Disguising the Villain in a Mystery

Disguising the villain in a mystery is the toughest task when writing a story in that genre. Planting clues and red herrings effectively is hard too, but if I don’t correctly handle disguising the villain in a traditional whodunit, I’ve ruined the whole story.

Do’s and Don’ts for Disguising the Villain

Don’t have a very minor character be the villain.

Mystery author Bill Pronzini describes this pitfall in a chapter of his book Son of Gun in Cheek when writing about his love for the old Charlie Chan movies made in the 1930’s and ’40’s. He writes that often the villain turned out to be such a minor character that it was difficult to remember what scenes he or she was in.

Part of the fun of a mystery is to reread them after the solution is revealed, noting how the villain acted and what clues I missed that pointed to his guilt. If the villain hardly appears in the story, the reader has no satisfaction in seeing him unmasked. The mystery’s solution isn’t a revelation but a shock and a cheap one at that. 

Now I can have a very minor character turn out to be an accomplice. That can provide a nice twist to the plot. But this character should still have enough page time for the reader to say, when revealed as the villain’s ally, “Aha!’ instead of “Who?”

Do make the villain a major player.

He should be an important secondary character, someone who has significant interactions with the detective. But if he has too many scenes in which he plays a pivotal role, the reader may get suspicious. So …

Don’t make the villain the only major player.

As I’ve written mysteries, this tip is the one I’ve found helpful: give each suspect almost equal time on the page. Creating suspects with as much reason to be guilty as the real culprit and allowing them meaningful page time helps disguise the true villain. The drawback of this method is that if a character acts suspiciously but is innocent, my detective either has to uncover the real reason for her suspicious activity, or the character must explain her actions. Unlike in real life, mysteries must tie up loose ends. For more on writing about clues and red herrings, click here. For more tips on writing mysteries, click here.

What mysteries had the best reveal of the villain?

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