Dissecting Villains Part 2: Profiling

There has been a lot of thought and effort into profiling serial killers, carried out by people much smarter than we are.  And thank god for that.  As much fun as playing around in the heads of killers can be, having to truly delve into their minds and then shuffle them into helpful categories is a challenge.  So we are perfectly content to let others do that for us.profiling words

One of the first things profilers look at was whether or not serial killers are organized or disorganized; which is extremely helpful to law enforcement in a number of ways. And really, writers benefit from knowing the distinction as well.  Because the organizational methods of a killer, or a villain in general, speaks volumes to what the character is like when they aren’t off reaping havoc.

So let’s take a look at organized versus disorganized serial killers:

Organized: average to high intelligence, socially competent, and more likely than the disorganized offender to have skilled employment. It is also claimed that he is apt to plan his offenses, use restraints on his victim, and to bring a weapon with him to commit the murder and to take the weapon away with him from the crime scene.

Disorganized: little, if any, preplanning of the murder. The disarray present at the crime scene may include evidence such as blood, semen, fingerprints, and the murder weapon. There is minimal use of restraints and the body is often displayed in open view. The disorganized offender is thought to be socially incompetent and to have below-average intelligence.

So right there, we can see how your villains methods will change based on intellect. And a good writer will make that come alive in their stories.

The other helpful bit of profiling (as it relates to writing) is the type of killer you are writing.  We’re not just talking about what motivates them, but what are they getting out of it?  This one is a bit harder to stretch when looking at non-serial killer based bad guys, but let’s start with the profiling aspect, shall we?

holmes typology

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – hears voices or sees visions that tell him to kill (psychotic), the voices tend to be either God or the devil, legitimating the violence.
      • THE MISSIONARY – goes on hunting “missions” to eradicate a group of people (prostitutes, Jews, etc.) from face of earth, seems like “fine young man” to neighbors.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – takes pleasure from killing, but also gets some profit or personal gain from it. Females usually in this category.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – associates sexual pleasure with murder, sex while killing and necrophilia are eroticized experiences.
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – gets a “rush” or “high” from killing, an elixir of thrills, excitement, and euphoria at victim’s final anguish.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – takes pleasure from manipulation and domination (sociopath), experiences a “rush” or “high” from victim’s misery.

If you break the above down into writing (non-serial killer) villains, your breakdown may look more like this:

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – while these villains may still be considered “psychotic”, not all of them all.  When writing, it’s easier to view this as those individuals who have outside forces controlling their actions.  Take away those forces, and would they kill?
      • THE MISSIONARY – These are your questors, and the ones seeking revenge. They have one goal in mind and the end justifies the means.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These are your characters that gain social standing from killing.  Yes, they may enjoy it, but the killing is part of a plan to be more comfortable in life.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – this one is a lot harder to look at when you’re not dealing with serial killers: mainly because if you kill to get off, you’re going to do it again and again; and it is the MOST common type of serial killer.  That being said, we would love to hear some literary villains out there that fall under this category!
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These individuals don’t care about who or what they kill, as long as they get to kill.  These villains generally don’t last long because they lack focus, planning and organization, but boy do they have a good time doing so.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – These are the characters who use their underlings as chess pieces for their own personal pleasure and care little about the misery it causes.  They have one goal: to take over the world (or kingdom, or galaxy)

So now that all that is out of the way, you may ask ‘well, what the fuck was the point of all that?’  And there’s a simple answer.  People who profile the worst of the worse villains have come up with these typologies to explain away behavior.  So when you’re writing realistic bad guys, it’s important to ask yourself: is my villain believable?  Because if it’s not you will lose your readers.  Trust me.

If you missed Part One you can read it here.

Dissecting Villains: Real Life v. Writing

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:motivations

  • Revenge
  • Frustration/hate
  • Money/Greed
  • Sex/Jealousy
  • Political/Power
  • 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

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!