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Villainous Character Background

villain orig

Your Villain Right and Wrong

The true pleasure of mystery readers is trying to discover who the killer is before your detective does. It’s the big puzzle and the draw of the genre. The challenge for you as a mystery writer is to create a villain who is understandable, relatable, and yet hidden until the last moment of your mystery.

The best approach to understanding your villain is to look at their world view. In the villain’s eyes, their beliefs and actions are justified. The villain may feel unjustly harmed by the victim. Or his killing may feel, to him, like justifiable revenge. Or, her cold-blooded calculation is rational in her belief system.
However you conceive the villain’s motivation, throughout the story they will remain firm that their world is correct, and the killing justified. So, your villain is right in their world while wrong in the world of your story.

The Villain Portrait in the Mystery

The villain can be a smooth talker, a buffoon, or a monosyllabic thug to the rest of the world and the other characters in your story, but you need to present the villain as he sees himself as you write your story. When he speaks with other characters, especially your sleuth, the villain sees himself as the good guy. He will portray himself that way in the story.

You can reveal the villain layer by layer as he moves through the story.

  • 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.

  • How did they get together?
  • Was their relationship ever positive?
  • What caused the turn?

Like any story research, you may use only 20% of the relationship you create. 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.

The Open Good and Hidden Bad

Writing a believable and concealed villain for a mystery requires consideration of how you present and reveal their beliefs and actions. You may feel that all the clues you plant are obvious because you know who committed the murder, but if you balance the villain’s view of himself and his actions as good, you can save the hidden reality until the final reveal. You sleuth and your readers will appreciate your skill.
Zara Altair
Photo by ahmed zid on Unsplash

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