Monday, August 1, 2011

Want To Know Who The Bad Guy Is?

    “Like I said, I didn’t think you had,” Grant said. “But I’m going to ask you the same question I asked the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund: can you recall ever kicking anyone out of your group for espousing violence?”
    There was another pause. “Who did you talk to at the Sierra Club?”
    “Tom Richardson.”
    “Hmm.... Did he say he knew anyone like that?”
    “He said maybe, but he would have to check into it. Why?”
    “I’m surprised he didn’t mention Samuel Raimes.”
    “Well, he didn’t. Who’s Samuel Raimes?” Grant wrote the name on his pad.
    “I’m not saying he’s involved in this,” Cranston said. “I haven’t heard anything about him for, oh, eight or nine years. For all I know he could be in prison by now.”
    “Tell me about him.” Grant was all ears; he finally had a name, someone to run down.
    “I did some computer work for the Sierra Club years ago and had to attend a few board meetings. They talked about Raimes in one of the meetings.”
    “What’d they say?”
    “That he was tired of waiting for the judges and politicians to do something about the... Let’s see... Something to do with salmon.” Cranston went quiet for a few moments while he thought. “I remember now. He was upset about the salmon counts in the Tuolumne River. They were dropping and he didn’t feel enough was being done about it. That’s true, by the way. The Chinook salmon are nearly extinct in some rivers.”
    Grant said, “I’ve heard that.”
    “He wanted the Tuolumne River and the Delta returned to their natural state, which, unfortunately, will never happen. But I don’t remember them saying he wanted to blow up anything or kill someone. They just said he was crazy.”

In a "who done it," there are two ways to reveal who the bad guy is: you can keep it a secret until the end, or nearly the end, or you can tell the reader early on. Both methods have merit.

Making the reader wait until the end of the story allows you to build suspense, perhaps more so than tipping your hand early on. 

The most common way to handle the identity of a bad guy is to make it one of the characters the reader is familiar with, but was completely unaware it was him or her. It could be the jealous aunt, or, yes, even the butler. It should be a big shock the reader didn't see coming. When watching films on TV or DVD, it's always fun to stop the show and guess "who done it." A clever author will have most guessing wrong.

I've written that I read a lot of John Sandford books (all of them, in fact). Sandford occasionally keeps the identity of the bad guy(s) hidden while still letting the reader know something about him or her. He'll give the bad guy a nickname, such as something the press might be calling him. In his first novel, the bad guy was called "Maddog." The reader didn't know the Maddog's true identity until about halfway through the story, but that didn't stop Sandford from telling you a lot about him.

In THE MIGHTY T, I let the reader know who the bad guy is in the first chapter; I even let the cops know who he is early on. It's still fun to watch them go about trying to catch him because he's always a step ahead, the characters are interesting, the dialogue is good, and there's enough action to keep your attention even though you already know "who done it."

If the story is well-written, I enjoy both ploys. How about you?