Crime is the post popular genre in fiction and on screen today, but many writers fall into the crime fiction trap.

Understanding the crime fiction trap

The big trap in crime movies and novels is that the hero is emotionally detached and unengaging. In other genres, we have built-in emotional connection with the hero. In horror, comedy, sports, biopics, the protagonist is generally likeable and positive, despite his or her undoubted flaws. They are emotionally engaged and Sherlock Holmes Sign of Four avoids the crime fiction trapengaging. They are, often, very much like us.

However, in reality, detectives and criminals are rarely very much like us. They are also emotionally detached.

In real life, a policeman has little emotional engagement in solving a murder – its a job. Similarly, criminals, by their nature, tend to be violent, uncaring people, who are happy to cause physical or emotional pain to the victims of their crimes. So why should we care about any of them?

The answer is to find alternative ways of engaging the characters – and having us care about them.

Make it important

Counteract the detachment by giving them a reason to be emotionally drawn in. In Se7en, Detective Somerset is about to retire and desperate that his last case is not the horrific one that he now finds himself on. At the same time, Mills is the new boy, keen to prove he can survive in the city. For both of them, the killings become a personal challenge that draws them in, and therefore us.

In a similar way, the career criminal generally distances himself from his work. It’s just a way of making money. Not so with Walter White in Breaking Bad. For him, facing a possibly fatal cancer, crime is the only way he can see to pay for his medical treatment and leave something for his family after his death.

Give the character flaws

All heroes need flaws, but to avoid the crime fiction trap it’s crucial that the hero has flaws that we can identify with – normal flaws, as it were.

Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes’ patronising self-assurance (and suggested addictions) or Henry Hill’s fascination with the power of the mob in Goodfellas, their human frailties draw us to them and into the story.

Give them strengths

If your protagonists have no positive side, why should we care about them? Father Brown, in the GK Chesterton stories, is thoughtful, with a dry wit. Patrick Bateman may be an American Psycho, but he’s also satirically funny, with sharp insight into the very fallible people around him.

Give us a ticking clock

There’s nothing like a deadline to engage both your characters and the audience. This is why the cop is so often told she has “24 hours or she’s off the case.” The trick is to find fresh and original variations. In Se7en the detectives are racing against time to stop the killer reaching his total of seven victims. Walter White’s cancer is ultimately another deadly countdown: will he be able to provide for his family before the disease gets him?

Of course all these can be used in a cliché manner, or with truth and artistic skill. Whether you do the former or the latter is ultimately up to you. Being truthful is tough for the writer, but from that struggle to be authentic and honest has come some of the greatest stories, movies and TV series ever made.