Do you have superpowers? How about the characters in your mystery novels?
I was reading mystery author and fabulous agent Paula Munier’s recent blog post on Career Authors, titled GO FOR BROKE: 6 Ways to Make Your Story Stand Out. One of her suggestions was that the best protagonists have superpowers, “that is, something that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill characters. They don’t have to fly faster than a speeding bullet, but they should have some quality, ability, or talent that makes them smarter, braver, wiser, something more than the rest of us.”
That got me thinking about my protagonist, Maggie Dove, and what her superpowers might be. She’s a person of faith, and I think that’s a huge superpower. I hope that gives her courage, and hope. She’s also a good listener and because of that, she’s able to get people to talk. (I do sort of wish she could fly though.)
When I asked my fellow mystery-writing Miss Demeanors, I discovered their characters had a wealth of superpowers!
Self delusion! Ha! Seriously, though, my protagonist, Laney Bird, is excellent at being an undercover because she can act. She can transform her looks and behavior and even become invisible by making herself look like someone who lives on the street. In book one of my series, she prides herself on always making a drug buy. When she hits a wall and can’t make the right buy to put a particular person behind bars, she begins to obsess and try harder and harder until her life deconstructs.
As much as she can chameleon herself into situations, she is really astronomically bad at reading the people she cares about. She only sees the good in them and it bites her, every single time.
We all want to fly, Susan! I wonder if there’s a single person out there who, as a child, didn’t dream they could fly. Actually, my dreams weren’t so much flying as hovering, but back to Kate Hamilton. Her father teasingly called her a divvy, an antiques whisperer, able to spot a fake at fifty paces, honing in on the single treasure in a houseful of junk. That isn’t precisely true, but Kate’s knowledge of antiques and her love for the stories they represent has gotten her hired twice by the police as an expert consultant. But her real superpower–one she never talks about and doesn’t understand herself–is the occasional ability to sense the emotional atmosphere in which an object of great age and beauty once existed. She’s has this gift (or as she calls it, her “affliction”) since childhood. Since Kate doesn’t believe in the paranormal, she chalks it up to her notoriously over-active imagination and files the episodes away under the category of Unexplained Things like déjà vu and why men can never find anything in a refrigerator. These insights don’t help Kate solve crimes, but they do alert her to the fact that all is not as it seems.
NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli’s superpowers are her humanity and her dedication to doing the right thing no matter the consequences. Those qualities are what led her to become a police officer and eventually a detective, to do multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to accept an undercover assignment to investigate a ring of dirty cops. Because she exposed the ring which included her friends and colleagues, she is being ostracized and doesn’t know who in the department she can trust. And despite seeing her lover blown up in Afghanistan she hasn’t turned to alcohol or drugs to deaden herself.
Corelli struggles with PTSD and manages to hide it from everyone but Detective P.J. Parker who is assigned to watch her back. Humanity and intelligence are Parker’s superpowers and although their relationship is tense and conflicted, she covers for Corelli and stands up to her, and for her.
I most certainly hope so. Maeve Malloy is smarter than everyone else, more committed than anyone else, and doesn’t back down from a fight.
Fin Fleming, my protagonist, is just about the best scuba diver in the world. Put her in the water–any water–and she’s in her element. Nothing frightens her, and she always knows exactly what to do, whether she’s free diving to 400 feet, scuba diving on an underwater wall, or rescuing someone from a cursed shipwreck one hundred feet down.
She stands up to sharks, has Rosie, an American Pygmy Octopus as a pet–really Rosie is a research subject, but they have a bond–and loves stingrays, turtles, and all other fish.
Because she’s so comfortable in the water, she’s an up-and-coming underwater photographer with an enviable portfolio of unique shots. She recently earned a PhD in marine biology. Really–if it involves water, she’s your go-to person.
Her achilles heel–every good superhero has an achilles heel–is her lack of self-confidence. Her father abandoned her when she was a child, and even though he’s back in her life now, she can’t quite trust him. She thinks there must have been something wrong with her to make him leave. Anything that goes wrong is always her fault, at least in her own mind.
And her mother is a world-famous oceanographer–think a female Jacques Cousteau–so Fin has to deal with people who think she’s not really that good. That everything she has came to her through nepotism.
When I started writing In Deep, the first Fin Fleming Sea Adventure, I read a lot of “comparable” books with oceangoing female protagonists. Alas, none of them were believable. They were all like Jack Reacher in a dress, and they acted nothing like a real woman. I hope my readers find Fin powerful and believable.
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Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com