Character Motivation in Mysteries

When I was eight, my grandma introduced me to the Nancy Drew series. I got a gift set. After I read the very first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, I couldn’t get enough. Nancy’s ambition and sheer excitement to solve a mystery, and her curious nature, had me at “Be careful, you’re in danger.” Did Nancy run from that sentiment? Nope. She answered with, “I’m ready and here to help. When do we start?”

I asked to go the library multiple times a week, to get every book available that I hadn’t read yet. Nancy Drew was my first glimpse into mystery and suspense that opened my eyes to a new found love for this genre. I searched out many other authors after that; Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and James Patterson to name a few. Each story heightened my emotions as I read along to solve the unanswered questions. My inner detective wanted to help find the clues, answer the impossible, search for understanding about the world, and try to examine the inner workings of the human mind. The protagonist’s motivation in each story kept me wondering if they’d get to the finish line, and in every case, I rooted that they would.

What kind of motivation would you see in a mystery or suspense, to keep the characters propelling to act?

Here are a few examples…

• Money – Loss of a job and the protagonist needs to find a way to keep their life afloat.  How will they do that? Will they turn to a loan shark for help, rob a bank, or get rid of everything they own to pay off their debt? How desperate are they? What are they using the money for?

• Dark past that they want to keep hidden – What happens when someone is black mailing your protagonist and threatening to expose one of their secrets? Motivation to keep that character quiet or to negotiate a deal with them, may be in order. Or what if your protagonist comes clean? What will they lose by doing this? At what cost?

• Search to find something or someone – What are they searching for? Why? Maybe they’re trying to find their biological parents or missing children? What if they’re trying to find themselves? Who are they? Will they like what they found, or will the outcome take a turn that wasn’t expected? Good turn or bad?

 Murder/kidnapping – Your protagonist may want retribution. Does your character take the matter in their own hands? How exactly do they handle the situation? Do they need clarity that they’re loved one is really gone? Maybe they need to search for answers and proof on their own. Or maybe the belief that there’s still hope, is what your protagonist holds onto that, even if no one else does.

• Power – What will they do to gain control or power? And why do they want it? What kind of power do they want? Will they use it for good, or take control and sacrifice other people’s lives for their own selfish gain? By having power, what will they need to sacrifice to be on top?

 Protection of loved ones – What would your protagonist do to protect those they loved? Keep secrets that harm others? Cover up an investigation? Take the fall for them? Send them to a secluded safety spot? Would your protagonist do anything for them? Give up everything?

• Mental state and wellbeing– Typically, this goes along with someone telling the protagonist that they’re not well, or they’re made to believe that something is wrong with them. We see a lot of this in psychological thrillers, but not all the time. The motivation is to prove that they’re not who they’re made out to be. The mystery’s in finding who they are, and what’s real and what’s not.

Think about what motivates you to act. What motivates those closest to you? What kind of emotions do you feel when there’s a mystery that needs to be solved in your life? Have fun sleuthing and figuring out the motivations of your protagonist, to create a mystery that readers won’t be able to put down.


Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.