Sunday, November 7, 2021

What Makes Your Villain Tick? by Molly MacRae

Every so often I pull up short, stop in the middle of writing, completely exasperated. Why? Because, come on! People aren’t supposed to kill each other. They’re supposed to behave better than that. So what is this character in my book even thinking? It’s a good question, and one I’d better find answers for if my villain is going to be believable.

I write cozy mysteries – the kind of mysteries that are gore-free. That doesn’t mean blood and guts don’t happen, just that they happen off stage or in spare detail. Guns and knives are fine. Poison is good. Suffocation. Asphyxiation. Blunt instruments, too. When it comes to methods for murdering, my villains are resourceful. Their resourcefulness doesn’t seem to bother me; that they cross a line and make the decision to kill does.

Here’s a list called “Why People Might Want to Kill” from my files. The list isn’t exhaustive.




Deep-rooted hatred

Justified anger

Victim who can’t take it anymore

Mercy killing


Just punishment

Someone inarticulate with anger

To get at someone

When threatened


Protect a secret

Protect someone else

Identifying why my villain might want to kill gives me an opening, a point of exploration. I can pretend my writing room is a psychoanalyst’s office and invite the villain to lie down on the sofa and tell me all about it.

“Tell me, V, what brought the situation to this point where you want to kill?”

“What problem is so difficult for you, V, that murder is the best way to solve it?”

“So then, what is it, V, that pushes you past the point where you want to kill and into the abyss where you do kill?”

The answers to those questions let me slip into my villain’s mind and root around for more points of exploration. It’s an interesting process, but in the end a sad one. People are supposed to behave better, but so often they don’t. At least in mysteries, especially cozy mysteries, we get to correct the wrongs and set the world right again.

What makes the villains in your mysteries tick?


Jim Jackson said...

Pride in being the best!

Kait said...

Arrogance and competition!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Arrogance and greed! The villain in my current WIP is an economist and justifies his actions with economic principles.

Susan said...

Lots of arrogance and greed fo me too, Margaret.

KM Rockwood said...

Sometimes it's just trying to cope, albeit in a dysfunctional way.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Blackmail was the reason my last murderer killed.

Molly MacRae said...

Pride, arrogance, greed, coping in a dysfunctional way, blackmail - all terrific and plausible. Thanks, everyone!

Grace Topping said...

Excellent point to look at the murder from the viewpoint of the villain. After all, everyone is a hero in their own story.

Molly MacRae said...

So right, Grace.