by Janis Patterson
Once upon a time, in most books and movies everyone smoked. Not to smoke was abnormal, if not downright suspicious. It showed the character was weak or of no account. Likewise, any unkempt or scruffy person, especially one with no manners or a rough/insufficient vocabulary, was instantly suspect. Today it’s exactly the opposite. Anyone who smokes, dresses above the average, is conspicuously erudite and has exquisite manners is automatically regarded as a potential villain, especially in a contemporary story.
There are all sorts of sociological and psychological reasons for this reversal, none of which are the business of this blog. What I’m trying to do is spotlight the ‘tell’ – the little nuances of behavior that ‘tell’ the reader the person is a villain, and there are many.
It has become almost a cliché that he/she who smokes is a villain. When was the last time you read about a hero (or heroine) who smokes? Except in an historical novel, of course, even though it’s fairly rare even there.
Almost equally obvious is the conventional straight-laced man who wears a suit and tie, cares about his grammar and is punctilious in his manners. He is either gay and the heroine’s best friend, or her stuffy beau who wants to give her a nice house, nice children and a nice, unexciting life but with no excitement, or he is an untrustworthy villain. Or, in some rare cases, he can be the comic relief, but usually he turns out to be the villain.
Yet another is the older, avuncular, seemingly trustworthy character – of either sex – who seems to exist only to care and guide the hero/heroine but who secretly hiding a dreadful secret. Great-Aunt Hattie as a serial murderer? Why not? Anyone who is so ostentatiously innocent is automatically suspect.
A cheap shot is when a seemingly normal character makes an appearance early on and then isn’t seen very much at all until the end of the book, when it is revealed that he is the diabolical killer. Several TV shows use this trope – so much so that it has become almost laughable.
There are other ‘tells.’ For example, the character with the habit that eventually points him out as the killer, such as folding the paper from his soda straw in a certain way, or a particular scent he wears. Any character, guilty or innocent, can do anything; it is how the author handles it whether it becomes a ‘tell’ or not.
And I guess that’s the crux of the matter. Idiosyncrasy or ‘tell’ – which? As a writer you should play fair with your reader, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play with them. Misdirect them. Confuse them. Can they figure the mystery out? Or do you hand it to them on a plate?