Green Herring: How to Camouflage a Villain in a Mystery Novel
I can see you frown: “Wait a minute. Green herring? Are you sure? Shouldn’t it be red herring?”
Nope! There’s no mistake in the title. The herring in this case is really supposed to be green, and that’s what makes it so much fun for me to write about!
But let’s start with a quick refresher on the more familiar red herring. A “red herring” is a form of misdirection, and one of the time-tested ways to create such a misdirection in a mystery story, or in a story that uses mystery elements in its plot.
As you probably know, the name of this literary technique comes from the history of hunting – back in the day, the poachers in old England used pieces of smelly red herring to distract and misdirect the dogs that belonged to the king’s huntsmen, so that the dogs ran to a wrong direction, and the poachers could get away with hunting on the king’s grounds.
Much like the actual, smelly red herring was used to distract the dogs, the literary red herring distracts the audience of our stories (as well as the investigating characters) and makes them pursue a false target. When eventually we reveal that target to be false and show the audience the truth, that moment comes as a big surprise.
Now I’m going to show you the technique that can be used to disguise the very character from whom the “red herring” character is supposed to distract the audience: The real villain, the real culprit, the real murderer, etc.
This is the anti-“red herring” technique, and since green is the color that is opposite to red in the color wheel, I’ve coined what I feel is a pretty cool term for this literary technique: Green Herring.
Why do we even need something like that?
Well, imagine that, writing a mystery novel, we put in significant effort crafting a conspicuous, spectacular misdirecting red herring character who falsely gives our audience every indication of being the main villain—and yet, we also present to the audience another character who is not as conspicuous or spectacular, but obviously a terrible person, who has the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime that’s being investigated.
In this case, our misdirection just wouldn’t work because the viciousness of that other character is right there, clear and present. So, we need to take a little extra step to hide the real villain in plain sight. Similarly to how we made the “red herring” character conspicuous—we need to make the real culprit inconspicuous, the last person anyone would think of as the real villain.
To use the British hunting analogy reminiscent of the origin of the term red herring, we need to dress the real culprit in “green camouflage” so well that he or she “blends in with the forest” and smells like a tree. The proverbial “king’s dogs” (our audience) would race right by our villain, without realizing he or she is even there.
Red herring and green herring are the literary devices that work in tandem. There are plenty of ways to design a green herring. For example, we can make the real villain appear kind, caring—a wholesome, good person, a reliable friend, a trusted ally, a mentor, a parent figure. That’s fairly standard, and sometimes the audience figures out the villain simply because that character is “too good to be true.”
So, what’s more plausible than “a very good person?” That’s right: Essentially good, but flawed, imperfect person.
We can let such a character make dumb mistakes (which we may later reveal to be deliberate acts of sabotage); we can make him or her slightly selfish, or slightly dishonest (a tiny instance of dishonesty may prove their overall integrity); we can give that character some of the “seven deadly sins,” for example sloth or greed.
Anger works particularly well to prove the green herring character’s essential goodness, because when a good character is a little nasty, has a bit of an attitude problem—this sub-communicates that such a character is not hiding anything, not trying to come off as “nice.”
We can make the green herring character psychologically and emotionally relatable, if we reveal their inner world to our audience in some way. We can give that character feelings—genuine, or at least feelings that may appear genuine until later; we can give that character an inner dilemma, a problem to solve; we can make that character a suffering individual.
We can give the green herring character a physical or emotional vulnerability. Such a vulnerability could be real, or faked by the green herring character, to make him or her come off as the unlikely suspect. We can make the green herring character excel at something (excellence translates to likability). Or we can do the opposite—make that character clumsy, bumbling, silly and good at nothing.
(Suppose we’re writing a serious, realistic crime thriller. Stories like that tend to be grim, so we may consider introducing a subtly written, realistic “comical relief” secondary character who’s a bit of a braggart and an aspiring would-be celebrity crime fighter, popular on social media, but quickly revealed to be virtually incapable of understanding even the most basic principles of criminal justice and investigative techniques … but he also happens to be a witness in a serious investigation, who needs to be protected. Nobody would suspect that clown of being the villain behind the evil plot that could only be put in action by a powerful, exceptionally skillful criminal mastermind.)
By the way, here we can observe here yet another useful “green herring” technique—social proof: When every character in the story has a certain opinion about our green herring character, the audience tends to trust that opinion implicitly.
There’s still more!
We can make our green herring character blend with the environment by making that character relatively small in the hierarchy of the story. We can, for example, imagine a minor character whose defining characteristics are worry and fear of possible consequences of even the most innocent actions. For that reason, such a character can’t be proactively involved in any of the significant events of our story—and the only time he appears close to the foreground is when he’s seen bullied by the obviously dark, edgy, villainous red herring character. Putting a green herring in direct conflict with the red herring is a great way to hide a villain.
Finally, there’s one more option, and that one is really cool and slightly advanced: We can make our green herring character disguised to resemble a red herring.