Skip to main content

Writing a Mystery Novel: Creating a Villain & 5 Ways To Justify a Crime

Are you thinking about writing a mystery novel? Before you begin writing, create a plan or outline for your story. Then figure out what you want your villain to be like. What type of crime will he/she commit? Discover how a villain might justify a crime and the importance of planning from Hallie Ephron's book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.

how to write a mystery novel | how to write a crime story

Create a Plan First

Some writers know, from the get-go, which character is guilty. They start with the completed puzzle and work backwards, shaping the story pieces and fitting them together. Others happily write without knowing whodunit until the scene when the villain is unmasked. Then they rewrite, cleaning up the trail of red herrings and establishing the clues that make the solution work.

Which way is better? It's up to you. Do what works best for you, but know that having a plan up front can save a whole lot of rewriting in what should be the home stretch.

How To Create a Villain Worth Pursuing

You can’t just throw all your suspects’ names into a bowl and pick one to be your villain. For your novel to work, the villain must be special. Your sleuth deserves a worthy adversary—a smart, wily, dangerous creature who tests your protagonist’s courage and detective prowess. Stupid, bumbling characters are good for comic relief, but they make lousy villains. The smarter, more invincible the villain, the harder your protagonist must work to find his vulnerability and the greater the achievement in bringing him to justice.

Must the villain be loathsome? Not at all. He can be chilling but charming, like Hannibal Lechter. Thoroughly evil? It’s better when the reader can muster a little sympathy for a complex, realistic character who feels the crimes are justified.

So, in planning, try to wrap your arms around why your villain does what he does. What motivates him to kill? Consider the standard motives like greed, jealousy, or hatred. Then go a step further. Get inside your villain’s head and see the crime from his perspective. What looks to law enforcement like a murder motivated by greed may, to the perpetrator, be an act in the service of a noble, even heroic cause.

5 Ways a Villain Could Justify Committing a Crime

Here’s how a villain might justify a crime:

  • righting a prior wrong
  • revenge (the victim deserved to die)
  • vigilante justice (the criminal justice system didn’t work)
  • protecting a loved one
  • restoring order to the world

Finally, think about what happened to make that character the way she is. Was she born bad, or turned sour as a result of some early experience? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If she can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know.

By understanding how the villain justifies the crime to himself, and what events in his life triggered these crimes, you give yourself the material you need to get past a black-hatted caricature and paint your villain in shades of gray.

This excerpt is from Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. If you enjoyed this tip, buy the book and:

  • Get a blueprint for planning a mystery novel
  • Learn how to pick a title for your mystery novel
  • Find a detailed list of resources for mystery writers, including organizations, online websites, conferences, contests, and market resources for finding out the track records and reputations of literary agents and publishers

Buy Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel now!

From Our Readers

What Book Ended in a Way That You Didn’t Expect but Was Perfect Anyway?: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers question: What book ended in a way that you didn’t expect but was perfect anyway? Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

From Script

A Deep Emotional Drive To Tell Stories (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, read interviews with filmmakers Wendey Stanzler and Maria Judice. Plus a one-on-one interview with Austin Film Festival’s executive director Barbara Morgan.

Paul Tremblay: On Starting With the Summary

Paul Tremblay: On Starting With the Summary

Award-winning author Paul Tremblay discusses how a school-wide assembly inspired his new horror novel, The Pallbearers Club.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: An Interview with Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser, 5 WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our interview with Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser, 5 WDU courses, and more!

Writer's Digest Best Everything Agent Websites for Writers 2022

Writer's Digest Best Everything Agent Websites for Writers 2022

Here are the top websites by and about agents as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

Ashley Poston: On Love, Death, and Books

Ashley Poston: On Love, Death, and Books

Author Ashley Poston discusses how she combined her love of ghost stories, romance, and books into her new romance novel, The Dead Romantics.

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch discusses how much of a fight's details to actually put into a story, and how even with fight scenes sometimes less is more.

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction, by Piper Huguley

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Author Piper Huguley shares her five research tips for writing historical fiction that readers love and writers love as well.

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Learn more about 40 Plot Twist Prompts for Writers, Volume 2: ALL NEW Writing Ideas for Taking Your Stories in New Directions, by Writer's Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer. Discover fun and interesting ways to move your stories from beginning to end.