Thursday, June 9, 2011

Red Herrings: Scapegoating Characters By Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

I'd like to welcome Jeannie Campbell, the character therapist, to Mystery Writing is Murder today. Jeannie's take on character motivation and the psychology of characters on her blog, The Character Therapist, is a great way to develop your characters and give them some depth.

And, I'm over at Mason Canyon's blog, Thoughts in Progress, today, with a post titled: A Mystery Writer's View of the World (and 6 Tips for Friends of Mystery Writers). Hope you'll join me!

Good mysteBlog8ry writers know all about red herrings. Red herrings are clues that are designed to mislead readers and make them suspect the wrong characters for whodunit. Of course, the placement of red herrings is deliberate because you want to keep the reader surprised as the story unfolds who the true culprit is.

In the world of counseling and psychology, families do this all the time. It’s called scapegoating. A common example is when a child gets pinned as the guilty party when in actuality, the dysfunction in the family stems from the mother or father’s relationship.

Families do this to draw attention away from the actual problem and on to someone else. “My absentee parenting and alcohol abuse is not the problem. Little Junior is. See how he constantly throw tantrums?”

Never mind the fact that he throws tantrums as a way to cope when Dad’s drunk and abusive. At least when he’s having a tantrum, Dad doesn’t hit Mom because they both turn their focus on him.

Writers end up scapegoating characters all the time, especially in mystery writing. We want our readers to focus attention elsewhere while we hide the truth from them. In counseling, this deflection is not good and actually interferes with the therapeutic process. In mystery writing, this distraction is a necessary evil pleasure that makes the mystery harder to solve.

When I’m counseling a family that is exhibiting a scapegoating tendency, it truly gives me a headache. All the anger and stress and frustration is directed at one person, an any attempt on my part to lighten the scapegoat’s load is met with denial.

I’d like to propose that mystery writers should be so good at scapegoating that any attempt on the author’s part to weave in clues pointing to some other killer or thief would be met with reader denial, as well.

If you’ve done the work to throw off the reader, make them truly buy into it. Make the case so ironclad that the reader says to himself, “Well, it has to be Colonel Mustard. I mean, he mentioned how attractive and costly that candlestick was earlier in the book. His fingerprints were even found on it next to the victim. He had to have done it.”

This is exactly what scapegoating families do. They will drag out one piece of evidence after another to prove their point that Little Junior is the problem (read: culprit). “He won’t listen. He doesn’t obey. He screams and kicks. He’s out of control.”

Once you’ve gotten the reader rattling off a list of evidence that points to Colonel Mustard and you have them summarily dismissing other clues you planted that show his innocence, you’ve done your scapegoating job well.

I hope that I’ll get a chance to connect with many of you over at my new website, The Character Therapist and my blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive the Writer’s Guide to Character Motivation for free!

Also up for grabs to one lucky commenter of this post is the Writer’s Guide to Creating Rich Back Stories. Leave a comment and don’t forget to include your email address! Comment through Saturday, June 11th, midnight ET for your chance to win.