Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Layers, Motivation, and Logic for Villains

One-dimensional villains are very easy to write. All the reader knows is how very wicked and devious he/she is through actions and words. This is fun for melodramas where the audience hisses and boos, but for a murder mystery or suspense not so much. 

The challenge for the mystery/suspense writer is to give layers through motivation, and logic to many characters including the villain.

For a mystery the longer you can hide who the murderer is, the better. Layer the villain with history right along with the other important characters in the book. Let us see what his childhood was like in a short flashback. He could have come from the ideal home, but something happened when he went to college. Or he could have had abusive parents. Or . . . you see where I'm going. You could also give clues by what he/she says. Is she always negative and then cover when people look at her strangely? Is she overly optimistic in a sarcastic way? You can also give hints through thoughts, that is if you have scenes seen through the villain's eyes. This can be tricky, but if done right . . . wow!

For suspense, the villain might be revealed a little earlier. The tension is more about how the protagonist is going to get out of a life-threatening situation. Again, the villain must have layers with clear motivation and logic. 

The trick in writing mystery/suspense is to give your readers an exciting challenge. Always remember as they read the question going through their minds will be, "Who did it?" Or "Will the hero get away?" So it's extremely important to play fair. Make sure to have valid subtle clues throughout the book so when the story is over your reader can go back and realize all the signs where there, but he/she missed them. 

That's the best!

You can read book after book on how to do this. But in my humble opinion, I learn most by reading authors I admire and have shown me how to write through their novels. 

Here's a challenge: pick your favorite author's book that you know well. Go in and mark every place the villain was on stage through thought, action, or dialogue and notice how bit by bit the author is showing you who the villain is. Study how he/she hid the villain with layers of character shown through motivation and logic and how they all worked to play a role in the reveal. You'll learn a lot.

Who are some of your favorite mystery/suspense authors? Here, I'll go first. I remember the author who really caught my attention and the book: Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are The Children? I read that book in less than a day because I was so anxious to find out who the villain was and if the children would be all right. It was a real nail-biter.

Now it's your turn. ;)



  1. I think you were meant to stop by my blog today so that I could read this post! I've bookmarked it for repeated reference. I have been working on strengthening my villain and this post is GOLD!! :-)

  2. Shannon,
    I'm always very honored if something I've written here helps other writers. It's a tough business we're in, and we have to pool our knowledge. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  3. Such nice reminders. I read with interest the 'suspense' factor- thanks!

    I shall return!

  4. Jacqueline,
    I'm always glad to give helpful reminders to my fellow writers. Stop by any time. :)

  5. I also enjoy Mary Higgins Clark--she writes great page-turners!

    Villains can be so tricky--right now in my WIP, I hope the villain isn't too obvious. I'll have to see what my test readers say. It's such a balancing act, giving clues while not giving too much away!

  6. Stephanie,
    But you do it very well. In "Cold as Ice," I was kept guessing until 3/4s of the way through the book. An excellent read. I need to pick up your latest, "Rearview Mirror."

  7. Such great advice, Kathi! I've never actually written a REAL villain, come to think of it, but I will keep your advice in mind when I work on my next WIP, in which one will figure very heavily.

  8. Mary Higgins Clark is a terrific writer. So much so that one of the last books I read by her, "Loves Music, Loves to Dance" was so intense and real that once I finished it, I was totally creeped out by the villain. And had to quit reading her books for a while so I could sleep at night! :)

    I also love Agatha Cristie, although it's always been my opinion that she cheats and withholds tiny bits of info that you need to know to figure out who the murderer is. Still, you have to admire "Ten Little Indians" or "Murder on the Orient Express."

    Really enjoyed your blog, Kathi. Thanks for some great info on villains.

  9. Really good post! I haven't tried this, but I wonder if you could go through your manuscript with colored highlighters highlighting different qualities of your villain???

  10. Cindy,
    I know what you mean about Mary's books. She can be scary. And I agree about Agatha Christie. She does hide some info from the reader.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post. :)

  11. Julie,
    I'm so glad you found this information helpful. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  12. Sharon,
    Highlighters work very well. I've done that to several of my favorites and it helps a great deal. Thanks for bringing it up. :)



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