Inside The Mind of a Killer: Researching Your Antagonist

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. The result was my novel, Serial Date.

ImageHow 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.Image

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 NPR.org (http://n.pr/vVfWlF ) 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 Imagethat 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?

Originally posted on The Unpredictable Muse and Indies Unlimited

About dvberkom

Bestselling author of the Kate Jones and Leine Basso thrillers. View all posts by dvberkom

5 responses to “Inside The Mind of a Killer: Researching Your Antagonist

  • restedsoul

    I truly loved your approach to the subject. Good learning it from grassroot.

    Like

  • Lona W. Hall

    I’ve always enjoyed research and I’m super excited now to combine it with writing. Having the internet makes it so easy! The book I plan to write is going to explore temptation, and I had a bit of fun yesterday finding information on that subject.

    I’ve read a lot of psychological thrillers and “met” some very interesting killers that way! The Prey series comes to mind specifically; some of the Kay Hooper books were great for that too. I knew that maybe it was time to branch out into other genres when it was too easy for me to predict the obligatory FBI profile that seems to show up very frequently in the books🙂

    You did have quite the interesting villein there in Serial Date. If you ever do another edition of the book – it would be great to see more from his POV and get more of his history along with the two girls he had working for him.

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    • dvberkom

      Temptation is a GREAT subject–there are so many ways you could explore that idea. As for another edition of Serial Date, I don’t have any plans to re-visit the killer, although I agree Azazel would be an interesting story🙂 I’m sure I’d use satire like I did in the book, though, which would lessen his creep-factor LOL

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  • Lona W. Hall

    Oh wow – just read the article you linked to. So interesting! Coincidentally…Fall River? Walking distance of my house – my town borders it on my street. And I really get what he felt after doing those tests on himself. I was once diagnosed Schizophrenic Sociopath after taking a battery of psych tests for something completely unrelated (job application.) While I know I’m not about to go on a killing spree, it did make me wonder about what’s going on in that crazy brain of mine!

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