Skip to main content

How to Create a Compelling Lead for a Crime Story? #amwriting #advice

My ongoing writer’s guest post series in this blog today brings Ee leen Lee, a good friend and awesome writer who has often helped me with my stories, and is now an editor for an anthology of crime stories by Fixi Novo.

I hope the writers amongst you submit to the anthology, and the readers pick it up once it is published next year. Ee leen tells us today all about what makes a good crime lead– take it away, Ee leen!

In 1927, T.S Eliot observed, “The detective story, as created by Poe, is something as specialised and as intellectual as a chess problem…whereas the best English detective fiction has relied less on the beauty of the mathematical problem and much more on the intangible human element.”

Although Eliot displays a natural bias in favour of English detective fiction, he succinctly highlights the  “…intangible human element.” that is character. These days readers want more than mere puzzles in their mystery stories, they want defined characters peopling the story, and compelling protagonists.

Call for Crime Story submissions: Fixi Novo

Call for Crime Story submissions: Fixi Novo

The most important character in your crime story is your protagonist. Without him or her, there is no connection with your reader and therefore, no story. Who are your favourite sleuths? Sherlock Holmes, Kurt Wallander, Lisbeth Salander, or Jack Reacher? Some may prefer the quirkier protagonist, and TV features numerous offbeat leads such as Columbo, Adrian Monk or even House, who is more medical detective than physician.

Begin by establishing something memorable in appearance, skill or behaviour. (Lisbeth Salander’s  tattoo,  House’s walking stick, Holmes’ and Reacher’s powers of observation, and Monk’s OCD). When creating your lead character there are four main sources to draw from:

1. Yourself
Pros: Every emotion and experience your character has would have been your own.
Cons: You’re too close to yourself to be objective. Creating a Mary Sue or Gary Stu (the male version).

2. Someone you know
Pros: Best when your characters are composites of your friends, colleagues and relatives. Mixing it up is half the fun.
Cons: Accusations of defamation. Allowing reality to dictate your characters.

3. Someone you’ve heard about
Pros: You’re not bound by many facts or social niceties.
Cons: So far, I have not discovered many disadvantages with this.

4. Your imagination
Pros: Imagination soars unfettered!
Cons:  Imagination soars, unfettered.

A compelling lead should be flawed because perfect characters are dull. But don’t pile on the weaknesses just for the sake of it. Too many negative traits soon become ordinary and drag the narrative. Strike a fine balance between empathy and sympathy. Not every protagonist has to be a hero but they should be relatable, regardless of their situations.

Laying the groundwork for a strong lead character will make it easier for you to render your fictional world on the page. Your reader will follow your lead character to the very end, and by association, your story.

Call for crime short fiction submissions – KL Noir: Blue
I am editing the third installment of the KL Noir series of short crime fiction set in Kuala Lumpur, published by Fixi Novo.  Previous volumes are Kl Noir: Red (which includes my short story “Oracle of Truth”) and KL Noir: White. Now seeking submissions of 2000-5000 words. Deadline is 31st December 2013. The anthology will be published by Fixi Novo in April 2014. More details  available here.


Lee Ee LeenEe Leen Lee was born in London, UK. Since 2009, her fiction has been published by Mammoth Books UK, Intellect UK, Monsoon Books Singapore, Fixi Novo and Esquire Magazine (Malaysia). Find her on Twitter.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  • Tittan says:

    I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of writing, after a decade or so, and I like these tips.
    One thing I seem to read in a lot of crime is that the protagonist has trouble with alcohol, or other substances, or he/she has had a troubled childhood/hard divorce/someone close murdered. It is getting tiresome now, and I am actually enjoying a protagonist with a normal (or as normal as they get) teenage son/daughter, and the problems that follow more than a drunkard with a murdered spouse.

    Just my thoughts.

  • 5redherrings says:

    Just wondering if it’s defamation if the character exists in reality. My sig other also enjoyed this post.

    • e6n1 says:

      It can be if intent to defame can be proven (rather than just the presence of passing resemblances to a real person).

      Thanks – glad you liked the post!

  • I like my protagonists with a certain humour, which is why I prefer Sara Paretsky’s, V I Warshawski to Patricia Cornwell’s humourless Kay Scarpetta.

  • I’ve been wanting to stretch my legs this way for some time now… I’m just letting it build so I can POP! Your Instructions along these lines have been enormously helpful to me! Thank you for a blog entry important enough to read again if I need to :O)

  • Thanks for the “like” on my post, Damyanti!

  • Author_4_U says:

    “Imagination soars unfettered,” I so love that concept.
    As the late Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge; for it is unlimited.”

  • Your imagination
    Pros: Imagination soars unfettered!
    Cons: Imagination soars, unfettered.

    For me, this is the best tip around. Thanks for sharing.

  • purehaiku says:

    thank you for the follow! I am following you back! this looks like a very interesting blog indeed…

  • So true about the English detective story. They are miles different from American versions, and as you say, Ee leen–they are more human than mathematical. Both approaches work for me.

  • llip2 says:

    I would like to be a writer when I grow up. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  • Suggestion – enable more sharing buttons on this site – like Twitter and G+ – please!

    • Damyanti says:

      Both Twitter and G+ buttons are right below the post, Lorraine!

      • Nope; not seeing them. Wonder why?

        • Damyanti says:

          What browser are you using? I can see them pretty ok on my Firefox. And do you see any share buttons at all?

          • SU, Press this, Pinterest, email, tumblr, and MORE, which has reddit and digg. Chrome browser, and I just deleted my browsing history and cache and cookies yesterday. Not sure what’s up. I share this on Twitter anyway, but had to do it the long way… So not sure what’s up. I was going to post a screenshot, but can’t! LOL

            Not sure how to resolve this issue. I’m not a techie.

            • Damyanti says:

              Oops I’m not a techie either, Lorraine.

              I have Twiiter (31 shares), linkedin (2 shares), G+ (13 shares) and Tumblr on the second line, and then the “More” in the third line.

              Since folks are sharing to these social networks, they can see the buttons. I guess all I can say is it is a browser issue– certain things you can see on firefox can’t see on chrome.

              If anyone dropping by can help with your issue, I would more than welcome it. And thank you for sharing this on twitter!

  • Really helpful article Ma’m! Will keep this article in mind while I write my first crime story 🙂

  • Reblogged this on A Tedious Little Blog.

  • AnElephant finds this fascinating.
    He now ponders much.
    Thank you.

  • A strong main character is vital to any story, along with those flaws and hangups.

  • Seeta says:

    Those are some very interesting points.. thanks for this post!

  • Millie Ho says:

    I agree that protagonists should be flawed. Most neo-noir stories have an anti-hero as opposed to the Golden Boy.

    However, I’d suggest that #2 be changed from “Someone you know” to “Someone you don’t know enough”. There’s more room for creative invention there.