Writing a Compelling DEAD Character

Many mystery novels open with the detective arriving at a murder scene and standing over the deceased. The DB—dead body. The stiff. The corpse. Unless the author jumps back in time with flashbacks, readers never see the victim alive. But a good novel must contain interesting, compelling characters, and that applies to dead characters also, so the murder victim should changes in the eyes of the detective and, thus, the reader.Crime Scene evidence markers

In the real world of big-city homicide, most murder victims are not pillars of society. They are often involved—at least peripherally—in criminal activity and often did something that contributed to their demise.

I remember one of my first murders as a rookie homicide investigator in Oakland. I stood on a street corner at 2:00 a.m. looking at a body riddled with bullets and taking in twenty or more evidence markers scattered about the street that showed the position of the 7.62×39  shell casings (the rounds used in AK-47 and SKS rifles).

The uniformed officers had already canvassed the neighborhood and knocked on every door for two blocks in every direction, but didn’t find a single witness that would admit to seeing or knowing anything. The dozens of people on the street when the shots rang out had disappeared long before the first patrol car arrived.

The victim had a rap sheet a mile long—drug dealing, assault, gun offenses, robbery. His mother had disowned him a decade ago, and his father’s only involvement in his life was conceiving him in between one of his many stints in state prison.

My partner, a veteran homicide investigator, told me this would likely be a case where he and I would be the only two people in the entire world who would care about finding out who killed this man. My partner then reminded me that I was the primary investigator on this case and, with a wink, said he wasn’t even sure if he cared.

Solving that case was an uphill battle, but solve it we did because in the world Oakland homicide investigators live, no one is allowed to get away with murder, and every victim counts.

One of the best things about writing a murder mystery is I get to create my murder victims. Sometimes they’re totally innocent—just in the wrong place at the wrong time as in Red Line. Other times, such as in Thrill Kill, they’re involved in criminal activity, but their reasons for it were understandable, and their good traits outweighed the bad.

In Shallow Grave, the third book in the Detective Matt Sinclair series, Matt’s former shallow-grave-cover-2016-07-19partner, Phil Roberts, is murdered. Readers quickly learn that Matt is harboring a major resentment toward Phil because Phil had withheld evidence that Matt needed to bring a bad guy to justice in an earlier case. That brought everything Phil had stood for into question in Matt’s eyes.

Just as most main characters grow and change in a well-written story, so does an interesting dead character. But wait, how can a dead person change? He’s dead, right?

As Matt investigates Phil’s murder, he learns more about Phil’s past and his involvement in the case in which he held back evidence. Matt tracks down witnesses who reveal more details about Phil and Phil’s actions that led to his death. Some of it paints Phil in a bad light, different from the ethical cop and perfect family man that Matt had known and respected. Toward the end of the book, Matt uncovers the final piece of the puzzle, and the reasons Phil had betrayed Matt begin to make sense. Phil is still dead in the end, but his character changed and grew tremendously.

I hope readers enjoy getting to know Phil in this book and understand his sacrifice was not in vain.

Brian Thiem

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