We love mystery!

Character Driven Mystery

USA Today best selling author Trixie Silvertale joins Brook and Sarah to discuss what makes a mystery character driven and why mystery fans tend to prefer mysteries that focus on character. The conversation does include spoilers for Glass Onion (2022).


Lillian Jackson Braun
Agatha Christie
The Glass Onion (2022) Netflix

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. Are you ready for another interview episode?
SarahI’m so excited about this one.
BrookI am too. These are some special treats for listeners. It’s like I think we’re giving them little gifts around the holiday season. But today we have USA Today bestselling author Trixie Silvertale and she grew up reading an endless supply of Lillian Jackson Braun, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew novels. She loves the amateur sleuths in cozy mysteries and obsesses about all things paranormal. Those two passions unite in her Mitzy Moon Mysteries and Harper and Moon Investigations. And she’s thrilled to write them and share them with you. Welcome, Trixie.
Trixie SilvertaleThank you. Really happy to be here.
BrookYeah, so today we’re going to talk about something that’s kind of an intricate topic when it comes to building a mystery: the idea of character-driven versus plot-driven mysteries. And you have a background in film and television.
Trixie SilvertaleUm, yeah, yes.
BrookWill you tell us about those experiences and like did you work on mysteries?
Trixie SilvertaleI didn’t so so you know? Yeah, so maybe that that’s the the frustrated filmmaker in me was like well if I can’t work on a mystery I’ll just write them.
Trixie SilvertaleAh yeah I worked on—and—this will definitely date me CBS After School Specials, commercials, feature films, and ah you know there there may have been a mystery element but not like not like a Murder She Wrote you know I mean that that was just sort of ah, side plot. Um and a lot of short films and and things like that. So, of a wide variety of things none of them really I think technically would fall under the mystery category.
BrookYeah, oh that sounds really exciting I loved After School Specials.
Trixie SilvertaleThere was always that little lesson.
Trixie SilvertaleI think Hallmark has planned and taken over that that genre a bit you know where where they have the character who has some terrible flaw that they have to repair in order to be redeemed and you know find that their love in the end or whatever kind of thing that that sort of seems like it’s gone that direction kind of feeding the audience who grew up on the After School Specials with a grown up version of it I guess.
BrookYeah, that’s true.
SarahAnd just so just thinking about the After School Specials and now the Hallmark productions would you classify those as character driven or as being plot driven and maybe we should start with Kind of defining what we mean by character driven and plot driven.
Trixie SilvertaleUm, so definition first ah character-driven means that the story moves forward because the character as written acts from their definition. So if you have defined a character as having a generous heart or having ah a wicked streak or a deceptive tendency their actions based on who you’ve defined them to be are what move the story forward a plot driven which. Let’s be fair. Every Hallmark holiday movie is plot driven a plot driven movie or television show is one where you can sit down with a bingo card and you can check the boxes girl is in in trouble at work girl gets fired. Ah, girl breaks up with boyfriend girl goes to country. Best friend encourages her to hang out with old high school. You know I mean and you can just check it to check check. That is plot driven. There is a plot. There is a structure and they just plug in different names different occupations. It always starts the same. The middle point is the same it ends the same happily ever after with the guy who oh you never thought she’d end up with him but you did you know? So It’s yeah plot driven, has a predictability to it. And that doesn’t mean you can’t create an interesting plot driven Book Movie Television show. But the tendency when you go with plot driven is that it leans so heavily on the tropes that um the predictability overtakes. So that that’s my opinion.
SarahNo, That’s great. Thank you and and I think that’s a really good example to use when thinking about whether something is characterd driven or or plot drivenve and that idea of you know, could we insert any character into this story and the same thing would happen versus um, you know if if it’s something that is more character driven, if you’ve put another character in then the decisions that that character makes may not be the same because it’s not the same. It’s not the same values that you’ve assigned to that character.
Trixie SilvertaleExactly Yep, exactly.
BrookSo Agatha Christie has kind of been criticized for not having fully developed characters and so did her puzzle mysteries fall into that category too like could she pop, in your opinion could she just like pop a character in there and make them work is that? So basically in that state case it wouldn’t be a flaw of her writing. It’s just a fact of the matter that she was writing plot driven versus character driven.
Trixie SilvertaleAbsolutely and and first and foremost I love Agatha Christie. I’m not a huge fan of the movie adaptations. You know, but but directors in Hollywood and they take their creative license and they do what they will and there have been some great ones. And there have been some misses in my opinion but she was a plot driven writer and that was because of all of the research that she put into the mystery she created and the means of death and you know all of that. So for her having a character die in a certain way that would have to then be unraveled because it was complex or hidden or multifaceted or required several characters to work together. That was what drove her story. So you can literally put anybody in there. Any lord any maid any this any that the characters themselves didn’t have any anything so outstanding that they couldn’t be replaced in my opinion.
BrookNo very cool that is such a neat thing to think about.
SarahJust just thinking about this a little more um in so Agatha Christie she had um the same detectives in you know, multiple stories. But we don’t really think of her books as being a series right? Um, when an author is writing a series is it more likely that it’s a character driven series rather than something that’s plot driven?
Trixie SilvertaleWell I think to your point with Agatha Christie, you know she was the draw, she was the selling point. If I went missing for eleven days or whatever the story was, no one would notice or care or call out the national guard. Um, but she was what was treasured about her writing because she put herself in the role of sleuth in a way and so the mysteries that she wrote because they were plot driven. They had a different feel for people so each one stands alone you can pick up any one of the books and read them and not feel like oh I wonder why that character changed from here to there. They don’t change. You know Hercule Poirot is always the same, slightly annoying, intelligent you know sleuth. Miss Marple, she’s always the same There isn’t a character arc for her. She doesn’t suddenly you know take up modern dance and move you know to Africa. That isn’t what the books were about. They were about a complex mystery that had to be unraveled by someone who was making subtle observations of you know sometimes perhaps too convenient, but subtle observations of clues and connections and ways that the scoop of characters that were scooped into that mystery were tied together. Period. You know that that was what it was about so. It’s not the same as I think what we think of in a series nowadays. When you have a long running series with a main character who is an amateur sleuth or whatever. The—and I feel like this is an expectation of readers now—that character has to develop change gain new powers have a different understanding of themselves, meet new people. You know there is something about the way we write nowadays that requires a character to grow and so if you take the first book of a series and the last book of a series I don’t think the character would be the same in most instances. Even if even if that person tends toward a plot-driven mystery, I think because of reader expectation there. There’s going to be some differences I feel like that’s a pretty standard trope now that the sleuth has to. Learn grow expand and and change. They can’t just remain static for an entire series that doesn’t seem to be you know what the market will bear anymore.
BrookSo um, in that answer, Trixie, you kind of revealed where I feel this lands is that it’s not either or it’s a spectrum right? We have plot driven on one side you have character driven on the other side. And I think a lot of times in our mind we just like say well is this story one or the other but actually it’s a spectrum because you said that you said someone might tend to be on this side of things but they’re still going to have character development.
Trixie SilvertaleI think that is true and I know from what I’ve read in the in the genre that is definitely more common now than you know Lillian Jackson Braun for instance, her character, there’s some physical things that happen in the town a mansion burns down he has to move into a different house. You know, whatever, but her main character, Quill, he’s the same guy in every book. He doesn’t magically get more romantic or magically get you know cry about this or what he’s the same guy in every book. That’s the dependable character and other people come and go. There’s a little more character development because ah he is in a small town and there they bring people into the town, versus going out, you know, like ah with Hercule Poirot, he tends to travel and find a mystery on his journey kind of a thing whereas Quill is more of a Miss Marple where it’s all happening in the in the same town but again really not a whole lot of development. They reference his past you know, drinking problem or whatever but you don’t go through that with him and experience the change with him. It just happens to be something that you know is part of his backstory so to speak.
SarahI wonder if the subgenre matters. So Brook and I have talked a lot about different kinds of mysteries and you know I think a thriller is or you know a domestic thriller is. Going to be a lot more plot-driven than necessarily character-driven and some of that I think is what we’ve been talking about with respect to series right? A lot of domestic thrillers. It’s you meet the cast of characters and this is the only time you’re ever going to be encountering them right? There’s not going to be a series of books about them. Um, but you know I’m I’m trying to run through in my head thinking about different series that I’ve read and and trying to so you know figure out okay are they more plot driven or or a series or sorry more plot driven or more character driven. Um. But yeah I’m I’m curious if if you’ve got any thoughts about kind of whether there are some sub-some subgenres that lend themselves more to being character versus plot driven.
Trixie SilvertaleWell I think that that’s an accurate take you know when you’re talking about suspense and that sort of thing. But again, it’s generally more of a one-off type of a story that same author may write another thriller. But it’s usually a whole new set of characters and the idea is are you creating a story where the events that occur are the most critical piece. Like do I need to put my character in this type of a dire strait that they you know have some unknown thing coming after them there you know this has been taken away that’s been taken away. They only have so many options. So I’m arranging the plot around them forcing them to do something. Versus having the character decide to take an action that then results in the next action then they decide to take another action. So I I think that is really the he differentiation between plot driven and character driven.
Trixie SilvertaleWhen the circumstances are the most important piece that leans into plot driven because you have to have these events occur to force the character into this tighter and tighter wedge versus the character making these decisions that then remove their options.
BrookSo Trixie you um, shared with us in getting ready for our episode that you ah have kind of broken down the film The Glass Onion in that way to think about whether it’s character or plot driven and I would love to know your take on that.
Trixie SilvertaleYeah, well. Ah, if you if I’ll just start out with the spoiler alert. That’s a very character driven. That’s a very character driven film and that’s because of the director is obsessed and and writer he wrote and directed obsessed with. Creating the suspense that is not um, a surprise In other words, he’s not going to take you through the entire film and then have frogs rain from the sky at the end to make make it all make sense which it never does. But that’s the ultimate you know Hollywood fix. Well, we’ve done all these things and now to just make it super weird. This is going to Happen. It doesn’t make any sense with the Breadcrumbs. We’ve laid but this is going to just wipe people. You know they’re just going to be knocked off their feet and so surprised and stunned and shocked.
Trixie SilvertaleBut it doesn’t make any sense with anything that has happened so that’s a plot driven movie and not a great one. The difference with glass onion and knives out was the same you know I guess Glass Onion. They also referred to as Knives Out 2. But Glass Onion was the sequel the idea. That they created was these very individual unique characters and and some of them to be fair, have more minor roles and could be anything not not critical. But the critical characters the character played by Edward Norton he makes very specific decisions based on his own internal fears. So he he has lied and cheated and stolen and murdered and everything he’s doing is to cover his tracks. So he’s created these dependent people by manipulating and blackmailing and buying their allegiance. So you can’t just put any other character in there his specific fears, number 1 you know being found out, and also the fact that he’s not very intelligent and he covers it with money. Those are all things that direct his actions and eventually are his undoing because the character, the detective, played by Daniel Craig is smarter than him but he gets backed into a corner. You know he he tries to do. He makes a choice and he chooses to go to the island with this woman who’s posing as her twin sister and they’re trying to pull off. But again, you couldn’t talk someone into that unless that particular character had a certain drive and her drive was to clear her sister’s name. She didn’t commit suicide she was murdered. And that was important to her so she was willing to go along with this, obviously, insane plan. You know to go to a private island owned by a billionaire who could snuff you out in a minute and in the indeed he tried right? So those are the reasons why a character driven film can can be so tight. Because characters only act in a specific way because of how you’ve established their psyche. You couldn’t take a character who had that commitment to clearing her sister’s name and and getting what was rightfully hers which was the credit for wanting to shut down this. You know, insane but explosive fuel project. Um, if somebody was just a home baker who. Ah, never wanted to leave their house and you know had 5 cats and doesn’t travel. Well, you can’t convince that person to do these things because they don’t have the conviction so she required some convincing she didn’t jump on the thing you know and that makes it more interesting gives her some depth but.
Trixie SilvertaleThere’s no way you could have convinced her if her character had been different so that is kind of what drives that whole plot Each of those characters is acting honestly from a fairly self-serving place and ultimately you know the the Killer the most self-serving. Is manipulating their wants and desires to get what he wants from them and when they fail to meet his expectation. He just kills them and moves on right? So that that is really why I feel that is such a character driven film because those actions are taken based on what has been established about the the personality and and values of each of the characters involved so well, it appears kind of Agatha Christie on the surface because it’s the group and there’s a bunch of people involved. It’s not the plot driving it.
BrookSo interesting and I would say and maybe that’s because I’m a creature of our contemporary world, much more satisfying right? Because it’s believable because you’re inside these people’s like you said they’re convictions and their motivations and it all feels more believable and satisfying in the end.
Trixie SilvertaleRight? Because I’m sure you’ve you’ve both watched a film or television or even read a book where you’re going along and you’re in it and you’re you’ve suspended your disbelief and then you’re like what that character will never do that That doesn’t make any sense.
Trixie SilvertaleYeah, because he because nothing has been established to support that decision and that’s when the plot has then been shoehorned into the story to make it go a certain way that the writer didn’t build up to make believable and and that is not satisfying. That takes you out of the story you step back and you’re like ah “All right I guess let’s see where this goes” but your your emotional investment has been Changed. It’s not the same.
SarahUm, yeah I can definitely think of um of some examples of that and and as Brooks says like that is not a satisfying experience.
Trixie SilvertaleNo no, it’s not because then you have to start making excuses why you should accept that and that’s not how you want to be entertained you you want it to feel like it makes sense and there’s a reason. And you know then you get to the end and you’re like oh I didn’t see that coming. But if I go back and look at this and this and this and this that totally makes sense versus what. My favorite 1 is when they introduce a character in the last five minutes that hasn’t been in the entire episode movie.
Trixie SilvertaleWhatever and they are the ones who did it and you’re like really okay, great. You know, ah sure fine. I can’t stand that because you know like the whole idea the whole reason people get invested in mysteries is to see if they can figure it out. So if you’re just in a pull out a character at the very end that I did never get to meet or hear interrogated or view their actions. Well of course I’m not going to know it was them because I I know nothing about them. So how convenient.
BrookYes, fair play right? Our Golden Age predecessors establish that and there is still value in in that rule I think where you have all the information and see if you can put the put the conclusion together yourself.
Trixie SilvertaleYeah, absolutely.
BrookThinking about your own work, Trixie. Your novels do you tend to write plot or character driven stories.
Trixie SilvertaleI definitely tend towards character driven I I have um, a structure I’m an outliner you know at least loosely I’m I’m not over the top with it. but but I do like to have a structure. Um, and that is just meant to you know have a flow to it and then what happens along the way is based on the character and 9 times out of 10. What I have in my outline isn’t what happens because the character makes a different decision and I go with that. Ah, because that makes it interesting to me because if I’m surprised by what has happened then I know the reader will be surprised by what has happened So I I like the idea and the comfort of having the structure. So I know where I wanted to head or ah or what I wanted to hit on. But if something changes along the way I don’t resist it in favor of the plot I go with what the character is doing. Especially with my longer running series like with Mitzy Moon because I know that character inside and out and so I know if they are making a different decision. That’s the right one and I just and I go with that. So Yeah for me, it really is more about the character because I feel like that. Builds more rapport with a reader. A reader can understand a plot and can can read a plot can you know identify the plot points, but they don’t connect with a plot they they connect with a character. So if you. Writing a series and you want to pull the reader along with you, there has to be somebody there that they find relatable and interesting enough to follow you know. So I feel like for me character is the way to go.
BrookI love that and you’re right, those are the series that we can’t wait till the next book comes out because we have to know what happens to our friends. You know they they start to feel like your friends in this little world that you like to visit. So um, yeah I love that.
Trixie SilvertaleI find that to be very true.
SarahAnd I suppose that’s a really helpful way of thinking about whether something is more plot versus character driven is you know when you finish a book, do you feel like you’ve just spent time with friends that you want to spend some more time with right that that you know you’ve you’ve got this connection with them.
Trixie SilvertaleExactly.
BrookAnd those domestic thrillers that you mentioned earlier Sarah you really never think about those people again, you know it was a fun roller coaster ride. But you don’t wonder what happened to Jane Doe after the thing ends right.
Trixie SilvertaleAnd most people if you ask readers you know oh what did you like about this book or what they don’t like oh I really like the way they got that exotic poison from South America and you know. No one gives the crap about that. They’re like oh I love I really identify with the main character. She’s so sassy I love that or you know she’s so kind to people that really that really made me feel good I think that’s how people you know those are the comments that readers make for the most part I mean occasionally you’ll get an academic critic who you know feel the need to point out that animal X only has you know, no dewclaw or whatever weird random thing people fixate on and they’re like I need to leave a review about this because people need to know that. You know dogs can’t look up or whatever. So yeah, that is it a whole different thing but the majority the majority of readers are going to identify with the character and that’s what they’re coming back for more of the character.
BrookWell Trixie this has just been wonderful I know I have learned a lot I personally will be relistening to this episode later because it is just really educational I think and you know from the standpoint of an author. But even as a reader. I feel like I have my eyes opened to why I like certain things and why other stories have turned me off. I now I have ah something to put my finger on. So, thank you so much.
Trixie SilvertaleOf course. Yeah it was fun to hang out with you guys.
SarahSo before we end today, Trixie, where can our listeners find you?
Trixie SilvertaleWell I am on Instagram and Facebook and my website is trixie silvertale t-a-l-e dot com and they can find more information about the different series that I write and books and characters and all kinds of things like that. How to get a hold of me. Whatever.
BrookOh thank you and thank you listeners for joining us today on clued and mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I am Sarah and we both love mystery.