International bestselling crime novelist Luke Murphy played six years of professional hockey before retiring in 2006. He’s also an award-winning sports columnist, a radio journalist, and a teacher. Today he joins us to discuss the psychology of serial killers. Learn more about Luke and his books at his website.
Psychology of a Serial Killer
As a crime novelist, creating and developing emotion-driven characters is key. Because I write character-driven books, characters are the lifeline of my story; they drive the plot. For me, a powerful antagonist is just as important as a powerful protagonist.
In an antagonist, a writer wants to develop someone the readers want to hate, someone who the reader wants to root against, but find out more about. So when thinking about a serial killer, a writer must try to get inside the head of an individual who is so twisted, so manipulating that committing a crime feels like second nature.
There has been A LOT of research done on the psychology of serial killers, but really, there are still NO definitive answers. If you watch cop shows, then you know the FBI’s typical serial killer profile: white male, ages 20-30, target their victims within the vicinity of their living space, etc.
But in reality, not every serial killer falls into a single type, and these classifications don’t explain what leads someone to become a serial killer.
The thing with creating fictional serial killers is that the boundaries are limitless. For instance, serial killers can be: any age, any gender, any race, intelligent/unintelligent, educated/uneducated, organized/disorganized, employed/unemployed, loved too much/abused as a child, socially awkward/fits in anywhere.
They can be classified as: act-focused killers (killing is about the act itself), process-focused killers (enjoys torture), lust killers (sexual pleasure from killing), thrill killers, gain killers (believe they will profit), power killers (in charge of life and death).
Every writer wants his/her serial killer to be distinguishable, stand out in a crowd of murderers throughout literature, but many have these similar features: narcissistic personalities, callous, exploitive individuals with blunted emotions, impulsive inclinations and an inability to feel guilt or remorse.
When I first sit down to lay out the details for my killer, there are five things I think about: a power junkie, a manipulator, an egotistical bragger, a superficial charmer and an average Joe.
It can be organized, an attack planned methodically, from choosing victims, carrying weapons, transporting victims, and disposing a body. This makes it difficult for investigators to collect evidence. After a killing, they often follow the investigation in the media.
Maybe it’s disorganized, where nothing is planned. Victims hold no symbolic value, "wrong place at the wrong time."
The author’s killer must possess the cleverness and wit to be able to dispose of multiple bodies and outsmart the police by leaving little to no traces of evidence. They reel their victims into a false sense of security and once they have control, they kill, fulfilling their wants, desires, and impulses.
Normally homicides are committed due to disputes that range from family affairs, gang violence, financial difficulties, and disputes between lovers. But serial killers are driven by instinct and a desire to kill. Due to these sexual desires and the need to fulfill their arousing fantasies, victims are usually complete strangers which means there is no link for detectives to investigate.
For me as a reader, I want closure. The subsequent arrest and proof need to be warranted and well planned in detail. Answers can’t be snared out of the blue; there has to be plausibility in the final outcome.
I want some background into the serial killer. Are their psychopathic traits due to DNA or upbringing? What were their parents like? Early childhood abuse or neglect might lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders or phobias. Problem during the early stages of growing up can cause a child to seek relief through activities of violence such as killing small animals.
How will the investigator get there? What mistakes will the killer make? It all has to tie together and leave the reader satisfied. It’s very important for a writer to make sure the reader is aware of the motivations for the killer. This could be as simple as the killer finds comfort in his/her fantasies and dreams that take them into a realm that only they can control.
If you read my novels, please let me know if I was able to fulfill my criteria in creating and developing my antagonist.
This time, it’s not a job.
After proving his innocence as a murder suspect, taking down an assassin, and being an instrumental part in solving a high profile murder, Calvin Watters believes he can finally move on—until Ace Sanders’ prison escape catapults him into action.
This time, it’s personal!
Something has always bothered Detective Dale Dayton about the arrest of Ace Sanders. Call it police intuition, but his inner ‘cop alarm’ keeps twitching. When Dale reopens the case, he’s introduced to new evidence that leads him into a political nightmare.
Who will play the Wild Card to survive?
While Calvin tracks Sanders across continents and into unknown, unfriendly surroundings, Dale remains in Vegas to uncover the truth behind police corruption, prison escapes, and hired assassins. But Calvin and Dale must be vigilant, because there’s a deadly, new player in town.