Villainous ‘Tells’

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?

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7 Responses to Villainous ‘Tells’

  1. marilynm says:

    Excellent post. I remember when every star smoked in movies–in fact I thought they looked so wonderful, I practiced smoking like they did. Got hooked–thankfully, I kicked the habit over 30 years ago.

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  2. I rarely get inside of the head of my villains since they creep me out. But I do think it’s something I should work on. Villains come in all types and are just as important to develop as heroes.

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  3. This blog post caught my eye because I’m trying to develop a villain for my new book. Thanks.

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  4. patyjag says:

    This was a fun post! I am zeroing in on the end of my book right now and this is one of the few times my villain is the person I started out wanting it to be. It will be interesting to see if the readers are stumped or figure it out. My smoker isn’t the villain. She’s a pawn in the whole thing.

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  5. rainnnn says:

    growing up in a home with a father who smoked and seeing old photos of my family, where they all smoked in the photos, I don’t see smoking as a sign of a villain. It is though not politically correct anymore to have a hero smoke because it’s known to be unhealthy. I don’t think I’ve ever written a villain who smoked but I’ve written a lot of heroes– no heroines– who smoked– although they mostly quit by the end of the book. I live where a lot of people smoke… and quite a few chew (loggers chew). The one thing I can’t imagine writing is a hero who chewed– even though it was and is still common in certain classes of people. With all the cigarettes being sold in the stores, the people I see smoking in their cars, I know it’s still done– it’s just not regarded as cool. It is though still a characteristic that helps a reader to understand who that character is. If they are joggers, they don’t smoke. If they live on the edge, the might– even today.

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  6. I recently re-watched old “Get Smart” episodes and Don Adams, the good guy, smoked like a chimney! Peter Graves smoked on “Mission: Impossible” and in real life. Columbo had a cigar but I don’t think Peter Falk smoked one in real life (he didn’t really smoke much on the show, just held the cigar). But in Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books, the bad guys always had “shifty eyes” or ugly faces or hunched shoulders. Now you have me thinking about “tells.” Trouble is, writers can’t be too obvious with tells because we don’t want our readers figuring out the killer too early.

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  7. casojka123 says:

    I, too, remember when everyone smoked in movies. It was SO cool! I learned–with a lot of effort–to smoke, then had to learn to give it up. There are a lot of heroes and heroines in books who are trying to quit smoking. They usually aren’t the villains. More commonly they are the detectives. Interesting post.

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