A Major Mystery Writing Challenge
Mystery writers have a unique challenge, keeping the villain hidden. In most novels, the antagonist is front and center, challenging the protagonist and creating conflict and obstruction as the story progresses. But the mystery’s antagonist remains hidden until the end.
Here are some tips for creating your villain and then hide them from your reader until the reveal when your detective exposes them.
Background to Know Your Villain
To maintain control over where and how you add information about your villain, first, you need to know your villain well. A rich character background allows you to pull various pieces of information out and plant them in your story.
Think of your background as data collection. Then drip various pieces of information throughout the story. Use those bits of data the same way you add other clues to your mystery.
Throughout most of your mystery, the villain is one of several suspects. Create a rich background. 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.
- Personal life not related to the victim
- Secrets they want to keep hidden
- Lies they tell to preserve the secrets
- Life-related to the victim
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.
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.
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.
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.
Practice using the techniques to give readers clues about your villain without giving away the secret. Let your sleuth, and the reader, use their skills to put it all together.