Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The victim of a murder mystery story is a unique breed of victim. Usually, the death of a character at the hands of another comes at the emotional climax of a story. Even some painfully misunderstood villains can choke us up a little when they finally meet their demise.
A murder mystery victim’s death, however, is one that isn’t just expected by the reader, but welcomed with gleeful palm-rubbing and a devilish chuckle. To a murder mystery lover, the sight of a dead body means ‘curtain up’ on the story.The victim is the core of your murder mystery. Getting them right is essential.Click To Tweet
But just because your victims are cannon fodder in your sleuth’s never-ending war on premature mortality, that doesn’t mean that those lifeless cadavers don’t matter. As the catalyst for the whole mystery, they matter a lot.
To write a better victim, there are some essential ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ that you should be aware of.
Flesh out your victim
Your victim may be worth more to you dead than alive, but in order for their death to have meaning, their life has to have had meaning first. Your sleuth is going to have to investigate every tiny little detail about this person – from what condition their nails are in to what kind of cat food they used to buy. That means you have to know those details too. Start with the basics – gender, age, name, job, relationship status, etc. – and then build on each one until you have the clearest picture possible. Their appearance, for instance. What color hair do they have? What clothes are they wearing? Do they have any tattoos? Do their socks match? Is their appearance distinctive? Do they blend in? Are they conventionally attractive or unattractive? One of these seemingly minor details could be key to helping solve their murder. I mean, maybe they bought the wrong brand of cat food again and Whiskers the tabby JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE.
Connect them to all of the suspects
Part of fleshing out your victim as a believable person is showing all the other lives theirs was connected to. You have to prove they had some kind of impact on the world around them so that their death will have an impact too. It also gives you your suspect list, because in a murder mystery, no-one escapes suspicion. Especially not the butler. This could include family members, friends, spouses, in-laws (keep your mother-in-law jokes to yourself), neighbors, colleagues or – the most unlikely of killers – vague acquaintances who they barely interacted with at all. (Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy comes to mind here, in which the victim is a complete stranger to the killer and other suspects.) You could also connect the victim to the sleuth, giving them an emotional attachment to the case.
Make them unlikable, but not too unlikable
Unless your killer is motivated by pure jealousy of the victim’s charm and success (as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), the victim needs to be someone unlikable enough to instill murderous intent in those around them. At the same time, someone too despicable won’t generate any empathy from your reader, which may in turn render them uninterested in your sleuth’s quest to seek justice for their death. To put it bluntly, don’t make them Hitler. Just a bit of a jerk. Alternatively, they could just be perceived as a jerk, with their true character being revealed as the sleuth’s investigation continues. This will turn their death from a vengeful crime of passion to a tragic misunderstanding.
It could also be a prime opportunity to affirm your heroic sleuth’s raison d’être, as writer Elizabeth Spann Craig explains:
If you’ve got a very unlikable victim, it might be a good idea for the sleuth to remind others that justice is still important (as Hercule Poirot did in Agatha Christie’s mysteries). Or we could consider having someone close to the sleuth or the sleuth herself under suspicion to give the reader extra incentive to find out whodunit.
If you’re murder mystery aficionado you’re probably thinking, but what about Murder on the Orient Express? And that’s a fair point. Once again, the woman who helped invent all the rules is the one who broke them most successfully. In Christie’s most infamous Poirot mystery, the victim is revealed to be so thoroughly hated that it turns out he was killed by all of the suspects together in one mass exercise of brutal social justice.Manage how your reader feels about the murder mystery victim. They need a reason to care.Click To Tweet
This example illustrates a possible contradiction at the heart of the unlikability factor. In an essay titled ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1948, W.H Auden – a self-professed murder mystery ‘addict’ – stated that two things are required of the victim (specific to English ‘cozies’, set in contained rural places where everyone knows each other):
- All your characters should have a possible motive to kill them.
- All your characters should feel either sadness or guilt that the victim is dead – or at least for wanting them dead.
“The victim has to try to satisfy two contradictory requirements,” Auden added. ”He has to involve everyone in suspicion, which requires that he be a bad character; and he has to make everyone feel guilty, which requires that he be a good character.”
The solution? Well, while it’s an interesting perspective, you don’t have to follow Auden’s words to the letter. “In the majority of the murder mysteries I’ve read and watched, the survivors do not mourn the untimely passing of the first victim,” writer Karen Woodward points out. “In fact, often, this initial death is greeted with a measure of glee. Though, that said, I do grant that sometimes, perhaps even often, one or more of the survivors do experience feelings of guilt for wanting the victim dead.”
Kill them as soon as possible
There are two ways to begin a murder mystery. The first is to start with the victim dead, with the sleuth having to work backwards to establish the suspect list and their possible motives. This might be the trickier of the two options to write, but it will no doubt satisfy readers who like their mysteries to cut to the chase. The other is to start with the victim alive, showing the reader all of the future suspects (and the future victim) and their possible motives for the future murder. This option builds anticipation, which is exciting, but don’t drag it out for too long. The murder should really happen within the first 50 pages.
Try having multiple victims
As well as spicing things up during a possible midpoint lull in the action, you could fix the problem of having a total jerk as the first victim by making the next one far more likable. Again, Auden offers some sage advice on this:
If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a consequence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to murder against his will where he has no grievance but his own guilt.
Kill off a character that is too likable
If you’ve crafted a victim who’s got ‘potential fan favorite’ written all over them, then maybe reconsider killing them off. Could they be worth more to you alive than dead? Does their presence elevate the story in some way? Could they even become a recurring character in future books? If so, get their head off the chopping block!
Kill your character graphically onstage
This is especially true of the ‘cozy’ mystery subgenre that Christie’s novels fall into. Readers accustomed to these kinds of books won’t want to read about a graphic bloodbath unfolding in front of them, and neither will publishers. The murder should preferably happen either partially or totally offstage and as the result of some kind of one-and-done attack – a blow to the head, poisoning, stabbing or gunshot wound.Seeing the murder can make the investigation less fun. Click To Tweet
This isn’t because the reader has a weak stomach, but because it’ll be harder for them to enjoy the mystery if the crime is too visceral and/or personal. You can still tell the reader how bad it was without forcing them to see it for themselves (see Macbeth for a great example – “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”)
Make the victim a child or pet
Again, this is specifically for the ‘cozies’. Generally, it will be difficult to balance the typically light tone of a murder mystery with the heaviness of a victim as innocent as a child or beloved animal (people really love pets, after all). That said, it would again be remiss of me not to point out that Christie did just that in Hallowe’en Party. Whether she pulled it off is up to personal interpretation.
Do: Switch the victims and keep your reader guessing
Murder mysteries have to fill quite a specific set of expectations for their readers, which may seem restrictive to you as a writer. However, understanding the specificity of these expectations actually makes it all the easier for you to invert them – including where the victim is concerned.
For instance, we’re used to not knowing who the killer is, but what about if we don’t know who the real victim is? This is common in Christie’s stories, where the killer isn’t who you thought it was, or there’s a complex plan afoot. For example, in Peril at End House, you’re led to believe that someone is trying to murder a woman called Nick, and Poirot tries to protect her, but in the end it turns out she herself was staging it so that she could murder her cousin and blame it on the person who was after her.Clever plotting lets the victim ‘change’ as the story progresses.Click To Tweet
Similarly, in The A.B.C. Murders, the killer makes it look like there’s a psychopath murdering random people in alphabetical order to hide the fact that there’s only one victim he actually wants dead.
These techniques can be layered with the advice above, so that you have multiple victims who do different things for your plot and writing. For more on this type of writing, try Understanding The Essentials Of Writing A Murder Mystery and How To Write A Crime Novel Worth Reading. Or, if you want to get started on the detective who’ll be standing over your victim, check out The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters.
If you’re still feeling stuck after reading this, then let me know your particular problem in the comments. I also recommend trying out this ‘Murder Mystery Victim Generator’ to get you started. And yes, the button does say ‘Cadaverate!’ You’re welcome.