Hey guys! I wrote this blog post for Writers Digest in September and I’m republishing it here (with permission). I think it’s one of the most useful posts I’ve ever written and I wanted to share it on my own blog.
Many years ago, I binge-watched Veronica Mars and I’ve been smitten ever since. I mean, who doesn’t love a smart teen sleuth who oozes chutzpah and an unwavering sense of justice? No one. And when I use the term sleuth here, I’m using it as a stand-in for any teen protagonist who finds herself in the midst of a crime. Sometimes, you have a professional sleuth, like Veronica Mars, who gets paid to investigate and other times, you have an accidental sleuth (this is my favorite) who involves herself in the mystery because the crime directly affects her or someone she loves. Either way, if you’re going to write a YA mystery, you’ll need a smart protagonist who can sniff out a killer. Here are my tips for creating a tenacious teen sleuth.
(I use female pronouns for simplicity, but teen sleuths can and do come in all genders.)
- Connect her to the crime
In a good YA mystery, the victim should be someone with a strong connection to your teen sleuth. If the teen sleuth has no vested interest in the crime other than superficial curiosity, then you need to rethink the mystery. The victim has to be important to the teen so that solving the murder provides justice for the victim and the accused, who might be a family member, friend, or romantic interest.
- Make her subversive
Unlike adults, your teen sleuth does not come from a position of power and this can work to her advantage. Whereas detectives and private investigators can flash their badge or utilize police databases and expensive surveillance equipment to investigate, your teen sleuth must observe without being seen. Instead, she can access her peers who are more apt to share information with her than they are with the police. Adults might have low expectations of your teen sleuth — they might consider her apathetic or unmotivated – thus allowing her to fly under the radar, collecting clues and information otherwise overlooked.
- Paint her as flawed, yet driven
Perfect people are boring, so give your teen sleuth flaws. Maybe she’s too cocky. Maybe she’s insecure. Maybe she has a disability that makes investigating extra difficult. But give her something she needs to overcome and then give her drive and an unflinching sense of justice. Your teen sleuth needs a character arc — and nothing is more compelling than watching a character overcome an inherent flaw.
- Burden her with personal conflict
Give your teen sleuth personal conflict in the form of subplots. Perhaps she’s struggling with friendships, academics, romance, or parents. Perhaps it’s all of these. Give her something to take the focus away from the investigation. This will divide her attention, thus allowing her to make mistakes, and will heighten suspense and conflict throughout the main storyline. Also, subplots prevent readers from getting bored of the investigation itself and divert the readers’ attention from solving the mystery too easily.
- Allow her to break the rules
The great thing about being a teenager is the ability to bend or break the rules. If your teen sleuth enters a suspect’s home without a warrant, that transgression can more easily be forgiven than if a police officer does the same thing. Again, because your teen sleuth doesn’t initially have a lot of power, this is one way she can be subversive.
- Let her make mistakes
With age comes wisdom, but your teen sleuth has neither – and for story purposes, that’s okay. She’s more likely to misjudge character behavior. She might mistrust the right people and trust the wrong ones. Use this. If your teen sleuth messes up, she’ll have to learn from those mistakes and that will enrich her character arc.
- Litter her walkway with stumbling blocks
A good mystery shouldn’t be easy to solve for either the teen sleuth or the reader. Make sure each scene provides a clue to move the mystery forward but set the teen sleuth back. Red herrings, or false clues, are a smart tactic to use here as well. Perhaps your sleuth breaks into a suspect’s room and finds a cryptic letter, but then she gets caught. Or your teen speaks to a witness the police haven’t questioned only to find out that witness is lying, or later ends up dead. By allowing her to stumble, you set the pacing for a page-turner.
- Give her allies
Give your teen sleuth friends with connections. Allow her to trust certain people so that she can get help when she needs it. A friend whose parent is a cop will come in handy when your sleuth needs information she can only garner from a police report. Also, by providing your sleuth with allies, you’re not only giving readers a cast of characters to love, you’re making your teen sleuth likeable.
Do you have any tips for writing a smart teen sleuth? Please share in the comments.