If Walls Could Talk: Antagonists and Motive

M.H. Norris

Sometimes, one of the hardest things for me is deciding who whodunit. It’s honestly more than who did it, motive is key when writing a murder mystery.

book cover the whole art of

In Badge City: Notches, it was because of a psychotic break. That one I debated for several days over the motive—bouncing between a cold blooded psychopath and finding a real motive until I came to what I settled on. But I’m not spoiling it all.

In The Whole Art of Detection, it was an elaborate cover job. That one was hard trying to come up with something worth all the trouble. In the end, I took the line from Criminal Minds where they say that “it doesn’t have to make sense to us but it has to make sense to the bad guy”—the unsub.

Spending time on your good guy is easy. Everyone wants to be the hero, so that makes them easier to write—and makes them more relatable to your audience.

But some of the best stories, some of the truly solid ones, are the ones that get you to relate to the bad guy. Those ones where you almost wish they’d gotten away with it while you are relieved at the same time that the victim (or victims) got justice.

Those episodes of crime dramas are to me the most conflicting, yet satisfying.

I was writing a pep talk for my region on NaNoWriMo’s site when I started talking about things to do to help them push over the 50K mark by the end of the day. One thing I spent some time on was talking about your antagonist.

So many genres lend themselves to these over the top antagonists. I played with having one in a story I wrote long ago. The cartoon villain with the mustache, evil laugh, and optional cat.

But then, as I grew as a writer, I realized that that doesn’t’ make for a satisfying story. Why is this person doing it? What is their motive?

That’s when you hit a sweet spot. What fuels their desire to do whatever is they are doing to stand in your protagonist’s way?

They usually have to believe in it, whatever it is. They have to believe that that is truly the right course of action and commit to it.

Motive and fleshing out the bad guys is something I like to spend time on. James and I will spend hours upon hours with me going “why did this person did it?”

The motive might change several times until I find something I’m happy with. In Badge City, I agonized over that antagonist. The Whole Art of Detection changed I want to say at least four times and the motive changed just as many.

There’s one parting thought for you as I wander back to try and secure my win for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Don’t be afraid to change things.

Your story will thank you later.