I rarely ever watch TV unless its a rerun of Project Runway, American Pickers, or a DVD. But in recent months I discovered a show I'm hooked on. My treat for a hard day's work is to come home and watch a pre-recorded episode of the Mentalist on DVR.
The Mentalist is a detective show whose main character is Patrick Jane. Jane is a former psychic whose wife and child were murdered by a serial killer. In truth Jane never was psychic, he was just a master of manipulation and gifted at reading people so he made his living duping gullible people and he was very good at it. Following the horror of his family's death, he turns his gifts to good with a primary motivation to help capture Red John, the man who caused his family's death. He works with the California Bureau of Investigation solve murder crimes. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a few things I've learned from the writers of this show which I feel can be applied to good writing in general, especially if you are writing suspense or mystery.
Lesson # 1. Make your main character(s) captivating. Jane is handsome and charming and a smooth talker. He is above average in intelligence. He is also a master of picking up small clues and innuendos so that he easily reads people. All of these characteristics made him a good "psychic" (and in his reformed days, a good detective).
He uses his natural gifts to his advantage. Jane's character matures as the seasons pass, but in season one especially, he is very emotionally wounded. The trauma from losing a wife and daughter he dearly loved has scarred him and left him a little unbalanced.(In a later episode we learn he spent a short time in a mental ward because of the trauma). The emotion from this deep loss surfaces during various cases as memories are triggered or circumstances occur where he must face his past or another crime committed by Red John.
We are fed this information a little at a time, through flashbacks, or other devices. It makes us feel his pain. He's hurting and he emotionally distances himself, even from the CBI team, though we all know that what he needs most is to learn to love again.
His tenderness toward young children
and empathy for those who have lost family through tragic circumstances is one of his most endearing qualities. He's also still a soundrel....though a lovable one. He does not play by the rules, he bends and breaks them, manipulating people (including the CBI team) to get the answers and results he wants. This frequently lands himself and his co-workers in various precarious situations, but it's forgivable because he closes cases. Just when he does something very upsetting, he'll turn around and redeem himself.