What is a red herring? Simply put, a red herring is a piece of information in a story that distracts readers from an important truth or leads them to mistakenly expect a particular outcome in any genre. And not just information but characters make excellent red herrings.
Why are red herrings important to the murder mystery, especially red herring characters? Because they build suspense and help writers construct dramatic plot twists. Let’s face it, they are the staple of mystery novels as they often provide surprise endings and serve to distract the reader from what is actually taking place.
Of the many considerations facing writers concerning red herring characters, I believe there are three that stand out as necessary for the successful murder mystery plot to ensure the effectiveness of these characters in keeping readers engaged and guessing. Here are what I believe are the top three considerations of murder mystery writers when placing characters who are red herrings into the plot, and I offer three classic murder mystery works that illustrate these principles.
1. Character Motivation: Red herring characters should have plausible motives for the crime. Their reasons for wanting to harm the victim or being involved in suspicious activities should be convincing. If their motives are weak or unclear, readers may become frustrated or disinterested.
In Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” multiple passengers on the train have potential motives for the murder, making it challenging for readers to identify the true culprit. For me, this is one of the very best examples of the classic use of red herrings.
2. Character Development: Red herring characters should be well-developed and multidimensional. They shouldn’t simply exist as one-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures solely meant to mislead. Giving them depth, backstory, and believable personalities makes them more compelling.
In Tana French’s “In the Woods,” there are several characters with complex histories and personalities, all of whom could potentially be involved in the central mystery.
3. Plot Integration: Red herring characters should be seamlessly woven into the narrative. Their presence and actions should be integrated into the story’s overall plot and themes. If they feel forced or tacked on, readers may see through the deception too easily.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Dr. John Stapleton is introduced as a possible suspect with a connection to the legend of the supernatural hound, effectively adding layers of mystery to the plot.
Keeping these three considerations in mind when writing your mystery should ensure your red herring characters contribute to the intrigue and suspense of the story while maintaining the integrity of the narrative. Successful implementation of these elements can make the eventual revelation of the true culprit more satisfying for readers.