Getting into the Mind of a Killer

Writers’ Workshop Presented at Autumn Authors’ Affair, in Oak Brook, Illinois

There is an old African proverb which says,
“Human blood is heavy; the man who has shed it cannot run away.”

Let’s discuss getting into the mind of a killer…the one in your next novel.

This killer may be an integral part of your novel if you’re writing a psychological thriller where he shows up throughout your story and scenes are written using his point of view. However, even if you only get a really good look at him as the killer in the last few pages as your novel reaches its climax, you still need to have a clear working knowledge of what he really wanted when he did his kill or kills.

Key to this is realizing, as an author, that no matter how bad this person may be in society’s eyes, no matter how heinous his crimes, he still has his own personal needs and desires, skewed though they may be in our eyes. He still has his own personal agenda, even if that agenda is strangling every brunette female he sees wearing a pink skirt, then cutting pieces of her body away and taking them home for a midnight snack, or possibly just a souvenir.

You need, as an author, to remember you’re not sitting on the jury, you’re not here to judge. You also need, as an author, to remember that somebody, somewhere along the line, if only for a short time, loved him. Or maybe not, which makes him even worse off. However, it’s possible somebody did, but somewhere along the line things went very bad for him. It’s also possible that he was born the way he is and nothing could have stopped his personality from developing as it has. A lot of research has been done on this question and nobody has yet been able to come up with a definitive answer. But you, as an author, need to realize that no matter what he’s done, no matter how awful it might have been, he’s still a human being and in order to make him real in your readers’ eyes, you need to be able to portray him as such.

This is the touchy part and it’s hard to do–normally, you don’t want to make him into a truly lovable human being, although recently a couple of authors have done so successfully, according to reviewers. You do, however, have to understand he is human even if he has performed some inhuman acts. He’s going to have favorite foods, a favorite shirt, certain ways he does things. He may be educated or illiterate. He may be compulsively neat or he may be a slob. He may be taciturn, or he may be able to discourse for hours on subjects that would boggle the minds of most of us.

Case in point: Hannibal Lector, the cannibal killer. We saw him in the movie brilliantly discussing his own case with Claire Starling, the FBI agent. We saw him writing notes, playing with Claire’s mind, giving her little hints here and there…and inhaling her odor through the cell bars. Clearly, Lector was having fun with his own crimes. He had a sense of humor. Maybe not the same kind you and I have because just as clearly, he was insane. But his sense of humor was intact. He knew how to laugh and joke and tease, three common human elements.

There are many theories about killers, particularly serial killers. There’s the one currently being overused (in my opinion) by lawyers who tell jurors, “He was abused as a child, he can’t possibly be held accountable for his crimes. Somebody drove him to it.” And all the way at the other end of the spectrum is the theory that killers are born that way and there’s not a thing you can do about it either in early childhood or later on.

The second theory is probably the most prevalent one held by law enforcement officers who have to catch him and then make the charges stick in court because they don’t have time to worry about what made him do it. I’ve attended some fascinating workshops held by Dr. Oblonsky, a prominent Chicago forensic psychologist, and he once said something that really brought this home to me.

When I asked him if, in his interviews with killers (we were discussing Jeffrey Dahmer at the time) he delved into the pasts of these people to find out why they did these things, he said flat out, “No. I can’t care why they became killers. They did it. Period. My job is to determine whether they’re sane enough to go to trial. Period.” He went on to say that lots of people have been abused as children in one way or another, have had sad lives, lived in terrible conditions, but have still gone on to become fine citizens who do very good things with their lives.

We’ve all heard of people who have done this, and we’ve all watched television reports and read in newspapers about people who went the other way, with devastating results. And we know, from this, that a killer is a very complex person. I’m not suggesting you should do a total psychoanalysis of your proposed killer, but I am saying if you’re going to put him in a story you should be aware of his background, because he definitely has one.

So what makes him kill? Why, in the case of the Menendez brothers, did they not just run away? What really drove them to kill their own parents? What drove Jeffrey Dahmer to kill and then eat the body parts of his victims? What drove John Gacy to dress up like a clown during the day and entertain small children, then, in the dark of night, murder at least thirty one young men and bury them in his basement? What made Charles Manson mastermind so many cold-blooded murders and persuade his followers to carry them out? Richard Speck killed eight nurses in their dormitory. What on earth would make him do that? Jean Harris murdered the man she was in love with. Why was she unable to walk away from him and get on with her own life, as millions of other women in similar circumstances have done? And Susan Smith…why, we’ve all asked, did she not just walk away, with or without her lover, and let her children live? These are all questions you, as an author, need to ask yourself. Why do they do these things? In other words, what do they want?

Each of these people would be a separate discussion if we were to really ask ourselves why, and there’s not enough time or space here to discuss their individual cases. But they definitely all had their own agendas, although they might not even recognize what those agendas were. That’s up to the prison psychiatrists to figure out, and it might take years. However, it is up to you, as an author, to understand from the beginning, before you even start your book, why your particular murderer kills.

You need to get into your killer’s mind.

It’s important to clearly understand that murder does not only happen because of a bad childhood, because there are other factors involved. For one thing, if you’re going to create a believable killer, you have to first understand that a killer is a ruthless adult who behaves like a small child. When he kills, he wants what he wants at that moment, much as a child may want a piece of candy. He, at that moment, has total, cold disregard for the rights and feelings of his victims.

So the big question is, what does your killer want? This is the real nitty-gritty of your killer’s mind at the time of the murder, and you have to cut through all the psychobabble and take a clear-eyed look at the kernel. What, at the moment of the kill, does your killer really want?

Is it money? If it is, your killer is almost certainly already a suspect and you have to decide how you’re going to give him an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the murder, because he’ll definitely have one. It will be a lie, but he’ll have one, count on it. A person who kills for money thinks about it first. He plans his murder far in advance. This killer does not want to get caught because he wants to collect the thing uppermost in his mind, money. I’m not, by the way, referring to your street killer who kills for money to buy drugs. That person will walk up to anyone and kill them for a few dollars, but street drugs and gangs are a whole different subject. We’re talking here about writing a fascinating thriller with a lot of plot. In that context then, this killer is usually very smart, often highly educated.

Is it revenge? That can be a powerful motive. Often a revenge killer doesn’t really care whether he’s caught or not, he just wants revenge. I’m not saying he doesn’t think about it first, he does, but what he wants is revenge, pure and simple, and he doesn’t, as a general rule, consider the long-range consequences. His desire for revenge consumes him, and he often leaves a trail of clues because he doesn’t really care about anything other than the act of revenge itself. Revenge, for him, is all there is. There is nothing in his world more important, and there is nothing after that.

Is it sexual fulfillment? This is a particularly scary killer because he’s generally extremely street-smart and he does not want to get caught. He’ll go to great lengths to avoid getting caught. This type of killer often cannot attain sexual fulfillment unless he kills, and this is the reason he kills. He doesn’t want to be caught because he wants to kill again. He knows he’ll kill again. He likes the feeling, the power, and he craves the sexual release he can’t attain any other way. At the same time he’s avoiding capture, though, he often leaves a signature. A piece of the victim, cut away, even a small scrap of flesh, is a common thread among sex killers, and this type of killer almost always leaves the same signature. Often he leaves titillating notes to the police or newspapers, anything that will give him notoriety while he still maintains his anonymity. This killer plays with his potential captors and he’s very, very slippery. He’s a hard one to catch, but he must be caught. We know as well as he does that he’ll kill again, because what this killer wants is sexual release.

Maybe he’s mission oriented. This is the person who stalks an abortion clinic because he believes they’re killing babies, so he kills one or more of them. He’s on a mission. Son of Sam was a mission killer. He believed God was speaking to him through his dog. Ghengis Kahn was a mission killer. He was convinced God was on his side. History is riddled with mission killers who killed in the name of God. These people are not stupid, but somewhere along the line their wiring comes loose and that’s when they begin to kill. In their minds, God takes the blame, and who–in their minds–can argue with that?

There’s also the multiple killer who murders an entire family, usually his own. These killers usually only kill once, but it’s a big one. Or there’s the multiple murderer who stands in a tower and shoots indiscriminately, killing many people. This person usually only kills once and is quickly caught, if not killed himself in the act. These are the people–we may all be living next door to one–who go day by day living outwardly normal lives until something snaps inside and rage explodes.

The thing you have to remember is, wrong, confused, skewed, garbled though the kill may be, there’s always a reason for it in the back of that killer’s mind. This doesn’t mean that as responsible citizens and jurors we should ever let him go unpunished. It does mean that as authors, we should be aware of what the real reason is, because it has to be logical in the killer’s mind. In other words, it has to make enough sense to the killer that the author can successfully suspend disbelief in the reader’s eyes.

The following information has been gathered from several sources: F.B.I. files, local and national police files, and various forensic psychiatrists I’ve interviewed.

Some basic psychological components of a killer are:

  1. A dominant ego. He wants what he wants and nothing else matters.
  2. A chronic lack of maturity. He does not rationalize as a normal adult would. If he wants something, it must be his, whether it should be or not.
  3. Often an obsession with sex. He seeks control and release, and this is how he does it.

Here are some of the questions law enforcement officials ask themselves when profiling a murder case:

  1. Who is the victim? Woman, man, child, gay, prostitute, elderly person? If there is or has been more than one murder, are the targets varied, or are they specific types?
  2. Does the killing appear to be:
  3. Vision oriented.
  4. Mission oriented.
  5. Comfort oriented.
  6. Lust motivated.
  7. Thrill motivated.
  8. Power/control oriented.
  9. What was the cause of death?
  10. Is any kind of deviant sexual behavior evident?
  11. When did the murder occur? Time of day, month, year? Did it occur on or near a significant event or date, such as a religious observance date or occult related date? Is there anything unusual at all about when the murder was committed?
  12. Where did the murder occur?
  13. Where was the victim found?
  14. Was the victim originally abducted from another place? Where was that place?
  15. How was the murder committed?
  16. In the case of multiple murders, did the method vary? Was there anything unusual about the method?
  17. Does the murder appear to be sexual in nature?
  18. Does it appear to be motivated by profit?
  19. Does it appear to have been spontaneous?
  20. Was torture involved, either before or after the murder was committed?
  21. Does the murder appear to have been planned?

The F.B.I. has pinpointed two specific types of murders: organized and disorganized. This doesn’t only refer to the scene of the crime, i.e., whether it’s particularly messy or not, but more specifically, it refers to the projected personality and lifestyle of the killer, based on what’s found at the scene.

Certain personality types tend to repeat certain actions no matter what they’re doing. The soft-spoken individual who can sit for hours talking to the local priest about religion will, as a general rule, also take his own sweet time committing a horrible murder he’s been planning for ages, and enjoy himself equally at both tasks. The impulsive loudmouth who never thinks twice before he speaks or acts will leave an entirely different crime scene behind. From this scene, the investigating officers will construct a profile of the perpetrator. According to what I’ve been told, more often than not the resulting profile turns out to be right on the money, or very close to it.

Following are prevalent characteristics of both types:

The Organized Killer:

  1. High I.Q.
  2. Socially competent
  3. Sexually competent
  4. Lives with a partner
  5. Was an only child, or a favorite child
  6. Suffered harsh discipline or abuse in childhood
  7. Controls moods
  8. Maintains a stereotypical image
  9. Is charming
  10. Geographically and occupationally mobile
  11. Follows media coverage closely

This person may return to the crime scene, volunteer information, may be a police groupie. He anticipates being questioned, likes it, is always eager to help. His crime investigation will typically show that he:

  1. Targeted a stranger as the victim
  2. Personalized the victim
  3. Controlled conversations with the victim
  4. Controlled the crime scene
  5. Required the victim to be submissive
  6. Planned it
  7. Acted aggressively
  8. May have moved the body to another place
  9. Disposed of the weapon
  10. Left very little, if any, evidence that he was there

The Disorganized Killer:

  1. Has average to low I.Q.
  2. Unskilled worker, possibly high school dropout
  3. Socially immature
  4. Rough childhood with unstable father image
  5. Abused when a child
  6. Uses alcohol or drugs
  7. Lives alone
  8. Lives or works near crime/crimes
  9. Is a night person
  10. Has poor personal hygiene
  11. Has secret hiding places
  12. Does not usually date

This type of person may want to attend the funeral. He clips the obituary, keeps a diary and any news clippings related to the crime. He may become very religious, may change his residence, and may have personality changes. His crime investigation will often turn up the fact that he:

  1. Acted spontaneously
  2. Target the victim as someone he knows
  3. Depersonalized his victim
  4. Kept conversation with victim to a minimum
  5. Created a chaotic crime scene, did not bother to clean it up
  6. Attacked with sudden violence
  7. Did not use restraint, moved too fast
  8. May have had sex with the corpse
  9. Left body at the crime scene
  10. Left the weapon
  11. Left a lot of evidence

Any of the people I’ve described here could be your killer, and a fascinating guy he can be, too, if you do it right. In my workshops I’ve seen many, many people who thought they could never do this go ahead and do it, and do it well.

At this point in my workshop I give the audience a little job to do, and you might want to try it. I hope you do, because it’s–well, I hate to use the word “fun”, but let’s face it, if you’re a writer, it is.

I’m going to give you three motives. Pick one and write a short description of how this could cause a person to actually kill another person. You’ll have to work fast; this is part of the method. Don’t worry about grammar or fine-editing, what you need to do now is use stream-of-consciousness and get into the mind of this person as fast as you can. At the end of this paragraph I’ll show you one scene I wrote describing a revenge murder in one of my criminology classes, just to give you an idea. But for now, it’s your turn. Imagine what would compel one person to kill another person, using one of these three motives:

  1. Greed
  2. Revenge
  3. Vision

Give yourself fifteen minutes to do this, and at the end of that time you’ll probably be astonished at what you’ve written.

Go ahead, scare yourself. Get into the head of a killer. Email it to me if you want to, I’d love to see what you come up with.

Here’s an example of what I’ve been talking about. This is a scene from a revenge kill:

The mother looks down on the inert form of her son in the hospital room. They’ve just let her in, but up to now she’s been sitting alone in the waiting room listening to the CODE BLUE announcements over the loudspeaker and watching medical people rush into her son’s room. She knows CODE BLUE means a life threatening situation. This has happened twice in the past hour, while she was sitting alone, unable to help him.

Her son is a heroin addict. She’s known for two months now. She’s been out of her mind every minute, every second since she found out. She cries in the car on her way to work. She cries sitting at her desk or standing at the stove cooking dinner. And she cries in her sleep at night.

She knows, of course she knows nobody forced him to take the first hit. Knows it in her mind, but not in her heart. In her heart she blames herself. Society. His friends. Her ex-husband. Her new husband. And in particular, Carlo, the neighborhood drug pusher.

She watches the machine breathe for her son, tubes inserted into every possible crevice in his body. A horrible picture, but all she can think of, all her mind can accept at this moment, is a memory of him when he was a happy small boy, gazing up at her when she was dressed up to go to a party, fingering her dress with his tiny hands and murmuring, “Pretty mommy.”

Her emotions wash over her, leaving her not weak, as you might expect, but unbelievably strong, with a horrifying resolve so consuming, so overwhelming that she knows she can’t control it. She can’t just sit by and do nothing. No. Not any more.

Her son’s skin is white. She can’t help thinking, dead white. He’s thin. Dirty. Bruised. She wonders how medical people can stand to treat him in this unspeakable condition, knowing he did this to himself. She knows all this, and yet…she also knows how this happened. The phone call in the middle of the night said it all. Two hazy words, “Carlos” and “Overdose” are one word in her mind.

She has no money. She can’t possibly pay this hospital bill. But somehow…she’s not sure how, the mechanics escape her for the moment…somehow she will find a way. Not to pay the hospital bill. That’s the last thing on her mind.

She doesn’t want money to pay a bill. She’s going to find someone to kill Carlos.

If it’s the last thing she ever does, if it takes everything she has or ever will have, one way or the other–whether her son lives or dies–she will kill Carlos. She will be there. She will watch. And just before he dies, she will tell him why.

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