Should The Main Character In Your Detective Story Be An Official Or An Unofficial Detective?

2015 Artwork Official Or Unofficial Detectives Article Sketch

If you’re a fan of detective stories, then you’ll probably know that all detective stories fall into one of two categories. They’re either stories about “official” detectives (eg: police officers, secret agents etc…) or stories about “unofficial” detectives (eg: private investigators, journalists, consulting detectives etc…).

Deciding which one of these types of detectives you want your detective character to be can have a surprisingly large impact on your story. So, I thought that I’d list some of the pros and cons of using each type of detective in your story in case it’s useful to you.

The main advantages of using an “official” detective as the main character in your story is that they generally get to investigate much more interesting cases. After all, it’s the police’s job to investigate crimes – especially serious ones. Likewise, this also means that they will also have a lot more authority and a lot more resources at their disposal than most “unofficial” detectives will have.

If you want to add more suspense and drama to this kind of story, you can either make the criminals in it extremely dangerous and/or intelligent, or you can make your detective character into one who doesn’t always “follow the rules” and is frequently in conflict with his or her superiors.

But, if you choose to make your main character an “official” detective, then you will probably have to do a lot more research before you begin writing your story. After all, if your main character is working for the police, then this should be portrayed in at least a superficially realistic way.

So, you might need to read up on police procedures, ranks etc… before you start your story. At the very least, you will need to be familiar enough with other police-based detective stories to have a basic understanding of how the police work in any particular part of the world (but, be aware that these stories may not get the details right).

Of course, an easy workaround for all of this stuff is to just set your detective story somewhere other than the real world. For example, if you write a sci-fi detective story, then you can pretty much create the police force in your story from scratch, with very little research.

As for “unofficial” detectives, the main advantages of using this type of character are that they play to your audience’s secret fantasies that, because they’ve read enough detective stories, they could work as a detective. After all, these are stories about ordinary people (like your audience) solving complicated mysteries.

Another advantage of using an “unofficial” detective as your main character is that is adds a lot more suspense and drama to the story, for the simple reason that they don’t have the same level of authority as an “official” detective.

In other words they will probably have to use persuasion, trickery, sneaking etc… in order to even look at the evidence and interview witnesses, suspects etc… In fact, they may even have to break the law in order to investigate crimes. All of this stuff adds a lot of suspense and drama to your detective story.

Yet another advantage of using “unofficial” detectives is that they can be a lot more unique and interesting than “official” detective are. Since they aren’t duty-bound to solve crimes, they can have a much wider range of motivations than “official” detectives can.

On the downside, these kinds of characters are probably more difficult to write – since they’re also a pretty major component of the story, so they have to be unique enough to stand out.

In “official” detective stories, the focus is usually mainly on the case that the detectives have to solve. Whereas, in “unofficial” detective stories, the emphasis is usually on both the case and the detective.

All in all, there are no right or wrong answers here. But, choosing whether your detective is an “official” or “unofficial” detective is a fairly major decision that will have a large impact on your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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2 comments on “Should The Main Character In Your Detective Story Be An Official Or An Unofficial Detective?

  1. apolla13 says:

    I’ve written about both types of detectives in my stories. Early on, when I started writing, I chose to create my own worlds and settings because I had no idea how the real world really worked and I didn’t know how to research all that stuff back than. Either way, I made up my own rules and that included how law enforcement worked (although I wasn’t too stuck up in the details back than). I’d say I have about an even amount of both official and unofficial detectives although I couldn’t say which one I have more fun writing about!

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Cool πŸ™‚ Although I haven’t written any detective fiction in quite a while (well, that’s not strictly true- there’s a short comic of mine that will be probably posted here in late July/early August which starts out as a comedic horror/fantasy comic and then kind of turns into a parody of detective fiction), I usually found that it was a lot more fun to write about unofficial detectives.

      But, yeah, making up your own rules is a pretty interesting way of creating a “realistic” law enforcement agency without doing too much research. Although I guess that you’ve probably also got to find an interesting way to show your audience what these rules are, so that they have a good chance of working out what’s happening. So, I can see why knowing all of the details in advance might be important.

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