As a fictional author, part of the creative process is coming up with a unique and riveting storyline for the next book, something that will grab the reader and not let them go until they reach “the end.” I for one do not outline my books in advance, or even during my writing process. But I do come up with a basic idea, massage it in my head for many days, and start writing from there, fleshing out the story wherever it takes me as I type. For my protagonist, private detective Jarvis Mann, I needed a new case and plotline for the seventh book in the series. He had faced off against lying clients with checkered backgrounds, loan sharks and gangsters, greedy corporations, Russian mobsters, and Chinese government thugs. For my next book, I wanted a new and challenging, in a different way, antagonist, deciding pretty quickly on a serial killer. But before I could develop the story fully, I needed to educate myself about serial killers.
A little background on my novels. My Jarvis Mann, PI series is patterned like many of the classic private detectives, with the narrative seen through his eyes, a first-person point of view. When writing—I’m Jarvis. Like an actor, I get into the role and detail all that is going on around my character. I transform into Jarvis, needing to experience what he experiences–joy, laughter, anger, pain, love, and lust–having him put it all on the line when the situation calls for it, though thankfully those bullets ricocheting around him aren’t really being fired at me. But I need to create the emotion of each moment, live it enough to bring the scene to life for the reader so they can be transported into the drama. I now had to be the detective, much like Jarvis, and learn all I could, delving into some historical data about these gruesome murderers.
Examining the background of various serial killers is not fun research. Let’s be honest–it is soul-sucking! But to make my story believable I needed to dig in. Time to start investigating and put my private eye fedora on.
With the internet at our fingertips, using the web for fact-finding can make it simpler. Google is a researcher’s friend. But there is also a lot of faulty information out there. With the simple search string “serial killers,” Google found over 3.3 million search results. It would seem a lot of people spent an inordinate amount of time posting stuff about them to the internet. At the top of the list are several well-known names: The Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, and so on. Combing through, I found listings on the rare female serial killer, including Aileen Carol Pittman, who was portrayed by Charlize Theron in the movie Monster. There’s even a Wikipedia page listing serial killers in order by the number of victims. Being number one on that list is a little creepy. A distasteful David Letterman top ten list, with no punchline. There was no end to what could be found. But I needed to narrow this down and get into the head of a serial killer no matter how unpleasant it was. I would have an FBI profiler–named Doris–on the case in my book who would provide Jarvis with background on what makes these murderers tick. With this I narrowed down my search to “what makes a serial killer.” Now I was down to 168,000 results. Oh my…I really did have my work cut out for me. It was information overload. Maybe Google wasn’t my friend after all!
With so much information to comb through, it was now a matter of finding safe links, never simple on the World Wide Web. I began combing through a plethora of data to find what I was probing for, being careful not to infect my computer. My first question was defining a serial killer. Reading through several different pages, I found the definitions vary but generally amount to this: a person who commits two to four murders, with significant time in between each murder, with the murders taking place over more than a month. Though the FBI categorizes two or more murders as separate events. This is different from mass murderers, where all deaths are in one event, or spree killers, who commit multiple killings that happen in a shorter span of time. Then I found serial killers were categorized as four different types: power and control, visionary, mission, and hedonistic. Some killers can crossover into more than one of these, creating variations. Man, oh man! By now I was wondering who sits down and mulls over this data and comes up with these titles. Is it the same person who creates the names for those millions of paint colors you have to go through at Home Depot? Or is it some analyst who sits in a room at the FBI pouring over research and finding the right pattern, then creating a label for it. There is a job I wouldn’t care to have. Though it might pay better than what an indie author makes.
Now I examine the psychological element of killers. This is where those four different types come into play. There is a gratification factor they get from their acts, many times involving sexual contact. Since nearly all serial killers are male, many of the victims are women, though there are some who kill men. And then children who are victims, both male and female, which is heartbreaking to absorb. Demographics play into the statistics as well, with appearance, social status, and race a factor, the killer feeling the need to carry-out and execute a person of a certain type. Often targets are picked for a reason, even stalked to find what the killer yearns for. Patterns can come into play–but not always–at least that can be seen by a sane person. The killer may see it as a framework in their mind, making it more challenging for an investigator to find a pattern. He must walk in his killer’s shoes, a dangerous but necessary path to explore.
By this point, I need to take a break and absorb what I’ve read. Digging into all of this takes its toll on you. It’s hard to forget the horrors these people have committed. Often when I’m working through my book plot, I will go over scenes in my head before going to sleep. With eyes closed, I can visualize graphically what his taking place. This can make for a restless night, as those scenes can invade your dreams. I’ve often wondered how Stephen King sleeps at night, after coming up with the stories he has written through his career. Who knows, maybe he sleeps like a baby, flushing the images from his brain as he writes. I sure wish I could have while piecing this book together.
A couple of important questions kept popping up in my mind. Are serial killers born that way, or are they made? And are they a product of their environment? This was a key storyline I was exploring in the book and a question Jarvis asks of FBI profiler Doris. Reading through all the research I found, I could discern no conclusive answer. Like most other research, there are instances both one way and the other. Even in some high-profile cases, the pathology of the killer is not clear.
For instance, with Ted Bundy, a brutal serial killer who terrorized females from Washington to Florida, there were many theories on his reasoning to kill. Multiple psychiatric examinations by experts in the years leading up to his execution had different opinions about what fueled his behavior. Conclusions ranged from multiple personality disorder to antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or his simply being a sociopath, a person completely lacking remorse and empathy. In interviews, Ted himself blamed even pornography and true-crime literature were blamed, though mostly it would seem he just wanted to find fault with something or someone other than himself. He did his best to manipulate the system, as he did his victims, and even blamed the women he murdered rather than admit he was the true evil.
Other serial killers were the victims of abuse growing up, emotional, physical, or sexual, often at the hands of family members. This can lead to similar behavior on the killer’s part committed against other people and to the sadistic treatment of animals. Family, or lack thereof, can play a key role in shaping the mind of a killer. Certain experts even theorize that a person’s genetic make-up can play a part, leading to thoughts that maybe these killers are born that way. All this leads to one conclusion in my mind: that there wasn’t any one answer to any of this. Even with a poor upbringing, not all people will be become murderers. Many of these components are a factor, but in the end, as Jarvis says, “Maybe he is just crazy.”
With all the material I had absorbed, and with my mind sufficiently twisted and warped from reading about these horrible humans, I began to craft my killer. I could have taken him in several directions, but I decided he would be egotistical, coy, smart, and, above all, have a full sense of being superior to everyone else around him. He imagined himself the smartest man in the room and believed there was no way to catch him, no matter what bread crumbs he left along the way. And my private detective would need to get inside his head, think like him and outthink him, to catch him before another body turns up. That battle of wills between the two of them is the meat of the story, and one that would take its toll on my protagonist, both physically and mentally. Those scenes of tension between a sane man and a psychopath made for high drama.
Still, I needed to add human elements to my serial killer. Items he cared about. He needed dimensions. If he was just plain evil, without a care in the world, he would be pretty boring. And Jarvis would have a challenging time breaking through the mask of sanity. Looking back at several serial killers, there were instances of people in their life they cared for–quite possibly even adored to some degree. Some serial killers were even were married. In one instance, Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, virtually stopped killing after getting marrying. Even sociopaths can find true love. I decided that my killer’s complicating dimension, the one thing he would care about, would be family. At least what he thought was family. Though it would be more like the Manson Family (he would have the book Helter Skelter sitting on a bookshelf in his room) and not the kind of family Norman Rockwell depicted in his famous paintings. My killer’s family was a pawn for his plans, an extension of the deep-seated evil that flowed through his blood.
The dynamic between the two was challenging to write, but it was also enjoyable to the point where the drama it created on the pages was thrilling to read. Even when I reread it through the editing process, massaging the dialogue and reactions of the two as they faced off, I enjoyed the exchanges between them. Once the six-month writing journey was completed, I finally was able to sleep well, the images flushed from my head, knowing I had crafted some satisfying work on the pages that readers of this type of literature would enjoy. There was no damage done to myself, which is more than I could say for my lead character, who would feel the effects of his quest to stop the killer, effects that would linger in his psyche for some time and that I would explore in the next book in the series. Oh, how we writers love to make the lives of our characters a living hell. All in the name of compelling drama. Maybe we are the truly evil ones!
R Weir is an indie author who lives in Colorado with his wife, daughter, and dog. When not glued to the computer for work and writing, he relaxes by enjoying the outdoors, playing tennis, traveling in his motorhome, and riding a motorcycle wherever the wind takes him. His writing harkens back to the days of detectives and dames, but with modern plots and twists. All of the Jarvis Mann detective books have been bestsellers on Amazon, and his newest novel, The Front Range Butcher, received rave reviews as the best yet in the series. You can find him on Twitter at RWeir720, on Facebook at JarvisManPI, and on his website at https://rweir.net.