Thursday, August 26, 2010

Detectives are Backwards Protagonists

We want our characters to be fish out of water. You must realize, of course, that I’m an expert on fish out of water. But that has nothing to do with writing. Often, when we look at the story structure we find that the second quarter of the story is when the protagonist is the most out of his element. In Cinderella this is when she makes her appearance at the ball. In Beauty and the Beast this is where Belle goes to live in the beast’s castle. It is always the case that we go from a character being within his element, but his element is killing him to him being out of his element and having to learn something to survive, or so it would seem. It’s interesting, but there is a whole class of stories that don’t follow that model. In fact, it is reversed.

Look at the detective story. In the detective story, our protagonist begins as a fish out of water, but when the mystery appears he really hits his stride. The detective protagonist is too much for the ordinary world. Look at Diagnosis Murder. The good doctor is on roller-skates and owns a car that hardly works. He seems very out of place until he uses his quirks to solve a murder. Or look at Monk. He is afraid of everything and everything has to be in its place. He doesn’t fit well with normal people, but when he is solving a murder it is those things that make him able to notice when things aren’t the way they should be. Sherlock Holmes never fit with normal people, but no one could solve a case better.

Often a detective story begins with the detective failing to solve a case. This fits with the premise that the detective begins as a fish out of water but moves in to his element as the main case comes into play. The failure helps to show that his way of doing things is so much different than that of his peers.

What this means to us is that if we want to write a good mystery, we need a detective who doesn’t quite fit in the normal world, but when the case appears the things that make him different become the tools he uses to solve the case. We don’t want a character who is normal but gets thrust into solving a case. We want a character who should be solving a case but something is preventing him from having a case to solve.