbaths at birthdays, assassinations at anniversaries, corporate carnage and slaughters at stags, but above all, it seems that hen parties are the most drawn to the murder mystery vibe.
I’ve lost count of the number of hen parties I’ve attended over the period, but am always amazed at how readily the assembled girls argue, fight and generally make a scene when confronted with a devilish plot dealt our by devious characters. It seems that hens love to let their hair down and discover their inner murderess as much as we love to stoke the fires by bringing deception. death and general disorder to a group of girls who want to bond over a night or weekend of fun and new experiences.
It’s rare for a hen party to consist of a group of people who all know each other at the outset, so finding an activity to break the ice and get everyone bonded can be difficult, but one of our murder mystery dinners can certainly help with this, as guests are encouraged to come out their shells and generally have fun with the story without worrying about how everyone else sees them – when you’re playing a role, you can be whoever you want to be.
Our success in the hen night market means that we have dozens of murder mystery plots for an all female group, but we’re always happy to work with the hen or bridesmaids to develop a story that will fit the occasion to a T.
I wrote previously about names in murder mysteries and this set me thinking about some of the names I’ve used throughout our various stories. Our plots events are always designed around a murder or murders which can be solved by careful observation and listening, logical (if sometimes lateral) thinking, but in parallel with that we ensure that the story is fun, and that often also means funny. Characters come before plot, and in a typical mystery, finding an appropriate name helps suggest their key character traits, which is useful both for the actor and those watching the story unfold. Writers such as Charles Dickens were great at this – you can’t imagine an “Ebeneezer Scrooge” being a kindly young chap any more than “Uriah Heap” would be an elegant gentleman Alfred Jingle a terrible curmudgeon.
Taking the Dickens approach to naming characters is a good approach, and many names do immediately suggest a certain upbringing for a character; think of Hugo and Wayne for instance. If we want to immediately send a message to the audience or the performer, a punning name can help, and it also often also ticks the box marked “fun”, particularly if the performer doesn’t realize the significance in their name until they’ve been playing them for 2 hours.
In nearly 10 years of penning our mysteries, many of these names remain in the memory banks as being particularly apposite. Some of my favourites include:
- Talented, but somewhat foul-mouthed chef, Gordon Blue. What’s most annoying about this is that my wife deserves credit for the name.
- Pugnacious female lawyer, Sue DiAsov.
- Feckless and in-bred upper class English twit, Juan Sandwich-Short (his father meant to call him Julian, but the pen used to register the name was running out of ink).
- Beautiful and well proportioned actress, Gloria Stitzenhaas. This is often one of those “Oh I get it now” names after a couple of glasses of Prosecco at a hen party. For younger audiences, she often becomes Gloria Slooks.
- Country lane chauffeur Onslow Rhodes.
- Chatty hairdresser Wendy Ugoaway and beautician Tanya Hyde.
There are many more and I’ve spent many frustrating hours hunting through baby name sites to find something appropriate for a new character until the obvious hits me. My favourite has yet to see an outing, but one day we will see the curmudgeonly Yorkshireman, Willy Eckerslike.