The mere word brings vivid images of swirling fog and shadowy undercurrent, corpses floating to the surface of a murky river, gunshots in the night. As both a mystery reader and writer, the genre flares my imagination. Where is the body? What will happen next? Whodunit?
But the mystery genre abounds with sub-genres: the thriller, the cozy, the suspense, the romance, and the noir, just to name a few. Last weekend I joined a panel of 10 mystery writers to discuss the topic of our villains. I learned more than I ever expected.
Question no. 1: Who comes to your story first, your hero or your villain? Most agreed it was the hero, especially those who write a series. Coming up with new trouble for a recurrent hero is the objective of an evolving storyline. Some books, however, are built on the actions of the villain; then he (or she) becomes inexorably entwined with the hero and you have a chicken and egg situation. Once in a while, the villain is such a strong character that the hero is almost incidental.
What about gender? Could a writer switch sexes and have the results remain the same? Yes and no. Stereotypes abound, but for a reason: statistically men shoot guns while women poison. Only crazies and historical figures wield knives and blades.
How does location influence a villain’s attributes? Or does it? To some, location is everything – this was my take, since the villain in my mystery Placid River Runs Deep has only left his tiny rural Washington hometown to do a stint in prison for murder; naturally when he is ready to kill again, he returns to his roots. Other writers, however, said their villain(s) could kill anywhere. The socio/psychopath who takes lives for reasons known only to themselves may know no boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, what challenges or boundaries do the different mystery genres generate? The writers of cozies need to offer an engaging mystery without the use of disturbing sex or violence (and no harsh language, please!). The noir, characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity, is bound by those terms. The thriller knows no such constraint, and often grislier is better.
Are there crimes your villain couldn’t or shouldn’t commit? All 10 writers across all genres agreed on this one: Never kill the cat or dog.
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