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.
Victim who can’t take it anymore
Someone inarticulate with anger
To get at someone
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?