Writing the Bad Guys
I get asked a lot about the process of writing about 'the bad guys' in my books. It's a fair question, as they're such a big part of what I do.
Coming up with the villain of the piece is, really, one of my favorite things. In the Smoky Barrett series, I've intentionally chosen to write about bad guys that are a cut above the norm. In other words, they're not just the bagger at the supermarket that's taken a shine to making women scream. They generally have long term plans driven by long term motives.
The first question, for me, is always 'what do they do?' What's their twist? What floats their boat, when it comes to killing? Serial murder is almost always a form of sexual substitution. It's a sexual act, in other words. I take a look at it from that perspective first. The next question becomes: why are they doing it? Do they come from an abusive childhood? If so, is there something specific in their history of abuse that drives them to perform murder in the way they do?
I approach the psychology of it from two directions. One is general. By that I mean, there are traits almost all serial killers have in common, a kind of 'mental bedrock.' For example, if you want to get a feeling for what a serial killer is like, you need to understand how a sociopath thinks. You need to understand that to a sociopath, you or I have as much spiritual significance as a hammer or a deck chair. We're things, not people. You really have to get a grip on the hugeness of that concept. On first blush, that seems obvious. 'Yeah, okay. Sure.' But give yourself time to really get your mind around it, and you start to see just how alien such a mindset is. The Sociopath Next Door, by Dr. Martha Stout, is an excellent reference. I also read 'Mind Hunter' by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.
Along this same line, I acquired the textbook 'Practical Homicide Investigtion', which is really invaluable from a forensic standpoint for any crime or thriller writer, but is also absolutely horrifying to read. It's filled with graphic photographs and representations of actual homicides, and, again, it serves to demonstrate the gulf between most of us and those who kill for pleasure. I remember reading that book the first time and being filled with this incredible, visceral revulsion. Then I thought, 'wow, the guys I write about, a lot of them, are sexually aroused by this stuff.' It was a thought that literally gave me a sleepless night.
The next thing I look at as I'm crafting a killer is more specific. He likes to kill people, fine. But why? Really, why? What happened to him or her? Did anything happen? Was he just 'born bad?' This is a person, however twisted, and he has to be three-dimensional. One of things that's disturbing and fascinating when you research guys like Dahmer or Bundy is that you find out about the normal parts of their lives and not just the twisted sides. In many ways, it's more comfortable to keep them simple and black and white...
How does it all affect me? Writing about this kind of thing? Well, sometimes it gets to me. I'm human, and (yes it's true) I am not a serial killer! This stuff can be really disturbing, and I've certainly had my moments. But... it's fiction. I'm thankful I don't have to deal with this in reality. However many interviews I read, or photographs I see, I've never had to walk in on a crime scene, or deliver news to a grieving family, or listen to a cannibalistic serial killer (as I saw on a documentary, once) tell me that I'd taste good with some salt.
Anytime I'm feeling a little bit shook up, I remember that and I'm thankful.