Your Mystery Villain in Hiding

woman using laptop and looking behind as she is acts as a villain

The Character You Love to Hide

Mystery writers create hidden villains. They are part of the mystery genre reader expectations. Unlike suspense or thrillers where the protagonist knows the villain often, from the beginning, in a mystery, revealing the villain is the climax of the story. The final puzzle piece falls into place.

Know Your Villain to Hide Them Well

Careful planning helps you plant clues in your puzzle. In order to do this well, you need to know your villain.

Your villain needs to be more than a bad guy or gal, they require motivation and a worldview. In the villain’s mind, the crime they commit is logical and even the right thing to do.

The more you, the author understand the villain, the better you can write around the obvious by creating subtext, misstatements, and actions that seem appropriate in the story moment, but hide the villain’s true intent.

Use Your Character Background to Go Deep

For most of the story, the villain is one of several suspects. Create a rich background for your villain. You’ll give yourself a variety of puzzle pieces to drop into your story. Go beyond the villain as a character role. Give her a name, a background with relationships, physical fallibility, and emotional weakness. And, remember from the villain’s point of view, they are right. 

Aspects to include in the villain’s character background:

  • How the villain relates to other characters (suspects)
  • The lies he tells to hide his secret
  • His stated beliefs in dialogue
  • How other characters see his relationship with the victim
  • The action, clue, or dialogue that is misread by the sleuth
  • The action, clue, or dialogue that reveals the murder to the sleuth

In your background, focus on the relationship between the villain and the victim. Their relationship is the basis for the murder and the sleuth’s involvement. Think of ways the two connected, then the ways things went wrong, and finally the one incident that tipped the villain to murder.

Hiding to Reveal

Experienced writers know that rich background allows for opportunities to use details as they are writing. Even you, the writer, may not know which details you will use in your mystery until you are writing. 

Once you paint a detailed portrait in your character background, think about ways you can drip details and, at the same time, keep your reader from guessing whodunit. 

Play with these successful ways to drip clues about your villain and still keep them hidden.

Sequence Diversion 

Put the real clue right before the false one. Readers and your sleuth often focus on the last clue presented. If you are getting started with mystery writing, this tactic is a great place to start. Mention or show the clue first and then immediately focus on a different clue or red herring.

Secret Emphasis 

Emphasize the unimportant, but de-emphasize the clue. The reader sees the clue but doesn’t see what’s important about it. For example, your sleuth may see the value of a company report and the statistical details but doesn’t look at the man who researched and wrote the report.

Before It Counts

Early on plant the clue before it has any context. Your sleuth may walk by a man cleaning his yacht with chemicals before a business partner dies of toxic chemical poisoning. Carolyn Graham uses this tactic in her Inspector Barnaby mysteries.

Missed It 

Your sleuth misinterprets the meaning of a clue. You villain lies to hide a secret. Your detective believes what the villain says at the moment. But what the villain says points to his act, even though he lies. This technique is a great tool to use with a flawed sleuth whose flaw keeps her from seeing the real meaning. 

Piece by Piece 

A time-release method to scatter clues about the villain in different places throughout the story, then mix up the logical order. Your sleuth finds an empty letterbox while visiting the villain. Later she finds six letters hidden in the closet. She has an “epiphany” when she remembers the empty letterbox. 

In Plain Sight

Create a cluster of clues and squeeze the real clue in with all the others. Hide the clue in plain sight. While your sleuth interviews the villain as a suspect, they rattle on with false clues, but one real clue is hidden in the cluster. This technique works well in a story with multiple suspects from Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express to John D. MacDonald’s hard-boiled Travis McGee (pick one).


Draw your reader’s attention away from the villain. The sleuth and the reader follow a false trail. A suspect who seems like the most evident villain is not the real trail to the villain. In Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground, the clues seem to lead toward a serial killer who targets homosexuals. Not the case at all.

Camouflage with Action 

Camouflage a clue with action. Just as your sleuth glances at a scrap of paper on the floor, he’s hit from behind. In the ensuing action and consequences—a trip to the hospital, a missed appointment because of time in the hospital, etc.—your sleuth overlooks the clue that points straight to the villain. Jo Nesbø uses action camouflage in his Harry Høle series. 

The More You Know, The Less You Show

Every mystery has three main characters—detective, victim, and villain. When you create a full, detailed character background for your villain, you’ll be ready to plant villain clues with multiple details. They all add up in your character background, but they will be disjointed when you sprinkle them throughout the story.

Creating a multifaceted villain is paramount to writing a mystery where your reader has the clues and says, I should have guessed. Your craft keeps the villain hidden until the end.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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