Profiling villains in real life is easy. That is, compared to profiling villains in fiction. Our real life baddies are driven by some truly evil thoughts and desires, but at the core of it, their psychopathy (mental illness or disorder) doesn’t change. Something drives these killers, and once you understand that drive, you can begin to understand the reason for their actions.
Profiling a fictional character is a bit more difficult. Why? Because the motivations of the evil genius come from a much darker place – the imagination of their creators. And honestly, unless their writers have a very profound understanding of forensic psychology or is, in fact, a serial killer themselves, it’s very possible for writers to miss the mark a bit when delving into their characters heads. Because after all, they have a story to tell. And sometimes what a person would actually do in a certain situation can fly right out the window when it doesn’t fit within a story arc.
Of course, that’s not always the case. In fact, I would argue that with good writers, they take painstaking measures to ensure their big baddies are realistic. But the problem always remains, most writers can’t live inside the brain of a killer.
Or do we?
I mean think about it, most days I come up with at least five new and intriguing ways to make my characters miserable. Inventive ways to suffer, excruciating emotional turmoil and lots of blood are just three of the things that I strive to include in most everything that I write. So maybe, just maybe, I’m no better than your average serial killer. That would explain a lot, after all.
So let’s begin by examining motivations to kill. Most everyone has a reason. Only those that are completely mentally delusional have some sort of reason. Especially serial killers. But putting that group aside for a moment, the most common motivations to murder someone can generally be split up into six categories:
- Class Conflict
Sure, there are plenty of other reasons the average person may break down and kill someone, but I want to focus on the ones that are the most common when it comes to premeditation – that is, thinking and planning your crimes out to the bitter end. These six categories usually aren’t set in stone, and they usually don’t apply to serial killers, or those good ‘ol fashioned ‘I like killing’ individuals, but these motivations are universal to every single person on the planet.
I mean, seriously, who hasn’t thought about killing someone for one of the above reasons? Just because the average person would never act on these feelings, doesn’t mean they aren’t present at least to an extent in every last one of us.
So, in writing fiction, your big baddies should be driven by one of these emotions. As an author, you need to ask yourself: what is my evil genius’s motivation for their crimes? How does that motivation influence every last god damned action my character takes? How would my character react if that motivation were removed? Fiction should mirror real life, and in real life, people kill for a reason.
Except for serial killers.
Serial killers – not to be confused with mass murderers or spree killers – are a whole other brand of evil when you look at them from a forensic psychology point of view. While the terms serial killer, mass murderer and spree killer are often synonymous, they are all slightly different:
Spree killers refer to one, or more, individuals who go on a killing rampage. They may kill multiple victims over multiple time frames (spanning anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or even weeks), but their crimes are centered on one specific event.
Mass Murderers refer to one person (or a select group of people) who kill a whole lot of people all at once. Don’t drink the Kool-aid.
Serial killers refer to one to two individuals*, acting together who murder at least three individuals over a period of time, with a significant cooling off period between each murder. Usually these murders are similar in some way, which is the trademark of the killer (their signature).
(*Most people tend to think of serial killers as loners who have very little contact with others when it comes to committing their crimes. I disagree, having written my entire Master’s thesis on serial killer couples. But that’s a topic for another day).
Each of these sets of killers have a different motivation for their crimes, and they usually don’t fall into one of the above categories. Or they do, but that motivation is so twisted that the normal individual struggles to understand it. That being said: Understanding the strangest of motivations and being able to apply that to writing makes a hell of an interesting character.
Check back in two weeks as we take a look at profiling serial killers!