The Question of the Victim

One of the first ideas that come to me when I begin a novel or short story is the identity of the villain. As soon as the basic scene takes shape, the victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.

The selection of both victim and villain allow me to explore various questions, but in the beginning I was mostly interested in mastering the form and telling a particular kind of story.


In the cozy mystery, the victim tends to be “the person we love to hate,” the obnoxious neighbor or underhanded business partner, especially the philandering husband or the domineering departmental supervisor. No one misses them, or is sad to see them go. In my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, Beth O’Donnell made everyone cringe with her sarcastic and cutting remarks, a bully though diminutive in every other way. With the victim neatly dispatched emotionally for the audience, the reader concentrates on those around her. But as the series progressed I wanted the victim to play a more complicated role.


Setting a murder mystery in an exotic location (to us, the outsiders) offers new possibilities, and I took the opportunity to present a victim who was admired and mourned. Jean is an American nurse traveling through India on her way to Burma, or Myanmar, with a plan to be smuggled in to work in a clandestine clinic in the jungle. This will be her second trip, and she has come prepared with medicine and equipment. Who would want to kill her and thwart her humanitarian work? In Under the Eye of Kali, Jean disappears and is later found dead. Her openness about her plans seems to suggest smugglers or ordinary thieves could be the culprits. We care more about who the villain is because we care more about Jean.

Below the Tree Line

In the first Pioneer Valley entry, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien finds a young woman she’s only met once dead in her woods. This is the first of two deaths, neither of which fall into the category of expected victims. The reader has no reason to hate either woman, and the convenient category of the cozy victim has no role here. There can be no ambiguity about the death of either woman, and thus no pleasure in the reader at the elimination of an odious character.

The choice of victim tells the reader several things, but mostly what our own values are as we come to know the character and gradually discern the shape of his or her life. We conveniently agree that the obnoxious victim in the cozy got what he or she deserved; we admire the sleuth who tracks down the killer of a virtuous person risking her life for others; and we agree there can be no justification for killing an innocent person.

Crime fiction or mystery fiction opens for discussion and exploration our basic principles and beliefs. In Modus Operandi, Robin Winks, the late reviewer of and writer about this genre, was eloquent on this point. “Ultimately one reads detective fiction because it involves judgments—judgments made, passed upon, tested. In raising questions about purpose, it raises questions about cause and effect. In the end, like history, such fiction appears to, and occasionally does, decode the environment; appears to and occasionally does tell one what to do; appears to and occasionally does set the record straight. Setting the record straight ought to matter.”

13 thoughts on “The Question of the Victim

  1. Moi aussi. “The victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.” To me, the victims or murderees carry the freight. They are the core of a whodunit novel.

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    1. ” . . . core of a whodunit novel.” Yes, the victim has to give meaning to the story. The identity of the victim and the murderer’s motivation are to me crucial elements. I like to know and depict what drives people.

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  2. Great post, Susan! I tend to come up with my victim first or the method of murder. Then I make a suspect list and tentatively pick one character to be the killer. But as I write and pick my way through the clues and red herrings usually someone else ends up being the killer. Which is one of the things I love so much about writing mysteries., Unlike romance where you always know the ending- the happy couple- in a mystery you don’t know who is the guilty party until you get to the end. I like the surprise ending.

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    1. Paty, your process sounds a lot like mine. I too find myself nearing the end of the first draft wondering who the killer is, and sometimes go back and forth on several possibilities. I too like being surprised.


  3. Finding out about the victim is another important component of the mystery novel, just as important as unmasking the villain. Your points are well-taken. In my new mystery Blood Family discovering the why of the victims and who they are is just as important as finding out the killer and motive.

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    1. Jacquie, developing all the aspects you’ve mentioned is what makes a good story, all those details challenging the reader to think, and move outside our comfort zone. Good luck with your new book.


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