Writing: Building Killer Antagonists for Mysteries

Antagonists oppose the main character. That’s their job. They have needs, desires, wants, and struggle as much as any protagonist does to achieve their goal. When writing a cozy mystery, the antagonist is also a murderer.

Any one that knows me knows one of my goals is to write a cozy mystery worthy of publishing, but I have a real hard time with the murderer. I love creating the puzzle within the framework of rules and expectations. There is a freedom to find yourself inching through all that must be done and coming out the other side satisfied. Even after substantial planning, it is a challenge to do it right.

I did some research which means I did a lot of repetitive reading and most agree that the psycho-303435_1280murderer is a self-serving, self-centered, overly-confident, highly-intelligent character without limits and a strong need to survive.

The typical antagonist, non-murderer type, needs the writer to see their goals and motivations from their point of view. From their angle they believe they are doing the right thing and are the hero of their story. I can get on board with this thinking easily.

But what murderer can make that claim?
Even with the violence off stage, so to speak, there is no way I can agree with their actions. They cover up their crime, alter evidence, and attack when threatened. So I made a list of acknowledged reasons to take a life:

Crimes of Passion, Revenge, Blackmail, Silencing Someone, Greed, Belief System, Serial Killings, Self-defense, and Love of Country.

Some are not murder under the law like self-defense, and love of country. Some aren’t done in a cozy like serial killings. These I can ignore.

The remaining motives can help craft my cozy. I know most motives are found in the strings that link the suspects, murderer and victim together. Which means unforgotten secrets, emotional scarring, or the victim’s wrong doing will drive the murderer to take action.

I’m still not comfortable with this, but let’s carry on.

Using my list, I’m going to brainstorm.

A Crime of Passion brings images of witnessing an action, and losing any rational thought afterward–complete insanity. This could’ve happened twenty years ago or twenty minutes ago.

Revenge is a little harder. Can’t forgive, so when the opportunity arises the murder pounces.

Blackmail can corner blackmailee to kill if they feel trapped and see no other choice.

Silencing Someone could happen if the secret holder, innocent or not, starts to talk. Since disclosure is imminent, the murderer is forced into action.

Greed is the worst. It could be anything: embezzlement and about to be found out, wanting to inherit it before it is all spent, or getting rid of the possible gold diggerΒ  before the prenup expires.

Belief System is killing because the system failed. For example, a person is acquitted by the courts and the killer takes the law into their own hands.

Okay, after all this I did find a motive, but my story is still off. I’m now wondering if my structure is off kilter. While I’m ripping it down to its bones, tell me do you have a favorite mystery? Care to tell me why you love it so? Any comment could tweak some inspiration. πŸ™‚


44 responses to “Writing: Building Killer Antagonists for Mysteries

  1. I don’t write cozies, but here’s what I do with thriller/mysteries when I show my angag’s POV. I give him a “nice” quality. For instance, I might have him love animals and then show him baby-talking to his puppy. The series Hannibal is a great example of someone who is inherently bad but has good qualities too. Sometimes, at least with thriller/mysteries, people are just plain evil, so this is an easy way around that. Good luck! Once you get going I bet you’ll love writing the bad guy– they’re a lot of fun!

  2. I like evil characters but I like when they have a redeeming quality to them as well. Something unexpected where you can’t help but “feel” for them even though you don’t want to because they are so evil.

  3. I prefer a story with an antagonist that I almost want to root for or at least have something to like. A purely bad or evil character is too flat and unacceptable. If nothing else the writer should make the antagonist brilliant and give the reader insight as to why they do what they do.

    Tossing It Out

    • Yes I agree. I’m trying my hardest to find a balance between a normal person and a murderer. I keep asking myself, what would drive me to kill? Answer is nothing.

      That’s why I’m looking at motives. No one is completely evil and in a cozy the murderer walks among the cast hidden by totally normal behavior.

      Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

  4. The more a killer believes his reasons are just, the more I like them. They are controlled, and fit in but may be deemed a little odd, for example they might have a little OCCD. I love when they seem off, but have traits that make you question if they could commit the act..like good with kids, help the homeless, involved in community.

  5. People might murder for love. Because they loved somebody so much, but it was a twisted kind of love. Or because they think that will give them a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Because they want power, because they want to show off that they can. Because they think nobody would ever love them, and nobody would ever care if they were lost to the world, because they value their own lives so little that they cannot value anybody else’s. Imagine being so desperately broken that you cannot see the value in your own humanity, and think that trading it for material wealth, or influence, or anything else is worth the exchange.

  6. You mean you don’t have annoying coworkers from which to draw inspiration? πŸ˜‰

    LOL, sorry, scratch that. It’s nice that you’ve done all these readings, and I love your notes, but remember: what you really want is (1) credible; (2) unique. I find that most of these “essays” on how to write the perfect evil character end up being… stereotypical… I don’t mean this as a critique, but as a warning. When you say “most agree”, let me ask you: do you want to create a character most agree on? Or do you want something unique and original nobody has ever thought of before? Just a thought. But I love your little writing essays, they help me figure out things for myself too. Thank you! πŸ™‚

    • LOL I wish my coworkers were more annoying. That said, no I don’t want my antagonist to be a cardboard cutouts. You’ve also given me food for thought.

      Questions are a great way to dig for answers.

  7. Like Arlee, I like an antagonist that I might root for. Evil for the sake of evil is no fun. I particularly like the ones that think they’re in the right. Then things get complicated! Good luck.

  8. Great list. I never thought to list all those.

  9. Wow I have so much respect for mystery authors, honestly! It’s not the antagonist that would stump me, I think, it is the weaving of all those threads and clues together, the lining up of motives and opportunities, I doubt I have the intelligence for it!
    This quote popped up in my feed today:

    β€œThere’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”
    ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

    Maybe it will help you in your antagonist construction?
    Good luck with your mystery! It seems like you are on the right track πŸ™‚

  10. I love how you look at all angles and possibilities. I don’t write mysteries, but I have killed off characters. It’s never easy and truly I hated to do it. But it made sense for the story. Good luck with your writing.

  11. Great thought provoking post. I write mysteries and my antagonists seem to have to kill to keep a secret. I didn’t t realize that connection till your post made me face the bad guys. I agree the killer has to be likable to worm their way into a reader caring about what they.do.

  12. I don’t read many mysteries, but don’t most villains consider themselves the hero in their own mind? Like they’re trying to save someone or something and the only way to do that is to kill? And how about a subtle kill instead of a violent one, like with poison? Good luck with your story!

    • I’m afraid murderers are a different breed. Because they break the law (right or wrong) they try to avoid being found out. They down have moral ground

      • I think the more human the villain the scarier he is and the more he believes in what he is doing in way the reader relates too pulls you in. I like what someone else said maybe has a love of animals, a pet or is a good father etc… yet they are the villain you never notice or miss the clues till the last minute. Liking the villain a little bit also makes him more intriguing, because when it ends you are still trying to understand how could he or why didn’t you see it.

        Ref Murder: There is also killing in righteousness like the killer in the Brad Pitt movie “Seven”. He has no moral ground, yet he believes he is an angel dealing out God’s law the seven deadly sins. Or the person who believes it is okay to take “an eye for eye” have their own sense of justice and moral guidelines.(Shades of gray into the dark) Then there is the series Dexter-the serial killer who only kills bad guys. This last one is used a lot in fantasy and science fiction or superhero mystery type stories too.

        Cozy mysteries one of my fave is The Puzzle Lady by Parnell Hall. I like the fun comedy affect, family-people connection and the twist of the puzzle element in every book. I cannot say the villain in these are that memorable though, but they are fun to read.

        J. D. Robb In Death series is not cozy mystery, but follows a futuristic female detective. I love the family connections, the angst of the detective and her demons, the way she learns to cope. The villain almost always hits her angst in some way forcing her to face her past or causing problems of conflict within her personal life too. The villain is always interesting, but I cannot say memorable. It is the protagonist and friends that carry the stories. J. D Robb aka Nora Roberts. There are at list 41 books in this series not counting anthologies or shorts.

        • I know these books and your right in a cozy the murderer is not that memorable. Most are done with a touch of humor and the victim to have annoyed everyone. πŸ™‚

  13. Most memorable villain for me is Thrawn from the Star Wars Thrawn trilogy. He has no superpower, he does not use The Force, but his intellect, powers of observation and understanding of psychology and anthropology of cultures makes him even more scarier to me then Emperor Palpatine. He is very well written. Still I can see how elements of this could also be used in the cozy mystery or any other kind of mystery to make the villain pop.

  14. What if things just got out of hand at the wrong time and the antagonist murders someone on the spur of the moment? The basic reasons you list can still have led to the situation spinning out of control in the first place, but immediately after the act, the killer can be horrified that they murdered someone. Of course, the killer may start to use one of the reasons on your list to justify what they did afterward, even coming to believe it. That way your killer doesn’t have to be a terrible person. Just someone who made a mistake and now is trying to avoid the consequences.

  15. Mysteries/suspense/thrillers is my favorite genre. I have read and love too many to have a favorite. I don’t find a need to like the killer. It is the story and the creation of suspense – what will happen next – that keeps me going. I want the – I have to know – feeling. Pacing is super important. I like detail, but not so much that it makes the story lag. I don’t find it necessary to understand their motivations, because I can’t. They justify it to themselves and that’s all they care about. It’s my amazement that they can do such a thing that keeps me striving to figure out why?

    Cozies are a bit different. If you want a humorous slant, be free to do so. The most depraved killer is not the one you are after. It is possible for “him” to be the one next door, a likeable character, one that you can empathize and develop feelings for.

    Happy writing and I look forward to finding out the story.

    • Justify to themselves, sound right to me. Because that’s my problem, I don’t want to understand.

      Cozies definitely have their own rules. I rather do funny, and lighthearted, but haven’t managed it yet. But I’ll keep trying. πŸ™‚

  16. You’re so onto it, Anna. In the course I did with Bob Mayer he used to say to write your protag’s goal and your antag’s goal and if their goals don’t oppose one another directly, you don’t have enough conflict. It took me ages to figure this out with my WIP and I think it’s one of the hardest things to craft in fiction. Good luck!!

  17. jenniferbielman

    Not sure if I have a fav mystery, but I love antagonists who you hate but are oddly fascinated with.

  18. It’s hard to find a really good mystery because they usually ended up being stereotypical. The bad guy is predictable and his or her reasons to be bad are always the same.
    I hope you get to create a really good bad guy, original, spooky and credible. Also I like when the antagonist has a human side, I mean at the end he or she is simple a person with a twisted way of seeing the world.
    Well I’ll stop rambling.
    Best of lucks with your writing

    Ruty @Reading…Dreaming

  19. I don’t write cozies, but I do write some mystery, and I’ve read my fair share. To keep your reader interested you need to have one antagonist, and many potential antagonists, and that usually means having a slew of motives. As others have said, one dimensional characters, whether saintly or homicidal, are boring. Everyone is the hero of their own story.

    My favorite cozies are Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series. The protagonist is strong (but not b*tchy), intelligent but with a good dash of common sense (usually you get one or the other in cozies), and she adores the man who eventually becomes her husband (but she never loses sight of who she is or of her goals). Amelia would never lower herself to being “blinded by love” or letting sexual tension affect a practical decisions. Also, since Peters was an archeologist with a PhD in Egyptology, and most of the stories are set in Egypt, the setting is fascinating.

  20. I like complicated characters. Totally flawed and you can kinda cheer for them, but then feel guilty cheering for them since they are doing bad things. maybe I like to think people aren’t hopeless.

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