Seven Things Your Protagonist Should NOT Do

Transferring DNA evidence


Leading characters should be written as real people with real problems and real goals. They’re people a reader wants to care about. Protagonists are likeable and smart, yet flawed in some way.

Sure, the hero will win, we know that, and we love seeing them doing what they do to solve the murder du jour. But what should they NOT do while poking and prodding through crime scenes? Well, here’s a short list of seven things we shouldn’t see in your books.

1. Picking up the murder weapon at an already secure homicide scene is a no-no. First, be sure the weapon was photographed exactly as it was found. Next, when the time comes to move the weapon, the detective should use care to protect possible fingerprints, trace evidence, and DNA. Of course, if the scene is not secure and 100 people are still running through the area like crazed zombies, officers should immediately secure the weapon to prevent contamination and the possibility of becoming murder victim number two.

2. Don’t let your hero cover the body with things found at the crime scene (blankets, sheets, the living room rug) because doing so could transfer potential evidence from the covering to the body, or from the body to the covering. I promise, the dead guy doesn’t care that he’s lying on the floor in his birthday suit.

3. Don’t let Richard Castle plunder around inside your protagonist’s crime scene. Outsiders are apt to step on evidence, move evidence, bring things into the crime scene (fibers, etc.) that shouldn’t be there, and touch things. A crime scene isn’t the place to have a conversation about going to Cape Cod on vacation while walking from room to room drinking a cup of coffee. This also isn’t the time for shyness. If necessary, have the hero ordering people to remain outside the perimeter.

4. Please don’t allow your hero to dig a bullet from the door casing and then say, “Just as I suspected, the murder weapon is a 9mm SIG Sauer.” It’s darn near impossible to know the caliber of misshapen bullets/fragments merely by looking at them. And they certainly wouldn’t be able to guess which brand of gun fired it. The same is true about entrance and exit wounds. You can’t judge the caliber size merely by glancing at an entrance wound in flesh.

5. Revolvers do NOT automatically eject spent brass. If empty casings are found at the crime scene it’s because the shooter manually dumped them there, which would be highly unlikely. Semi-automatics and automatic weapons do automatically eject spent casings, but you won’t find them in a neat little pile beside the body. Normally, semi- and fully-automatic weapons eject brass a few feet away from the shooter, and they may bounce in several directions, depending on the surface/item they strike—concrete floor, wood flooring, lamps, tables, carpeting, etc.

6. Robbers cannot rob a house. A robbery occurs when a bad guy forces someone to give him money/items. Breaking into an empty house and taking a TV or jewelry is burglary. The two are not synonymous. They are not the same!

7. Cordite. Need I address this again? Your hero won’t smell cordite because the stuff is no longer used in modern ammunition.


22 replies
  1. Pat Brown
    Pat Brown says:

    Mo Walsh voiced one of my biggest pet peeves. The cops who arrive alone some place looking for a suspect then announce the minute they see him that “The police, we want to talk to you–” and the guy’s off, out an unguarded back door being chased by the idiots — er, cops — who alerted him.

    Also don’t draw chalk lines around the body. Right, Lee?

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    What’s the correct name for that distinctive contemporary gunsmoke aroma, since cordite isn’t it? “Busy Shooting Range air freshner”?

  3. Monica T. Rodriguez
    Monica T. Rodriguez says:

    Great stuff, Lee. I don’t think I’m guilty of any of these infractions (or would you consider them writerly felonies?), but it’s always good to refresh.
    But you raised another question for me in your comment. I knew that attaining detective in your early twenties was rare (helps to have a father that’s a retired detective). But would late twenties (26-28) be considered unrealistic? Thanks!

  4. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    Hey, Sally, you’d better make that coffee with every Castle writer. You could fill the café. LOL On the up side, since we all know whodunit, we can pay less attention to the mystery plot and more on the romance.

  5. Gerrie Ferris Finger
    Gerrie Ferris Finger says:

    Good list, Lee. The last one especially gripes me. Authors who have been writing crime novels for years, and should have heard by now, have the air permeated with cordite. Argggg. Takes me right out of the story.


  6. Mo Walsh
    Mo Walsh says:

    Can I put in a plea to not have your protagonist alert the suspect by yelling “Hey!” from thirty feet away, causing a totally unnecessary foot chase? Don’t they teach “subtle” in the police academy?

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Sorry for my delayed response. I was on the road all day.

    Yes, Ashley, interfering with an investigation could be obstruction, a felony.

    – Not nifty to me, Irene. I actually cringe when I see cordite mentioned in a modern novel. If it’s a first-time author I’d probably toss the book and never read their work again.

    Anyway, I’ve been a member of AARP for a few years now, and I fired my first rifle as a Boy Scout, somewhere around age 10 or 11. I was an avid target shooter and hunter, and I was a firearms instructor for many years. And during all that time and experience, I’ve never once smelled or seen cordite. It hasn’t been used since somewhere near the end of WWII.

    It’s also highly unlikely that a 50-year-old detective would know what the stuff smells like, and even less likely for a 20-year old. By the way, to become a detective in your early 20’s isn’t all that common.

    – Another good point, Bill. I agree.

    – Same here, Hannah, and it was in a book written by one of my all-time favorite authors.

    * Hey, the key is to write believable make-believe. However, that doesn’t mean you get a pass on not doing your homework…

  8. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    Pat, I’m a mystery writer too, so Richard Castle and I would meet at the coffee shop to discuss how to write a better “Castle” script in which the murder isn’t the first person they interview.

  9. Marilyn Buehrer
    Marilyn Buehrer says:

    Thanks for this! Yes, I, too, was holding my breath and am relieved to learn that I’m not guilty of these infractions. Only after my first murder mystery did I meet a cousin who was an international arms dealer. He’s now my go-to guy!

  10. Bill Weldy
    Bill Weldy says:

    As a retired cop, I would only add that I cringe every time a protag or victim run right past a weapon with a dead bad guy to try to get away. Happens a lot in movies.

  11. Hannah Jayne
    Hannah Jayne says:

    Was just reading an almost-excellent thriller this morning when, “the scent of cordite filled the air.” Made me giggle on the treadmill. Newb!

  12. Irene
    Irene says:

    Okay, I agree, all this stuff is right but
    BUT wouldn’t it be nifty to have somebody smell cordite? A nice old fashioned twist to a story?
    Would a modern investigator, say some 20 something small town one, know what cordite smelled like?

    Just thinkin’ outside the box here.

  13. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    Oh, Sally, you made me laugh! Are we going to have a fight over which one of us meets Rick Castle at the coffee shop?

    Fortunately, I have not broken any of these rules. But then I have had Lee’s book since it was first published—read it cover to cover.

  14. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    My amateur sleuth does put a blanket over the body (it’s the first corpse he’s encountered) and the detective chews him out for doing so. And the detective chases him out of the crime scene/room. So I got that much right.
    I would tell Richard Castle to leave the crime scene and meet me later at a coffee shop for a friendly visit. He’s still single and not engaged!

  15. Ashley McConnell
    Ashley McConnell says:

    Wait. Top ten? Seven? I’m so confused!

    But thank you for nailing Richard Castle. When is he going to be arrested? (And what for–obstructing justice or interfering with an investigation? CAN someone be arrested for interfering with an investigation? An entire genre of cozies hangs from your answer!)

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