Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Serial Killer 101

I originally wrote this for the Horror Writers Discussion topic about avoiding cliches, then took it down for some reason. Plus I felt like people might think I was bragging at the end when I was trying to explain the steps I took in creating Brame and trying to make him less of a cliche.

Since I write a serial killer I guess that's what I'll talk about.

Character development is one way to either fall into cliche or avoid it. With a serial killer it's easy to go the cliched route. The profile of a serial killer is often that of a sociopath. There are all sorts of checklists for characteristics of a sociopath based on the DSM and I've seen there is a tendency for writers to simply pick traits from the list and that's their character. To make matters worse they pick only the traits they see as positives leaving their killers without any weaknesses. So what you have is the stereotypical serial killer who is [or thinks he is] charming and charismatic, ruthless, remorseless, emotionally unattached, narcissistic - and yet they can't really be blamed for their narcissism because they are, after all, perfect, except for that nasty little quirk of killing people. I think the tendency to make the charming, handsome, ruthless killer is an attempt to make a desirable or sympathetic character without doing any work.

It's perfectly all right to be the charming, handsome, ruthless killer if he/she is written well. If the reader really does find them believably charming then the first act of ruthless killing is quite a shock. Or the contrast of a beautiful exterior with a very ugly interior can be compelling, but that requires skill and careful crafting.

Socipathic serial killers can come off as flat, one-dimensional stereotypes without the writer really knowing their character. First, if the serial killer is a socipath, the writer needs to understand more about a sociopath than just a list of traits. How do those traits affect the killer? If he stalks a certain type of victim the writer should know why and let that develop in the story.

If the story is not from the POV of the killer it's still important to know what motivates the killer, how they think, and what others think of him. Show the emotional impact of their violence on victims not just the pain.

Because socipathic serial killers share basic traits a writer really has to dig deep and fully understand their villain to make him unique and not a cookie cutter killer. Why he kills who he kills can make him stand out. His weaknesses, habits, and quirks can also take him out of the mold. I reccomend reading about real life serial killers as well as taking a close look at popular fictional serial killers. Ask yourself what makes them unique, look closely at how the author shows that, then start dissecting your own serial killer.

That said there are other types of serial killers than sociopaths. Before I go any further, do not confuse socipathic with psychotic. Brame is psychotic. His victims are random and he chooses them for different reasons, sometimes simply because they're available. When it comes to having a concept of right and wrong he does and he doesn't. He believes being impolite and using foul language is wrong, but he doesn't believe it's wrong when he kills somebody for committing those infractions. It's simply something that has to be done. Even though I've never stated why he holds this belief, I know why and that helps me write him. I have guidelines for his behavior.I know what motivates him and how he came to be the way he is. Also, he's not perfect- he makes mistakes, gets hurt, loses bodies, can't control his emotions, and his only friend is a box. I hope he comes off as more than just a crazy guy who talks to a box because I took the time to develop his character before writing him. Instead of just deciding to have a crazy guy who hears voices and running with that, I defined who the voices belong to and their relationship to him. I hope that does a little bit to avoid the trope of the demented crazed killer.

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