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Owning Your Lead Character in Detective Fiction

By Michael Snow

When I first engaged in the task of crafting my new novel, ZION’S WEB, I really had no clue what type of book I intended to write—other than I wanted my novel to be a thriller. Despite involving Mormons in the story, I really wasn’t attempting to write LDS fiction, nor do I think I succeeded in doing that—at least not in the conventional sense of the word. But what I did write, in my view, is absolutely unique—and, more importantly, it’s mine.

This naturally goes for the hero in my novel, Zachariah (Zack) Burton, an ex-FBI-Agent-turned-private-investigator who lives on a 50-foot sport fisher in San Pedro, California. In deciding exactly how I wanted to engineer Zack, it may be helpful to inspect the underpinnings of detective fiction which is where I got my ideas. In examining private investigators, I discovered that many of these individuals—at least those of the male variety set in the twentieth century and later—seemed to bear at least some resemblance to the hard boiled detectives created by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. These men were all hardened, basic kinds of individuals, with a somewhat cynical view of life.

My lead character Zack fits this profile in more than a few ways due to some the events that have occurred in his life. Zack recently lost his wife to cancer, for instance, an event that forced him to begin drinking excessively. This behavior ultimately made him lose nearly everything he had in life, including his job with the FBI. The one thing he managed to hang onto was the Kajiki, his sport fisher berthed in a marina in San Pedro. True to his hard-boiled image, Zack begins the story as a loner and a near-total recluse but through the flow of the novel grows as a person until by the end he is far more approachable and sympathetic.

What makes Zack unique , however, is the Mormon component. Because of the nature of the case he is involved in—the rescue of a female escapee from a polygamist compound run by self-proclaimed fundamentalist Mormons—I thought it was vital to differentiate these people from the mainstream Mormons based out of Salt Lake who gave up the practice of polygamy over a hundred years ago and excommunicate any of their members who continue pursuing it. For similar reasons, I also felt it was important to include something about mainstream Mormonism in my story.

The girl Zack was married to as an example was a Mormon, although he is not. His ex-brother-in-law is also a Mormon and provides the principal vehicle by which various historic elements about Mormonism are presented, though these are never permitted to interrupt the key story line.

The bottom line on all this is to assert that your lead personality in detective fiction should be centered on something you identify with personally, which is how you'll make him or her your own. If I had copied Dashiell Hammett’s character, or Chandlers, or any one of a half dozen others, my character would not have been unique, which would have influenced my story and made it somewhat commonplace. And if your story is not unique, it has little chance of developing a powerful audience or setting you apart you as a writer.


Michael Snow is the writer of ZION’S WEB, the first in the Zachariah Burton detective series. In addition to writing books, Michael maintains a blogsite which incorporates some useful and highly interesting blogs including info regarding making a fictional detective.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Snow, Michael "Owning Your Lead Character in Detective Fiction." Owning Your Lead Character in Detective Fiction. 23 Apr. 2014. 26 Jul 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Snow, M (2014, April 23). Owning Your Lead Character in Detective Fiction. Retrieved July 26, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Snow, Michael "Owning Your Lead Character in Detective Fiction"

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