Creating a Teenage Sleuth Character, by Nansi Kunze
“What made you choose to become a crime writer?”
I was asked this question a few weeks ago at an authors’ discussion panel. To begin with, I had to admit that it had taken me a while to realise I was becoming a crime writer. The mystery genre snuck up and grabbed me, to be honest. I had protagonists, settings and character arcs in mind when I began planning my novels, but the plots were created to fit them, rather than the other way around. “I think it was because mysteries give you so much scope for exciting scenes and character development,” I answered in the end. Honey Brown and Amanda Wrangles, the two talented crime writers beside me on the panel, agreed: crime takes your characters out of their comfort zone, exposing their true nature in a way that everyday life may not. But writing YA mysteries has a tricky element that’s missing from adult crime fiction: the teenage protagonist.
In mysteries written for adults, there are many reasons the protagonist would investigate a crime. The most obvious is that it could be their job – perhaps the main character is a detective, a private investigator or a country police officer. A sixteen-year-old, on the other hand, doesn’t usually have that excuse to be involved in an investigation.
“Well, maybe they’re personally involved,” you might reply. “There are plenty of mysteries where some guy tries to find out who killed his wife. A sixteen-year-old could be, say, wanting to find out who kidnapped their best friend. Or needing to clear their own name.”
Yeah, that’s true. In that situation, however, wouldn’t said teenager leave the investigation itself to the authorities? In my novel Dangerously Placed, Alex becomes involved in a murder mystery when her boss is murdered during her work experience placement. As the main suspect, of course she wants to prove she’s innocent – but the police would do that, right? In forming the plot for my book, I needed to address the particular reasons (which included her friends’ attitudes to the crime and their desire to help her) that Alex would have for investigating the murder herself.
So you’ve explained why a teenager would be doing the sleuthing. Next, you need to consider what your protagonist’s parents, relatives, teachers and friends would think of this rash move. “You’ll be home late because you’re staking out the abandoned warehouse the killer’s been taking his victims to? Okay, sweetie. Oh, wait – did you remember to take your coat? It’s chilly outside.” Yeah – generally authority figures aren’t going to like those kinds of shenanigans. Your protagonist, however, may be able to concoct an elaborate cover story … or the mystery may have conveniently taken place while every responsible adult is off on a business trip, at a yoga retreat or stuck in hospital following an unfortunate snowboarding accident.
Finally, there needs to be a reason your teenage detective can get the results the professionals aren’t able to. While the Oblivious Officers ploy (“The police haven’t got a clue – good thing I have!”) has served crime writers well for many a long year, that doesn’t explain how a sixteen-year-old can do any better. What are the special skills or circumstances that enable your character to do more? Does their age allow them to go unnoticed or unsuspected? Perhaps they’re an expert when it comes to gadgetry, marine mammals, waterproof mascara – whatever is involved in the mystery – in a way the average investigator isn’t? Or are they simply in the right place at the right time?
In essence, if you’re writing a YA mystery, don’t just focus on who the culprit is or how they did it. You also need to make your protagonist’s actions plausible. Your readers will want to know why a teenager would become entangled in a mystery in the first place, why no one tried to stop them and how they were able to help despite not being trained or authorised to investigate. A good Whodunnit also shows how and why.