Today’s villain is no Snidely Whiplash standing there twirling his mustache and sneering, a neon arrow blinking “BAD GUY” over his head. In a good contemporary mystery—and in a lot of other genres besides—any character who looks that nefarious is going to turn out to be innocent.
Readers are delighted when the bad guy turns out to have been hiding in plain sight, an innocuous-looking character who cleverly conceals his true self, luring trusting victims and then snaring them in a death trap. “The butler did it” won’t wash in a modern mystery. Minor characters who are part of the wallpaper for the first 28 chapters can’t be promoted to villain status at the end just to surprise the reader. And you can’t give a character a personality transplant in the final chapter. Disbelief will trump surprise unless you’ve left subtle clues along the way.
Take the Time to Plan Ahead
Some writers know right from the get-go which character is guilty. They start with the completed puzzle and work their way backward, shaping the story pieces and fitting them together. Others happily write without knowing whodunit until the scene when the villain is actually unmasked. Then they rewrite, cleaning up the trail of red herrings and establishing the clues that make the solution work.
Which way is better? That’s a question only you can answer. I personally need a plan. I have a friend, a many-times-published mystery writer, who boasts that she never plans. The identity of the villain comes as a complete surprise to her and the reader. In the next breath, she says she ended up having to dump the first 200 pages from the draft of her latest novel. Thus, having a plan upfront can save a whole lot of rewriting in what should be the home stretch.
Create A Villain Worth Pursuing
You can’t just throw all your suspects’ names into a bowl and pick one to be your villain. For your novel to work, the villain must be special. Your sleuth deserves a worthy adversary—a smart, wily, dangerous creature who tests your protagonist’s courage and prowess. Stupid, bumbling characters are good for comic relief, but they make lousy villains. The smarter, more invincible the villain, the harder your protagonist must work to find his vulnerability and the greater the achievement in bringing him to justice.
Must the villain be loathsome? Not at all. He can be chilling but charming, like Hannibal Lecter. Thoroughly evil? It’s better when the reader can muster a little sympathy for a complex, realistic character who feels her crimes are justified.
So, in planning, try to wrap your arms around why your villain does what he does. What motivates him to kill? Consider the standard motives like greed, jealousy or hatred. Then go a step further. Get inside your villain’s head and see the crime from his perspective. What looks to law enforcement like a murder motivated by greed may, to the perpetrator, be an act in the service of a noble, even heroic cause.
Here’s how a villain might justify a crime:
- Righting a prior wrong
- Revenge (the victim deserved to die)
- Vigilante justice (the justice system didn’t work)
- Protecting a loved one
- Restoring order to the world.
Finally, think about what happened to make that character the way she is. Was she born bad, or turned sour as a result of some early experience? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If she can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know.
By understanding how the villain justifies the crimes to himself, and what events in his life triggered these crimes, you give yourself the material you need to get past a black-hatted caricature and paint your villain in shades of gray.
Make the Crime Fit the Villain
There are many ways to kill off a character. You can have him shot, stabbed, poisoned or pushed off a cliff. You can have him run over by a car or bashed in the head with a fireplace poker. You get the picture.
The first issue to consider is: Would your villain have the expertise and capability to commit this particular crime you’ve conceived for him?
Here’s an example: Suppose there’s a novel about a surgeon who, up to Page 302, has been the soul of buttoned-down respectability. Suddenly, on Page 303, he leaps from a hospital laundry bin and mows down his rival for hospital director with machine-gun fire. Never mind that up to this point in the novel the guy has done nothing more than attend board meetings, get drunk and obnoxious at a cocktail party, and perform heart surgery. Now suddenly he’s The Terminator? The behavior doesn’t fit the character. If he stabbed, poisoned or pushed his rival off the hospital roof, the reader might swallow it. The author might get away (barely) with the shooting if hints were dropped earlier that this surgeon once served in military special forces.
Choose a modus operandi that your villain (and all your suspects) might plausibly adopt, and establish that your villain has the capability and expertise required. A murder by strangling, stabbing or beating is more plausible if your villain is strong and has a history of physical violence. If your villain plants an electronically activated plastic explosive device, be prepared to show how he learned to make a sophisticated bomb and how he got access to the components. If a woman shoots her husband with a .45 automatic, be prepared to show how she learned to use firearms and that she’s strong enough to handle the recoil of a .45.
The second issue to consider: Is the rage factor appropriate for the character’s motivation? The more extreme the violence, the more likely the crime is to be fueled by hatred and rage. A robber shoots a victim once; an enraged husband pumps bullets into the man who raped his wife until the ammunition runs out. A villain may administer a quick-working deadly poison to a victim he wants out of the way, but a villain who loathes his victim might pick a poison that’s slow and painful—and hang around to watch.
Adjust the violence quotient to match the amount of rage your villain has toward her victim.