How to Write a Fictional Detective Character

POSTED ON May 2, 2023

P.J McNulty

Written by P.J McNulty

Home > Blog > Fiction, Writing > How to Write a Fictional Detective Character

From classic murder mysteries through to the dark Nordic thrillers of today, fictional detectives have long served as some of the most memorable and enjoyable characters in fiction. Our longstanding love of crime fiction can be attributed to a desire to experience the darker side of life without any real danger to ourselves. We’re also fascinated with the way the world works, including the minds of its darkest inhabitants such as serial killers. Detective fiction is the perfect way to indulge these interests.

But what if you’ve taken the next step? What if you want to go beyond admiring crime fiction as a reader and instead create some of your own? We’ve got you covered.

Read on to discover our full guide to writing a fictional detective that will keep readers gripped through all the twists and turns.

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What are fictional detectives?

Put simply, fictional detectives are any characters that exist within the realm of a story but not real life. This is an important distinction to draw, especially with the boom in true crime and narrative nonfiction dealing with real events. Detectives within those stories may feel like fictional detectives, but if they truly exist, they don’t fit the definition. 

The category of fictional detective casts a broad net that takes in many different kinds of character. These range from very realistic detectives presented as regular people with character flaws and typical human idiosyncrasies through to rare geniuses such as Sherlock Holmes. Some detectives in stories are depicted as solving believable crimes in a regular way while others may have supernatural or even paranormal powers.

Detectives can be any age or gender and may or may not work for a police force. As long as they are an invented character, and have the role of investigating a crime, event, or individual, they can be classed as a fictional detective!

Now that you have a basic overview of what a fictional detective is, let’s go deeper and explore more about this famous type of character.

Choose the type of detective you want to write

As stated in the preceding section, there are many types of detective within the world of fiction. 

However, while they all might have some things in common, they should be written very differently depending on their demographic, genre, and type of detective they are. They could also be a flat, dynamic, static, or round character.

For example, if you are writing realistic fiction involving a police detective, they are going to have a certain lifestyle and way of talking. If readers feel the way you write them is unrealistic, it may lead to the suspension of disbelief being shattered, ruining the experience for the reader.

Having the type of detective you have in mind is a crucial starting point. Without this step, you’ll be unable to carry out the depth of research you need to. 

Let’s move on to exactly that – how to research your fictional detective.  

Research the world of your detective

As most, but by no means all, writers of detective fiction are unlikely to have worked in the role themselves, it’s tempting to lean on stereotypes and images of detectives in mainstream media when writing them. However, it’s wise to do as much research as you can. You’re far less likely to make a major error that shatters your credibility that way.

Some of the most important things to research prior to writing your detective story include:

  • How would they talk? Keep age, geographical location, and the type of book you are writing in mind here. For example, a detective in a cozy mystery might talk very differently than one in a blood-chilling horror book. (What is a cozy mystery, you say? We're glad you asked!)
  • How much experience would they have? If you’re writing about a real world location, look into the requirement to be a detective in that area. 
  • Aside from solving the mystery, what other character motivations do they have and where do they originate from?
  • What would their duties look like? If you want to write a realistic detective, you have to have the detective carrying out tasks that would be normal for someone in their position.
  • What type of crime would they solve and what methods would they use? It always kills your credibility if they use forensics or something when that would be an entirely different person in your life. 
  • What is their style,

Of course, you might be choosing to write about a detective from a future or past time period or even a different reality entirely. If so, carry out research to the best of your ability., 

Create a character profile

To make sure your fictional detective comes across as believable and with depth, it’s worth taking the time to create a thorough character profile using a character bio template. This will cover both physical, behavioral and psychological traits. 

Some starter questions to help you include:

  1. What does your detective look like?
  2. How long have they been in law enforcement?
  3. Why did they get into the job?
  4. What is their personal life like?
  5. What motivates them to do their detective work?
  6. What is their personal life like?
  7. What are their weaknesses, flaws, and bad habits?
  8. Which cases haunt them and why?
  9. What type of personality do they have and what is the way they go about their work?

These are just starter questions. Go as deep as you need to until you feel you have a believable character profile you can use in your story.

Get a second opinion

After you’ve done work on your character profile, fleshing out your fictional detective as much you can, it’s time to run them by someone else.

Ideally, this would be someone who is a regular reader of crime fiction. They can tell you what they like and dislike about your detective and you can use this information to make adjustments if needed.

Where can you find inspiration for fictional detectives?

Ideally, your fictional detective should draw upon details from real detectives and their fictional counterparts. Doing this will allow you to add an air of realism to your character and have them meet reader expectations. However, you need to tread a fine line between being inspired and ripping off or being overly derivative. 

If you personally know any detectives they are a great resource to draw upon when thinking about speech, mannerism, and behavior. Second best would be in-depth crime documentaries that show real detectives working. Finally, you can primarily base your detective off other fictional crime solvers. However, be cautious about this last approach as you run the risk of creating a character quite removed from reality.

What are some mistakes to avoid when creating a detective character?

Your reader will ideally have an intense relationship with your detective, getting inside their head and seeing things through their eyes as they go through a period of intense difficulty. 

This intimacy and believability can be ruined if you get certain things wrong.

Some of the major mistakes to avoid include:

  • Writing a detective character that is too young for their role.
  • Leaning too far into stereotypes such as the hard-drinking maverick.
  • Using outdated slang that sounds more suitable for a cheesy b-movie than a real law enforcement agency.
  • Solving a crime in a way that seems too far fetched to keep the reader engaged or interested.

Ultimately, creating a fictional detective character is a great use of your time. You can use them in a future mystery or crime box set. You also allow yourself, and your readers, to walk a mile in their shoes and get an insight into a world they’d never otherwise access. 

So are you ready to get started?

If so, why not carry out the research process? After all, it requires from you is a little detective work!

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