Writing a Murder Mystery: Motives for Murder

canstockphoto14386385After revealing “Who Done It,” the most important piece of the puzzle in a good murder mystery is “Why Done It.” The Antagonist’s reason to commit murder and hide it must be creative, make sense and be ultimately satisfying to your reader. So, it got me thinking: What are some basic motives for murder?

Here’s the list I started. Feel free to comment and add to the list.

TEN MOTIVES FOR MURDER

1. To hide a secret. This is the most obvious motive. The Victim stumbles upon the Antagonist’s closely guarded secret, and he kills her so she won’t reveal it.

  • A father, scared of losing his daughter’s love if she ever finds out that she was adopted, murders the child’s biological mother when she suddenly reappears in their lives.

2. Greed. The Antagonist wants the victim’s fortune, property or something else of value… and is willing to kill to get his hands on it.

  • The Femme Fatale murders her wealthy, old lover with a heart condition after he names her in his last will and testament.

3. Revenge. The Antagonist wants to even the score for some past wrong doing (which is often detailed in the prologue) and the victim pays the price.

  • The successful computer geek attends his high school reunion and kills the formal popular cheerleader who made fun of him some twenty years ago
  • The successful computer geek murders the red-headed dance teacher who looks eerily similar to that hateful cheerleader who made fun of him in high school

4. Obsession, Frustration & Hate. Have you hugged a sociopath today? This is a great opportunity to expose your Antagonist’s prejudices and/or deep-seeded obsessions.

  • A deeply religious mother murders her son’s college professor because of something taught at school.
  • The shy, awkward boy in the back of class has been sending notes to the popular girl in his Chemistry class. Unfortunately. when she rebukes his advances, he lashes out by killing her.
  • After a lifetime of seething jealousy, the unemployed, divorced, broke older brother finally murders his successful, wealthy, happily married with a beautiful home and three beautiful kids, younger brother.

5. Love, Sex & Jealousy. Maybe this should be motive #1. At least it seems like it in real life if you watch any of the murder investigation documentaries on cable television. Does it even need an example? Pick a love triangle and you’ve got a motive.

  • The Traveling Salesman’s pregnant wife is found dead after he tells his college-aged girlfriend won’t end his marriage.

6. Crime of Passion.  Your Antagonist’s anger gets the best of him, and he snaps in a fit of rage. Generally, everyone is shocked by his actions, as he seems like the last person on the planet who’d ever commit such a heinous murder. Often the Antagonist doesn’t remember what happened, as he was out of his head at the time.

  • A father becomes so enraged at his wife for ripping the family apart when she tells him that she’s leaving him for her personal trainer that he shoots their two children dead before turning the gun on himself. Neighbors couldn’t believe it; he was such a normal, quiet Family Man.

7. Psychosis & Mental Disorders.  The Antagonist is detached from society (maybe even humanity) and does something unthinkable, generally for reasons that are just in his head.

  • A mother, who believes voices are instructing her to do bad things, drowns her children 

8. To protect personal status. Your Antagonist is very threatened by the Victim’s success, talents or attention, and commits murder to balance the scales.

  • An incensed, corporate ladder-climber murders her competition for a high-profile, high-paying position.
  • An aging rock star — who is now humiliating reduced to opening act for a new, popular, younger pop star  — plots a stage mishap to get the young phenom out of the way.

9. To protect a loved one. You would do anything for your kids, including murder if someone was hurting one of them. Well, so would your Antagonist. And sometimes loved ones moves beyond family, or even people.

  • A father kills a teacher who was abusing his child
  • An over-protective mother murders the high school student who has been mercilessly bullying her son
  • A deer hunter and wildlife enthusiast murders the CEO of logging company that is decimating his forest. 

10. Empathy or Sympathy. The Antagonist doesn’t have malicious intent; in fact, he’s acting (or believes) in the Victim’s best interest. .

  • The Caregiver gives the ailing, elderly patient a heavy sleeping potion so she slips quietly away in the night.
  • A nursing student helps a dying cancer patient commit suicide so that he can die with dignity.

Hope these help. If you have any examples or other ideas, please post in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Writing a Murder Mystery: Motives for Murder

    • Actually, that would fall under #8, protecting status.

      Great list and thanks for posting JC! I was in need of some creative ideas for murder and couldn’t get past, money, sex and general revenge. I don’t know why, it just wasn’t coming to me. Those are usually the top three and I suppose that’s why. I need at least 6 motives (I mean, all supporting characters need a motive here) so this helped tremendously! :)

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  4. For fun

    The thrill seeker hides in some bushes near a high cliff, rushes out and shove the first person who happens by over the edge, for fun.

    Extreme vandalism if you like, rather than smashing up a phone box, or spraying graffiti, actual killing people.

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