The Mystery Villain

Every mystery needs a Severus Snape to wrongly take the blame.

How do you write a great villain when you’re trying very hard to keep the villain’s identity a secret?

So many paranormal and urban fantasy tales have a mystery element, some murder or crime that needs to be solved. The villain is the one who eludes the protagonist until the very end, that troubling person we never wanted to catch in the wrong, but we’re still glad to see behind bars. And they can be so very fun because they’re not inhibited by those boring moral codes that drive protagonists to complete their quests.

They’re also much trickier to portray when you’re writing a mystery and you don’t want to give away the killer. When writing Shaken, I ended up with two bad folks—a killer and, well, someone else. (Hey, I can’t give away the farm.) And I had to walk the line between making it believable that they could be killers and misdirecting the reader toward a wrongly-accused person who was run-of-the-mill bad, not serial killer bad.

The trick to solving the mystery writer’s dilemma is to make all potential villainous suspects equally human, well-rounded characters. We need to like them as much as any other character, and we need to have false-suspects that we can really hate.

Take Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Harry Potter novel with the most whodunnit plot elements and a plethora of possible suspects. We’re introduced to former Death Eater Igor Karkaroff, who hates Harry and wants his own contestant to win. There’s also Barty Crouch, Senior, who hates dark wizards and might do anything to draw one out. And finally we have Severus Snape, everyone’s favorite false suspect. No one even suspects kindly (not)Mad-Eye Moody/apparently-dead Bartemius Crouch Junior, and the revelation at the end is all the more shocking because we think we like Mad-Eye and sympathize with young Barty.

“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” Sirius tells Harry. All suspects and false-suspects should have a mixture of good and bad traits. If we don’t have some reason to love and not truly suspect our villain, the shocking revelation at the end of the book won’t have the same emotional pull.

Can you think of some great mystery villains, characters you never suspected of committing the crime?

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3 thoughts on “The Mystery Villain

  1. I love mystery villains! Totally makes me love the book (provided the author doesn’t “trick” us or intentionally mislead us). Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn has a great villain, as does Susan Bischoff’s Heroes series. 😀

  2. Shauna Granger

    My mind automatically goes to Snape, too! Great minds 🙂

    I had to try and accomplish this same thing in my books and laying the red herrings, or wil-o’-the-wisps might be more appropriate here, is not easy.

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