The past few weeks, I’ve been doing research on genres. Specifically the difference between mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. All of these are often found under the greater umbrella of crime fiction, but lately, mysteries have come to stand on their own. Thrillers can also be tied to horror and suspense is often left in the dark. So, what is the best way to define these genres?

According to the Writer’s Digest, M. J. Rose said, “A mystery is a whodunit. You know what happened, but not how or who’s behind it. A thriller, or a suspense, is a howdunit. You know what happened, and you usually know who did it, but you keep reading because you want to know how they pulled it off.”

Perhaps that is oversimplifying the nuances of the genres, but it captures the essence of the difference. In a mystery, we know the main character will probably live but our questions stem from wanting to figure out the crime. It’s a thought process. A cerebral sparing with the bad guy, whoever that may be (only the end of the book will tell).

In the words of Kathryn Lilley, of the Kill Zone Blog, “In a suspense thriller, my main character might die.” There’s a chance the main character will sacrifice his or her life for the greater good. It’s what gets our hearts pumping and the pages turning.

Boiling down the definitions into the practical is the next step. I think Jessica Faust of the BookEnds Literary Agency gives a great example in her blog post about writing mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and the what that means to a main character’s job description. In essence, the main character isn’t likely to be a war corespondent in a cozy mystery and a the main character in an espionage thriller probably doesn’t work in a craft store.

For me, that means beefing up the career of the main character in my current work-in-progress. By doing so, I can already see how it will add depth to her as a character and stronger ties within the plot structure. How will better understanding the intricacies of a genre change your reading or writing?