When you create your character bible, you probably have a backstory for your major characters and some supporting characters. The childhood wound. The non-supportive ex. The career rival.
Backstory helps you understand the motivations behind character actions. And it supports the interrelationships of characters in your story—the context of how the characters work in the story.
Mystery writers have one backstory they need to know and keep hidden: the relationship between the villain and the victim.
Villain and Victim – The Mystery Foundation
Without a crime, you wouldn’t have a mystery. Your detective protagonist wouldn’t have a puzzle to solve. What drove the villain to commit the crime, their motivation, is based on the relationship with the victim. You need to know their relationship in detail because it leads to the crime. And their relationship underpins every suspect’s interpretation of what happened.
You create a backstory for your protagonist to build reader empathy and engagement. You create a backstory for the relationship between the villain and the victim because everything in the mystery stems from their relationship.
The victim is the raison d’être of the mystery. Without the victim, your sleuth would have nothing to do—no clues to find, no suspects to interview, no puzzle to solve. There would be no mystery.
As a writer, you need to build a strong character background for your victim. Even though they have no speaking part and appear as a corpse, the victim is the foundation of the mystery. Suspects derive from their circle of friends and enemies. Your sleuth learns about their quirks, likes and dislikes, and personality traits by interviewing the suspects.
Spend the first half of the novel discovering the victim’s world. The reader learns through clues and suspects about the victim’s circumstances and their relation to other people and the world they inhabit.
The reader follows your sleuth’s investigation. Along with the sleuth, they form opinions about the victim; a despicable human, a seemingly virtuous soul, a likable scoundrel. And, like the sleuth, they try to guess why the victim was killed and who did it.
So, your victim is more than just a dead body. Something they did triggered a murder, and you, the writer, need to know why.
A challenge for mystery writers is creating an antagonist worthy of your sleuth while keeping them hidden at the same time. In order to accomplish this and keep your reader guessing until the end, you need to create a full, deep character background.
To make the murder believable, you need to tie your villain’s motivations to the victim’s personality. Until you know the victim’s personality, you will lack a true motivation for the villain. It’s backstory gone wild, except you can only dribble tiny pieces of this backstory into the novel.
Until you know the motivations and methods of the villain, you won’t be able to keep them a secret. The villain works behind the scenes of most of your novel. But you need to know the why and how in order to hide the villain in plain sight.
The Backstory Is the Mystery
The backstory relationship between the villain and the victim is the foundation for the crime and the puzzle your sleuth must solve. When you know the villain’s motivation, you can plant clues and create suspect hints that ultimately lead to unraveling the mystery threads.
Without this backstory, you’ll have a hard time creating a mystery story that keeps readers engaged. The villain/victim backstory is the key to solving the mystery. Dig into their context.
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