Monday, November 21, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Killer: Researching your Antagonist

DV Berkom is my guest this week. She's the author of the terrific Kate Jones thriller novellas. 
Available at Amazon
So there I was, minding my own business writing one of those truly twisted novels that grabs hold of you and has to come out when I came to the killer's debut. I'd never attempted to write a character quite so creepy and wasn't relishing that first passage. In fact, I continually wrote around him, putting off the scene until I felt I could do justice to him instead of creating a killer cliché. Yes, I could have abandoned the effort and gone on to something else, but a disturbing dream I'd had several months prior provided the inspiration for the story and I felt compelled to follow it through.
How do you write a fresh psychopath? Readers today have been clubbed over the head with serial killers (pardon the pun) to the point that it's become a joke in many literary agencies and publishing houses. The only way I could think to do it was to go to my default: research. I love learning new things. Researching has a way of surprising you with oddball connections, often to be used in ways you'd never expect. A reference here, a notation there, it's similar to a treasure hunt. Like I said, I love research.
Until I started to investigate killers.
Now, I haven't lived what anyone would call a sheltered life, but I'd so far avoided learning specific details about the habits of serial killers. The information I came across in my search made my skin crawl.
Reality is so much more frightening than fiction.
The information creeped me out to the point I'd find myself vacuuming the living room, unsure how that Hoover ended up in my hand. One thing to understand about me: I don't like housework. I'll let dust and dirt accumulate until I can't find the couch or someone decides to visit. Apparently, I found something I like even less.
I followed this routine whenever I delved into the bizarre world of a psychopath, and though you could eat off my living room floor, my manuscript was going nowhere. No closer to fleshing out my killer, (I know- another pun. Sorry) he wouldn't budge from the twisted caricature of a human being I'd created and I was close to giving up. Sure, I could give him odd quirks and mannerisms, but it felt as if I was making him play dress up: all show, no substance.
That is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the science behind the psychopath. A series of articles on ( ) discussing the biological basis for psychopathic behavior led me ever deeper into the complexities of a killer's mind. Fascinated, I began to read white papers on personality disorder, multiple personalities, cannibalism and the like. Where once I'd been stymied by what motivated someone to kill, an ocean of ideas began to form around what my antagonist's early life was like, his taste in music, food, what made him tick.
Soon, I had seventeen pages of articles, notes and sketches, all revolving around my antagonist. I knew him, knew what made him get out of bed in the morning, why he chose the victims he did. Most importantly, I knew how he justified killing. That was my 'eureka' moment.
Understanding my antagonist helped me move past the visceral recoil from the heinous crimes I read (and wrote) about and gave a more human face to the killer. I learned there's an entire area of scientific inquiry emerging that uses genetic testing and MRIs to map the brains and biological processes of psychopaths, on occasion admitting the results of these tests as evidence in court trials.
Can the fact that a person has the genes and/or brain structure associated with violent behavior be enough to reduce a defendant's culpability in a trial? It's a new take on an age-old question.
Whatever the answer may be, for now I can't wait to write the killer's scenes and try to work in some small kernel of research to help the reader understand him better. Yeah, still pretty creepy, but it worked.
Now, where the heck is that couch?
DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat.
Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now resides outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes whenever she gets a chance. You're welcome to email her at dvb (at) dvberkom (dot) com or chat with her on Facebook or Twitter- she loves to hear from readers as well as other writers. Her website is


Una Tiers said...

Dear DV, this is something I hadn't considered. Thank you.
Una Tiers

Ellis Vidler said...

DV, I tried reading John Douglas's Mind Hunter books. I had nightmares. The information is fascninating but you're right--it creeps me out.
I can't wait to see what happens when it passes through your very skilled hands. I know it will be a terrific story.

Polly said...

Very interesting post, DV and Ellis. I've written one (unpublished) serial killer, and you're right, it's creepy getting into his head. I agree with making him human in one way or another, or else he's just a bad guy with no soul. To me, those are the most uninteresting killers. Can't wait to read your finished product.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I find it difficult to get into the mind of a serial killer. Mostly, I stick to writing mystery novels where the point of view is that of the detectives, both amateur and police. However,
I recently read The Sentry by Crais and he did an exceptional job creating the killer, quite unique really.

Jacqueline Seewald

E. B. Davis said...

You're right. Fact is stranger than fiction. Why some people can emerge from equal circumstances and behave differently fascinates me.

Having a killer be totally realistic depends on what type of book you are writing. I had to stop reading Konrath because he gave me nightmares. My books entertain, and although I want realism in police procedure and law, I'm unsure that my readers would appreciate having the killer be totally realistic.

Perhaps that's the appeal of cozies. Glad you saw the problem through. Good luck on the book.

DV Berkom said...

I agree, you can go too far with description and gory details. That's where it becomes a delicate balance: how much is too much? I want to get the essence of the killer across, not give people nightmares :-)I have faith the reader's imagination will fill in the rest, taking it however far they prefer. Thanks for all the comments!

Darlene Panzera said...

DV Berkom's stories contain great hooks to keep the reader turning pages. I think many of these hooks come from a revelation into the character's thoughts or actions. We get a glimpse of what makes these characters tick... and we are rivited!

amosa said...

I think you'd have to be pretty jaded not to get "creeped out" researching the twisted minds of serial killers. The pictures of serial killers the show Criminal Minds runs at the beginning is creepy enough when you think those are only the ones that have been caught.

DV Berkom said...

Thanks, Darlene! I appreciate your comments, and so glad you like the stories :-)

amosa, No kidding- food for thought...

Thanks for stopping by!