Key Tips for Creating a Genderless Character for Villain Options

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




In my critique of Cruel Sacrifices, an anonymous submission, I brought up the topic of creating scenes with a genderless character and TKZ follower Paul Duffau asked for a post on the subject. You asked, Paul. Here it is. 

The technique of writing a genderless character can be effective to allow an author more options for suspects so the reader can’t easily determine the gender of a villain. One of my favorite ways to create a mystery/suspense “whodunnit” is to build a case against a slew of suspects. By the end of the book, I can flip a coin and make the final decision on who is guilty. By making a killer neutral and without gender, that expands my choices. More fun for me.

I’ve seen many books written with scenes where a villain is described as “the man” or “the killer.” As an author, that pulls me from the story, because I see the craft behind the use of the generic term. It’s obvious the author is trying to build suspense by letting the reader see a glimpse of the diabolical bad guy without fully disclosing who it is. I’m sure I’ve done this too, but in my last two thriller novels (Blood Score and The Last Victim), I challenged myself by creating a genderless character to broaden my suspect list and make it harder for readers to figure out who the guilty are. 

Scenes with my genderless character were difficult to write. It’s easy to slip and add a pronoun of he or she, so edits must be thorough. And it’s hard to come up with different ways to describe this person. It’s also a challenge where to place these scenes throughout a book to add tension and mystery, but try it. It adds complexity to your writing and can make for a better “whodunnit.”

1.) Omniscient POV – In select spots during the scene, I write in omniscient Point of View (POV). I try not to carry this on for too long. I want the reader to clearly know this is my bad guy and I add a generic descriptor later to ground the reader into the head of my character, but the shock value of seeing the bodies through the eyes of the killer (the artistic elements to the brutal crime) seemed to create a more macabre effect and give insight into my serial killer.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Moonlight cast its slate glow onto a lifted hand, fingers gracefully posed toward the dark heavens. They would point to the worthy pinnacle of the masterpiece. The bare skin of a sculpted leg made a beautiful silhouette against the full moon, toes perfectly poised to catch the glimmer of the night. Frozen flesh glittered under the stars in the right light. The crystalline webbing of ice turned blanched skin into an intricate texture with a shine that reflected the dark sacred night.

Too bad the meat had to thaw. To rot.

2.) Generic Character Description – Without gender, I used a description of “the driver” to describe my bad guy. This type of generic description can be used for anyone, men or women.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Cutting a scream loose, the warmth of a blood shower, the thrill of seeing the soul leave the body and knowing God’s hand played no part in it—those were rare and powerful addictions—but none of those things matched the final moment when hope left their eyes and they accepted their fate. Sated and drunk on memories, the driver tossed sturdy work gloves aside and climbed into a truck when it was time to go, started the engine, and turned on the music.

The voice of Ray Charles sang. ‘What a Wonderful World’ brought a fitting end as the truck jostled along the gravel service road toward the busted gate few people knew about—heading through the trees into the dark sacred night.


3.) Deep POV – Focus on the action and see it through the eyes of the character. My killer is suffering from withdrawals and the need to kill is escalating. So rather than focusing on HIM or HER, I distract the reader by concentrating on the action or what he or she is obsessed with. In deep POV (in our heads), we wouldn’t define ourselves because we already know who we are. We would simply let random thoughts race through our minds, driven by what we see or think. Deep POV, coupled with omniscient view, can give the illusion to the reader that they are in the head of a killer, yet not give away the gender of a bad guy.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

One final glance in the rear view mirror made it hard to leave, but the stunning silhouette of the Totem against the moon stirred the question that remained. Who would top the next creation? There would definitely be a next time and it had to be someone worthy. It wasn’t enough to kill perfection once.

Hitting stride, the Totem Killer had only gotten started and had cross-hairs on the next one. A name. Another perfect one. Everything had been planned with each detail thought out. Nothing would be rushed.

The driver had a pick up to make and wouldn’t go home empty handed.

4.) Unreliable Narrators – Detectives or sleuths can assume a gender based on a criminal profile or perhaps the strength it would take to perpetrate a crime or the statistically expected Modus Operandi (MO) for one gender over another. FBI profiles can project a male killer simply by MO if the crime is heinous enough NOT to indicate a female assailant, for example. So your main heroic character can be the unreliable narrator, or witnesses can lie or tell their version of the truth as they see it. A big reveal can come later to turn things around, but that’s what is so fun about peeling back the layers of an investigation.

5.) Red Herrings – A mystery craft technique, called a red herring, is used to create a clue that leads down a false path in the investigation. This can contribute to the illusion that the killer is one gender, when it can easily be discovered later that the clue was misinterpreted or someone lied to mislead the police. If you couple this method with your generic character POV, it can keep the reader guessing. And news flash: killers lie to throw cops off their scent or they plant evidence or pretend to be a victim to mislead investigators. That makes the chase more fun. A good killer is a chameleon who could conceivably get away with murder. The more diabolically clever the killer, the more brilliant your sleuth would have to be. Make your hero earn his status by giving him or her a worthy adversary.

6.) Scene Timing – If a scene is written through the eyes of the dastardly genderless villain (at a distance, for example), followed by a subsequent scene where the character walks unassumingly on the page with a name, that could influence the reader into thinking “it can’t be him/her. He/she can’t be in two places at once.” If the scene is written well enough, it can appear there is distance and the reader assumes there are two people, when the character could be one and the same.

I used all of these methods to build upon the mystery of my killer’s identity and push off “the reveal” as late as possible in the book. Leave twists in the plot, even toward the end, and make your readers sweat it out.

Has anyone else used a technique not mentioned here, to create a genderless/faceless villain? Or what books have you read where an author kept you guessing on gender? Please share.

Wishing you happy holidays, TKZers! Hope 2015 is special for all of you.

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A News Story with Book Inspiration Potential

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

My husband sends me strange links and records off the wall TV programs for me because he knows how I think about story inspiration. Sometimes a news story could fill out a back story of a character or become the main action or mystery behind a book. Recently he sent me this LINK. This story came from Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy. Who doesn’t love a cold case murder mystery?
 
Especially one that has a double twist.
 

Sayre OK news story faces
Jimmy Williams, Leah Johnson, Michael Rios


 
You would think that discovering the skeletal remains of three teens (who were thought to have run away in 1970) in a rusted car at the bottom of a lake would be interesting enough. How did their car end up in the lake? Why weren’t they found until now? Rumors had run rampant. Locals speculated that the three teens had stumbled upon a drug deal at a rural airstrip and been killed with their bodies dumped, never to be found. Some folks thought the kids ran away to California, never to be heard of again. Most people who knew the kids suspected foul play, but leads went nowhere.
 
Police found a vehicle (a 1969 Camaro believed to belong to one of the missing kids) while conducting a routine diver training exercise at Foss lake, 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. Score one for the home team. But if that wasn’t enough, the over-achievers found a SECOND car, containing two to three more bodies. (Ew, that they don’t know if they have two or three bodies. That doesn’t mean poor math skills. It could mean they only have “parts.”)
 

Sayre OK news story
Foss Lake outside OKC – Crime Scene


 
All the skeletal remains are likely connected to missing persons reports that are still open and unsolved. Unrelated, presumably. The teens were on their way to a high school football game and went missing in 1970. The second vehicle, thought to belong to John Albert Porter, most probably carries the remains of another man and a woman. The grandson of Porter feels certain the find solves the case of what happened to his grandfather.
 
Both cars were found submerged in twelve feet of water, fifty feet from the end of a boat ramp near the marina. I’m not sure how both vehicles would have ended up fifty feet from the end of a boat ramp. Talk about taking a wrong turn?! Lakes in Oklahoma can be filled with sediment due to the red clay soils. They would make excellent training cases for police divers, but tough for anyone looking for six missing people, apparently.
 
The bones were sent to the Medical Examiner’s office for determination of cause of death. You can’t just presume drowning, but without flesh on the bones and with all the abrasive sediment, that can’t be an easy job. If the bodies can be identified, that could give six families closure.

 
But a writer can conjure all sorts of other explanations for a story like this one. Who would’ve wanted to see the kids dead? What had they witnessed? With two cars in the lake, who was using the red dirt lake for a body dump site? Without the flesh on the bones, what if someone in the area was harvesting organs to sell on the black market?
 
So what do YOU think happened? How would you spin this emotional gut wrenching story for the two vehicles?

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Broadchurch

Nancy J. Cohen

Are you watching the British crime drama, Broadchurch, on BBC Wednesday nights? It’s a limited episode series that started last week, so you’re not missing much if you pop in tonight. As a mystery writer, I can’t help analyzing the story structure.

Episode one presents the scene of the crime. A young boy is found murdered on the beach. The time and method of death are established. We meet his family, some of whom are keeping secrets. The boy may have been killed between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am last night. Where was the father? Supposedly out on an emergency plumbing call. Oh, really? How lame is that alibi?

Yet not once does the lead detective suggest verifying the plumbing job. This handsome bloke, by the way, is David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. I like him with his scruffy beard. But someone needs to clue him in on finding the facts. Will it be the ambitious reporter? Or did he have a hand in this horrible event to create a story for himself?

David Tennant

And where was the victim’s father the night of the murder? Is he having an affair? Involved in a smuggling scheme? The rugged coastline may have been the site for smugglers in historic times. Perhaps there’s a new gang at work and the boy became a liability.

And how was the boy involved? His best friend isn’t so innocent. The kid erases all his computer and cell phone files after his mum, a detective on the force who’s been passed over for promotion, tells him he’ll be questioned about what he knows. What’s the kid hiding? Could he and the victim have been involved in a shady scheme with the victim’s father?

Then again, the father seems too easy a mark. Maybe he’s the red herring.

As the show progresses, we’ll see more townspeople guarding secrets. Eventually the detective will unravel them until he exposes the killer. And what about his own past? He was sent to this little hamlet after something scandalous occurred in his career. He couldn’t have created a murder to boost his own reputation, could he?

Broadchurch

Everyone in this village is a potential suspect. It’s a juicy story in that respect, and I’m eager to see how it plays out. This is why I like whodunit mysteries. We are guessing along with the detective. The small town atmosphere becomes a character in its own right as we learn that not all of the inhabitants are as innocuous as they seem.

So are you going to watch the show tonight?

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The Seduction of Mystery

by Jordan Dane



No matter what genre, a book can always seduce a reader with the titillation of mystery. A suspense or thriller plot can race towards the end with its escalating stakes, but the lure of an underline mystery teases the reader and holds them tight as the storyline unfolds to reveal its fleshy curves and tantalizing secrets. The seduction is made more complete and satisfying.


Alfred Hitchcock knew this.

Hitchcock believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something about to happen. When I read this, it was a huge epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scenes and chapter endings, but I was recently reminded of the importance of anticipation in other ways when someone in my local writers’ group asked me when and how to use back story. In a seduction, back story is the equivalent of smoking a cigarette after. At some point, you want it to happen, but it’s anticipation that drives you to turn those pages all night long.

There’s no faking that.





If you’re a writer, anticipation doesn’t have to ONLY be about big plot movements. Don’t forget the voyeur in all of us, readers and writers alike. Relationships need a story arc too. Conflict and tension make them more delectable. Our main characters are tested, tortured, pushed to the limits to justify their starring role in our books. And when a man and woman are involved in a personal relationship, a writer makes them pay for wanting to be together. That’s how a writer knows when they have the right balance of emotion to suspense. If the emotional human story can be stripped out and the book no longer makes sense, then the right balance is achieved. One is integral to the other.

A high octane Bruce Willis movie—with its special stunts and computer generated action sequences—may not stick in moviegoers heads if there weren’t the emotional elements, the drama of his estranged wife in danger. Only his love for her puts him in harm’s way from the beginning and keeps him taking risks for her. It’s not just about saving her life. It becomes—will they get back together? A suspense/thriller plot escalates the stakes and ramps up tension as the pages turn, but something as simple as unanswered questions or a mounting attraction between two characters that you care about—while they are on a perilous journey—adds palpable heat that can sustain the rush to a gratifying end.


On my current project, I had a choice to make. I could have unfolded the story by relying on the suspense plot to be the main driver—or I could present my characters by their actions, without explaining the reason for their behavior until I absolutely had to. I chose to make my character’s back stories a strong mystery component where the plot will eventually force them into revealing themselves to each other and the reader. I’m orchestrating a seduction, one garment at a time, like a voyeur. With some elements, for key secondary characters, I layer the mystery without even knowing the answers myself. What an incredible rush! I can’t wait to see what happens.


Please share a book that seduced you completely with the right heady balance of compelling characters to intriguing plot—that unforgettable read that has stayed with you—maybe a guilty pleasure that you’ve read more than once.

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