When it comes to villains, serial killers are at the top of the food chain. They have no conscience and, crucial to the plot, they’ve been getting away with it for years, sometimes decades. As readers, we love a good whodunit and nothing beats a serial killer as the bad guy. To be fair, a serial rapist or arsonist or kidnapper will also do (just variations on the serial killer theme). Books and films are littered with them from Norman Bates in Psycho to Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Still, in order for a thriller featuring a serial killer to work, the author has to create a real and believable villain, one we root against and one our hero/heroine will stop at nothing to apprehend. While it sounds simple on the surface, a great deal goes into the creation of the fictional serial villain.
Having recently published a novel featuring my own serial killer, the “Co-Ed Killer”, I was curious about how other authors went about the task. Fortunately, five successful authors I admire (I’ve read every one of them!) were kind enough to answer a few questions about their writing and their serial villains.
How important was it to you as the author to let the reader get inside the mind of your serial killer/kidnapper? Why or why not?
Angela Marsons, author of SILENT SCREAM and EVIL GAMES: In SILENT SCREAM, I wrote certain chapters from the point of view of the killer. It was hugely important for me to let the reader get inside the murderer’s mind. I wanted them to feel disgust at his thoughts and repulsion for how he viewed his victims. I like to offer the reader an opportunity to know the serial killer and what drives them.
Simon Wood, author of THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY: I think it’s very important to show the mindset of the killer. Remember, to a killer, they aren’t the villain of the story. From their perspective, they’re the hero. His/her cause is just. That’s what makes a villain truly terrifying. An indiscriminant killer is scary, but a killer with a manifesto we can understand is truly terrifying.
Kylie Brandt, author of 11 and The Mindhunters series: I think it’s always important that our readers understand ‘why’. What makes the villain act this way; what experiences have shaped him or her. When the reader gets into the villain’s head, he or she become real. We don’t fear what doesn’t feel real to us. When the reader fears for our characters, they have emotionally invested in the suspense we’ve created.
Writing about a serial killer is a far cry from the advice, “write what you know.” Did you specifically research the subject? How?
Kylie Brandt: You’ve hit on my pet peeve 🙂 Write what you know has to be the worst advice ever given to authors. When I began writing if I had stuck to what I knew I’d be writing the most boring book every known–Love in the Laundry Cycle or some such literary genius 🙂 With the Internet research is at your fingertips, so write what can be researched. And almost everything can be researched! I just finished a book about a hyper-polyglot, a heroine who speaks over a hundred languages. Given that my secondary language is high school Spanish, at which I am only fluent after midnight in Cancun 🙂 , I received help from people who could translate phrases in Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Slovenian and Serbian.
For The Collector in 11, I just reread books and articles on serial killers and their motivation. My research library at home is rather extensive….
Michael Prescott, author of RIPTIDE and SHATTER:
I’ve always been skeptical about that particular piece of advice. Usually it results in tedious navel-gazing novels about a sensitive young writer trying to find his place in the world. Yawn. Better advice is probably “write what interests you.” That said, I don’t know why serial killers are so interesting to me. Maybe I don’t want to know. But probably it’s the fact that you can live right next door to one and not know it. I did extensively research the subject by reading nonfiction books about the psychology of serial killers and the forensic technology used in solving such cases. I also read a lot of thrillers in the serial killer genre when I was getting started.
Simon Wood: I suppose I am creating what I know or at least what I understand. Both the killer and the heroine of the book are both victims of post traumatic stress disorder and I spoke to a psychologist for months about the subject to get a handle on the behavior of victims of PTSD. But to be honest, I don’t really set out to make a serial killer per se. I tend to create a character that has a particular set of motives and actions first. It’s usually a surprise when I look back at what I’ve written to find that I’ve created a serial killer.
Lisa Regan, author of ABERRATION and HOLD STILL: I read a ton of books by John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler who were the FBI agents who helped found the agency’s Behavioral Analysis Unit or what most people now think of as their “profiling” unit. It was deeply disturbing stuff but very fascinating psychologically.
What do you say to friends that ask, “How can you write about something so grisly?”
Kylie Brandt: My agent and a couple different editors have told me that I’m ‘dark and twisted’; I dearly hope they are referring to my writing When people ask me how I can write something like that, I just smile and say, “I have a dark side.”
Michael Prescott: I say, “The voices in my head tell me to.” That shuts ’em up.
Lisa Regan: I get this question a lot! My answer is usually just that I’ve always been curious about how and why human beings can do such horrible things to one another–and how the survivors or families of victims move on and get past it–and that fiction gives me a safe place from which to explore that. Plus these things do happen in real life. Certainly, true serial killers aren’t all that common but they do exist. As one of my readers once said, “Hiding from reality won’t change it.”
Who is your all-time favorite serial villain?
Kylie Brandt: Hannibal Lector was truly genius, and so incredibly well researched (although the author ignored a lot of what he was told by his experts). What made him so terrifying was the utter contrast between his refined cultured life and his barbaric acts. The most telling thing in the movie that best explains Lector is when Starling is trying to convince someone that Lector would never come after her (Clarice), saying, “He’d consider it rude.” Imagine, a man who would butcher and eat his victims, being worried about seeming uncivil. Every villain, no matter how despicable, has a moral code–boundaries that he or she won’t cross. Evil is fascinating. And allowing the reader to see the villain’s moral code allows them to understand him or her intimately.
Did any real-life case or crime inspire your book or your villain?
Michael Prescott: A friend told me about a murderer in Japan who got off with a very light sentence and ended up as a media celebrity. This gave me the idea for the character of Peter Faust in FINAL SINS, a German serial killer who is free to walk around loose and has attracted an entourage of disturbed fans.
Lisa Regan: No, but during my research, John Douglas’ book, OBSESSION was really instrumental in my being able to show the escalation that some of these killers go through. Some of them start out as peeping toms or stalkers and their crimes escalate over time into killing. My character’s behaviors initially started out as minor (i.e. watching, stalking) and over time, he became a killer.
Simon Wood: The killer in THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY is a combination of people I know. A couple of acquaintances I know have very uncompromising views on how people should be punished for their societal transgressions. As for the punishment method, that was based on the rumored punishment dealt by a local father upon his sons in my hometown when I was a kid. Naturally, I took these influences and made them more extreme.
Have you ever considered your serial killer/villain as a recurring character?
Angela Marsons: Yes, In EVIL GAMES I found myself really enjoying writing the scenes from the viewpoint of the villain who also happens to be a sociopath. She is a character that I feel has much more to say and could make for a very interesting second outing.
Kylie Brandt: I have had the same villain part of the overarching suspense plot in books before. Books 4-6 of The Mindhunters and the more recent Circle of Evil trilogy (where it turns out three villains are working together). It’s a bit tricky because readers like closure. So there has to be some sort of closure at the end of each title, even if the biggest baddie is still out there. The Collector won’t be recurring character…I thought my heroine deserved seeing him get what he had coming to him after all he’d put her through.
Serial killers are typically male although there are a couple of famous exceptions. How important do you think the gender of the serial killer/villain is in believability for the reader?
Kylie Brandt: It’s all about motivation. One of my villains in the Circle of Evil trilogy is a woman. Because they are more rare, and because most female serial killers appear most often in certain types of crimes, the writer has to do some excellent research to devise a character with the reason and experiences to have become the evil character in our books. Certainly having a female serial killer can be done credibly.
Michael Prescott: I’ve tried writing only one female serial killer. For me, it was harder than writing a male villain. I found I had an unfortunate tendency to make her kind of campy, like Cruella de Vil, only without the puppies.
Angela Marsons: I think the believability comes from the motivation of the villain in which case having a female serial killer is acceptable. I think a serial killer motivated by hate is far more believable as a male but a villain motivated by jealousy could very easily be a female. A murderer with a motive for personal gain could also be either.
Often, serial killers are also serial rapists. Can you say why you chose to include or not include sexual assault in your book?
Simon Wood: There are no sexual assaults in THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY for the simple reason that it doesn’t feature into the killer’s make up. He’s on a crusade. He’s dealing punishment on society’s wrongdoers. Sexual assault goes against his ‘moral’ code.
Kylie Brandt: In 11, The Collector is a violent sexual sadist who collects women to satisfy his sexual urges. I try not to get too graphic…I’m a bit too squeamish to include the actual assaults, because I really don’t think people want to read that. They want to fully understand what the heroine has gone through and what the villain is capable of. Sometimes when the author goes into too much detail of the assaults themselves, I find it rather exploitive.
What actor/actress would be perfect for you serial villain(s)?
Lisa Regan: I’ve always envisioned James McAvoy as the perfect actor to play the serial killer in my book, ABERRATION.
Using a serial villain sets up a scenario where the hero is caught in a “race against time” to find the villain before the next body is found. How do you think serial villains impact your job as a writer to ramp up the suspense?
Kylie Brandt: I find the suspense and action scenes to be the quickest and easiest to write. That sense of urgency in the plot transfers to my mind and fingers 🙂 The h/h are constantly racing to outwit the villain before he or she strikes again. They are at a disadvantage….they are restrained by the constraints of the law and the fact that they won’t hurt people in order to meet their goals. The villain has no such constraints. So they have to be smarter. It becomes a cat and mouse game. A ticking clock is a natural plot device for amping up the suspense.
Want to get to know these great writers?
Kylie Brant is the author of thirty-six romantic suspense novels. A three-time RITA Award nominee, a four-time Romantic Times award finalist, a two-time Daphne du Maurier Award winner, and a 2008 Romantic Times Career Achievement Award winner (as well as a two-time nominee), Brant ‘s books ave been published in twenty-nine countries and eighteen languages. Her novel Undercover Bride is listed by Romantic Times magazine as one of the best romances in the last twenty-five years. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, its Kiss of Death Mystery and Suspense chapter, Novelists, Inc.; and International Thriller Writers. When frequently asked how an elementary special education teacher and mother of five comes up with such twisted plots, her answer is always the same: “I have a dark side.” 🙂 Visit her online at kyliebrant.com.
Angela Marsons lives in the Black Country with her partner, their bouncy Labrador and a swearing parrot.
She first discovered her love of writing at Junior School when actual lessons came second to watching other people and quietly making up her own stories about them. Her report card invariably read “Angela would do well if she minded her own business as well as she minds other people’s”. After years of writing relationship based stories (MY NAME IS and THE MIDDLE CHILD) Angela turned to Crime, fictionally speaking of course, and developed a character that refused to go away. In September 2013 she was signed to Bookouture.com in a 4 book deal starting the DI Kim Stone series in SILENT SCREAM. The second instalment EVIL GAMES to be published 29th May 2015. Learn more at www.angelamarsons-books.com.
After twenty years in traditional publishing, novelist Michael Prescott found himself out of work in 2007, his career apparently over. On a whim, he began releasing his older titles and some new novels in ebook form. Much to his amazement, sales took off, and by 2011, he was one of the bestselling ebook writers in the United States, profiled in USA Today and sought after for interviews. To date, he has sold more than 1.5 million ebooks. To learn more, visit www.michaelprescott.net.
Lisa Regan is the author of three suspense novels., FINDING CLAIRE FLETCHER, ABERRATION, and HOLD STILL She has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Master of Education Degree from Bloomsburg University. She is a member Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Visit her online at http://www.lisaregan.com.
Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He’s a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist, an animal rescuer and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and four cats. He’s the Anthony Award winning author of WORKING STIFFS, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, PAYING THE PIPER, TERMINATED, ASKING FOR TROUBLE, WE ALL FALL DOWN and the Aidy Westlake series. His next thriller is THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY due out March ’15. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at http://www.simonwood.net.