Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Red Herrings: Scapegoating Characters

Good mystery writers know all about red herrings, clues that are designed to mislead readers and make them suspect the wrong whodunit characters. Of course, the placement of red herrings is deliberate because you want to keep the reader surprised as to who the true culprit is as the story unfolds.

In the world of counseling and psychology, families do this all the time. It’s called scapegoating. A common example is when a child gets pinned as the guilty party when in actuality, the dysfunction in the family stems from the mother or father’s relationship.

Families do this to draw attention away from the actual problem and onto someone else. “My absentee parenting and alcohol abuse is not the problem. Little Junior is. See how he constantly throw tantrums?”

Never mind that he throws tantrums as a way to cope when Dad’s drunk and abusive. At least when he’s having a tantrum, Dad doesn’t hit Mom because they both turn their focus onto him.

Writers scapegoat characters all the time, especially in mystery writing. We want our readers to focus attention elsewhere while we hide the truth from them. In counseling, this deflection is not good and actually interferes with the therapeutic process. In mystery writing, this distraction is a necessary evil pleasure that makes the mystery harder to solve.

When I’m counseling a family that exhibits a scapegoating tendency, it truly gives me a headache. All the anger and stress and frustration is directed at one person, and any attempt on my part to lighten the scapegoat’s load is met with denial.

I’d like to propose that mystery writers should be so good at scapegoating that any attempt on the author’s part to weave in clues pointing to some other killer or thief would be met with reader denial as well.

If you’ve done the work to throw off the reader, make them truly buy into it. Make the case so ironclad that the reader says to himself, “Well, it has to be Colonel Mustard. I mean, he mentioned how attractive and costly that candlestick was earlier in the book. It was even found next to the victim, and it had his fingerprints on it. He had to have committed the crime.”

This is exactly what scapegoating families do. They drag out one piece of evidence after another to prove their point that Little Junior is the problem (read: culprit). “He won’t listen. He doesn’t obey. He screams and kicks. He’s out of control.”

Once you’ve gotten the reader rattling off a list of evidence that points to Colonel Mustard and you have them summarily dismissing other clues you planted that show his innocence, you’ve done your scapegoating job well.


The Character Thrapist