Getting Inside a Criminal’s Mind
One of our readers wants to know about criminals. What makes them tick? How can a writer get inside a killer’s mind? So today— try to think and feel like a crook.
One cautionary note: I'm not a lawyer or a psychiatrist (although some people think I need the services of both sometimes). My comments are not to be construed to be the letter of the law or heartily approved by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. These answers are based upon twenty-six years in law enforcement; six years covering the police beat as a journalist; and, hopefully, a tad of common sense. To risk a cliché, take my comments with a grain of salt.
So here goes…
Julia asks …I am a (novice) writer and want to include intrigue in my novels since that is what I enjoy reading and I don't believe you should write what you wouldn't read. One issue I have when writing the villain is the "why" to his (or her) concentration on the hero (or heroine). Having never personally dealt with a stalker or murderer I would love to gain insight into why criminals, who are after one single object, don't just give up. Why do they continue until it becomes lethal to those that get in their way, or to themselves? Why isn't life more important to them than material objects? Any insight would be appreciated. Thanks!
MARK: Welcome to the writing community, Julia. All of us in this unique community of writers struggle to understand our characters’ motivations, to understand both the surface and deep character of each individual. You’re on the right track.
Killers, stalkers and other criminal minds fill our mystery stories with tension, conflict and danger. We need these rascals, otherwise the lives of our good guys might seem a little bland. How do we try to understand the criminal mind? What motivates a bad guy to be bad?
First, we need to understand that every character is not all bad or all good. Otherwise, our character would lack believability. But there is something special about bad guys. Sol Stein’s books, Stein on Writing has a chapter on characterization titled “Competing with God: Making Fascinating People.” Regarding villains, he writes:
In life, villains do not uncurl whips and snarl. They seem like normal human beings. But normal humans are not villains. What distinguishes the true villain is not just the degree to which he hides his villainy under an attractive patina to snare his victims, but his contact with evil. There is no social solution to the true villain’s villainy, he cannot be reeducated and become a nice guy. His villainy is an ineradicable part of his nature.
Just before I left law enforcement a few years ago, I had an opportunity to sit down with two killers and talk about their past. One killer—I’ll call him Frank—was a ranking prison gang leader who’d killed many times over the years. The other killer—Fred—killed once; a brutal, planned-out, killing carried out without any remorse. Both men were doing life without the possibility of parole.
Here are just three of the things I learned from talking to these two killers:
First, both men lacked true feelings. Frank was very charismatic, good looking, and extremely strong. Fred, my second killer, was a skinny, wimpy whiner. At first glance, Frank and Fred shared nothing in common. But I began to see they did share something when I looked into their eyes. There was no emotion, no feelings emanating from those windows into their souls. It was like looking into the eyes of a shark.
Secondly, I grasped an understanding that both men were not wired like us. Those normal feelings we all share—warmth, love, even hate—seemed foreign concepts to Frank and Fred. I watched as both men studied me. I realized they were trying to understand how a normal person should act. Then, they tried to emulate those reactions during our conversations. Frank’s and Fred’s contact with evil seemed to have scarred their ability to relate to others in a human way. Only God knows when these men united with evil. Right and wrong seemed alien to these guys. Only survival mattered.
The third thing I learned: Both men enjoyed killing. They drew a certain level of satisfaction from killing others. I saw it in the way they talked about these brutal acts, the mechanics of how they butchered other men. This act handed down from Cain gave them purpose, a sense of power. Killing was just a means to an end. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Not all bad guys need to be this warped in your story to be believable. But the truly evil ones walk a different path than the rest of us. I must admit, Frank was the person who interested me the most. He was articulate, intelligent, and well organized. He was engaging, and—a point I found fascinating—women seemed attracted to him. He’ll make a really good bad guy in one of my novels someday. But I would never introduce him to my sister. And Fred—he’ll end up in a novel as a character that no one likes—evil, whiny, and sniveling. It will be hard to make Fred likable.
So, how do writers get inside a killer? How do you make your reader believe this evil character is real? You must taste and feel what motivates these villains.
Novelist Brandilyn Collin wrote Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors to help writers crawl inside the skin of their characters. Like actors, novelists must make their audience suspend belief and believe the character emanating from that page. Collins paraphrased interaction between Richard Boleslavsky, a director of the Moscow Art Theater, and a young actress documented in that director’s book, Acting: The First Six Lessons. Collins writes:
The young actress asks, “Suppose I don’t find a similar feeling in my life’s experience, what then?” Boleslavsky replies that anyone who has lived a normal existence has experienced to some extent all the emotions of mankind. The woman challenges him. Surely this can’t be true. What if she must play a murderer? She has certainly never murdered anyone or even felt the slightest desire to do so. Hogwash, replies Boleslavsky (Collin’s paraphrase). Ever been camping when mosquitoes were around? he asks. Ever follow one with your eyes and ears, your hate spurring you on, until you killed it? The actress admits that she has. “A good, sensitive artist doesn’t need any more than that to play Othello and Desdemona’s final scene,” Boleslavsky declares.
You, too, can get into the mind of a murderer. Just amplify that feeling until you’re one with a killer.
Now, where is that insect repellant? A mosquito just buzzed and my killer instinct kicked in. And I think I can use these feelings in my next chapter.