The Right Villain in the Right Place
One of the great conundrums in writing a crime novel in the traditional ‘mystery’ framework is the character known as the villain.
For lack of a better word, I’ll use villain here. To mean the bad guy or girl or the person who-dun-it. The villain, of course, doesn’t have to be villainous. They can be a good person who made a mistake, a hero gone wrong, a well-meaning person whose attempt to fix a problem goes dramatically wrong. They can, in fact, not be bad at all.
In the traditional mystery format (and there are many, many other types of what I prefer to call crime novels) the villain must appear early in the story, almost from the beginning; they must play a prominent part throughout. And it must not be known that they are the villain until almost the very end.
Sounds almost impossible to do, right? Put like that it’s a wonder anyone writes mysteries at all. But it’s not as hard as it sounds and it’s done, very successfully, all the time.
The novel has a cast of characters, presumably, and the villain can hide among them. The friend, the spouse, the colleague, sometimes even one of the cops or detectives. The villain must have a motive for the crime (at least in their own mind) and thus they must have a secret. It’s the uncovering of that secret that lies at the heart of most traditionally-constructed mystery novels.
The villain must fit the style of novel. In a small town police procedural series, such as my Constable Molly Smith books set in the Interior of British Columbia, the villain is never going to be an international terrorist seeking to end civilization as we know it. They have to be the sort of person who fits into the town and the type of crime that is found there. Usually personal, sometimes the result of secrets that go back for years if not generations.
The villain must be on the scale of the protagonist. Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty are two sides of the same coin. Sherlock uses his intellect to do good – Moriarty to do bad. Superman is perfectly good, therefore Lex Luther must be perfectly bad. A small town cop goes up against small scale, personal-level criminals, not international terrorists. James Bond goes up against international criminals and terrorists, not small-town petty criminals.
Writing the villain can be difficult, complex, and a lot of fun.
Vicki will be giving the workshop at this year’s Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival on August 13th. The subject is “The Criminal Mind: Writing the Villain.” For more information or to register, please visit www.sceneofthecrime.ca.