Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective

For almost three years now, I’ve spent time in the company of Rae Riley, my nineteen-year-old detective. I introduced her in the short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and she continues her amateur sleuthing in A Shadow on the Snow. By the way, the cover reveal is tomorrow! (Cue confetti and a blare of trumpets). But back to the post–working with my main character for so long has led me to three tips on how to build a teen detective.

Teen Needs a Reason to Detect

Like all amateur detectives, the teen detective must have another reason for sleuthing besides perpetually tripping over bodies. Maybe she has a thirst for justice. A recent teen detective is devoted to true-life crimes. Maybe he’s just plain nosy.

Rae solves mysteries because she has to. In “A Rose from the Ashes”, she investigates the murderous attack on her mother when her mom was pregnant with her in the hope of finding her father. In A Shadow on the Snow, someone is leaving Rae threatening notes. She starts her own investigation because she is getting along so well with her newly-found family that she doesn’t want to burden them with her problems and make them regret inviting her into their lives.

I gave Rae a few other traits to make it more believable for her to undertake a case. Her mother battled cancer while Rae was in high school and died before she graduated. Rae is used to looking after herself. She also moved many times as a kid and doesn’t make friends easily. So it makes sense for her to go it alone on her hunt for the stalker.

Teen Needs Specialize Knowledge

By this, I mean the teen should have some knowledge not readily available to traditional law enforcement. The teen could be solving a case involving a friend or relative and learns things from suspects who are reluctant to share with the police. Or he is looking into a cold case and brings a fresh perspective to it. Or the teen is an expert in some field and that skill aids in solving the case.

In Shadow, Rae uses the skills she developed to investigate her mother’s assault, such delving into sources at the library where she works and questioning people without letting them know exactly why. Rae also loves photography, a passion I hope to work into future mysteries.

The teen detective needs these talents or abilities because …

Teen Should Not Be Smarter Than the Cops

Readers of teen mysteries already have to suspend their disbelief to buy into a story in which a teen solves a case. As a writer, I don’t want to force readers to throw away their disbelief all together and make my teen detective the smartest person in the book for a couple reasons.

First, the era of the bumbling or stupid cop is past. It’s been done. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started this trope for mysteries and actually changed it in some of his later stories, portraying the police as more competent and imaginative.

Second, it’s not playing fair, giving the teen detective too much of an advantage, and that could annoy readers. If every single character in a mystery is amazed by the intelligence of the detective, as a reader, I’m liable to turn against him. Only Sherlock Holmes gets away with such universal praise.

Rae’s dad is the sheriff of the rural, southeastern Ohio county where they live. She makes friends with three young cops and plays outlaw country music with them. I can’t make any of these characters look like dolts. Rae wouldn’t respect them and neither would readers.

One believable way for cops to have missed clues or become stumped by a mystery is overwork, especially in an urban setting. A city, town, or county only has so many officers who only have some much time to work multiple cases. Many small agencies can’t afford a separate detective unit. That would give a writer a decent reason for the teen detective to uncover something the police hadn’t.

Who are your favorite teen detectives? Do they have any of the three points I describe?

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