Inside the Mind of a Killer: Researching your Antagonist

Author DV Berkom

So there I was, minding my own business writing one of those truly twisted novels that grabs hold of you and has to come out when I came to the killer’s debut. I’d never attempted to write a character quite so creepy and wasn’t relishing that first passage. In fact, I continually wrote around him, putting off the scene until I felt I could do justice to him instead of creating a killer clichรฉ. Yes, I could have abandoned the effort and gone on to something else, but a disturbing dream I’d had several months prior provided the inspiration for the story and I felt compelled to follow it through.

How do you write a fresh psychopath? Readers today have been clubbed over the head with serial killers (pardon the pun) to the point that it’s become a joke in many literary agencies and publishing houses. The only way I could think to do it was to go to my default: research. I love learning new things. Researching has a way of surprising you with oddball connections, often to be used in ways you’d never expect. A reference here, a notation there, it’s similar to a treasure hunt. Like I said, I love research.

Until I started to investigate killers.

Now, I haven’t lived what anyone would call a sheltered life, but I’d so far avoided learning specific details about the habits of serial killers. The information I came across in my search made my skin crawl.

Reality is so much more frightening than fiction.

The information creeped me out to the point I’d find myself vacuuming the living room, unsure how that Hoover ended up in my hand. One thing to understand about me: I don’t like housework. I’ll let dust and dirt accumulate until I can’t find the couch or someone decides to visit. Apparently, I found something I like even less.

I followed this routine whenever I delved into the bizarre world of a psychopath, and though you could eat off my living room floor, my manuscript was going nowhere. No closer to fleshing out my killer, (I know- another pun. Sorry) he wouldn’t budge from the twisted caricature of a human being I’d created and I was close to giving up. Sure, I could give him odd quirks and mannerisms, but it felt as if I was making him play dress up: all show, no substance.

That is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the science behind the psychopath. A series of articles on NPR.org discussing the biological basis for psychopathic behavior led me ever deeper into the complexities of a killer’s mind. Fascinated, I began to read white papers on personality disorder, multiple personalities, cannibalism and the like. Where once I’d been stymied by what motivated someone to kill, an ocean of ideas began to form around what my antagonist’s early life was like, his taste in music, food, what made him tick.

Soon, I had seventeen pages of articles, notes and sketches, all revolving around my antagonist. I knew him, knew what made him get out of bed in the morning, why he chose the victims he did. Most importantly, I knew how he justified killing. That was my ‘eureka’ moment.

Understanding my antagonist helped me move past the visceral recoil from the heinous crimes I read (and wrote) about and gave a more human face to the killer. I learned there’s an entire area of scientific inquiry emerging that uses genetic testing and MRIs to map the brains and biological processes of psychopaths, on occasion admitting the results of these tests as evidence in court trials.

Can the fact that a person has the genes and/or brain structure associated with violent behavior be enough to reduce a defendant’s culpability in a trial? It’s a new take on an age-old question.

Whatever the answer may be, for now I can’t wait to write the killer’s scenes and try to work in some small kernel of research to help the reader understand him better. Yeah, still pretty creepy, but it worked.

Now, where the heck is that couch?

Author: D.V. Berkom

DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest region of the US, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat. Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes in the male point of view whenever she gets a chance. Indies Unlimited: https://indiesunlimited.com/author/d-v-berkom/ Amazon US author page link: http://www.amazon.com/DV-Berkom/e/B004EVOYH6 Website: www.dvberkom.com

17 thoughts on “Inside the Mind of a Killer: Researching your Antagonist”

  1. Good post. First we need to get inside the mind of our character, whoever that may be. Then we have to get out again and pull him out for readers to see. You gave us a great look at your process.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Yvonne. That's the part of writing I like best- actually becoming the character for a time. Although, my last bad guy had such a high creep factor I couldn't wait to get back to the protagonist ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Good article, but I have to say I really liked your comment about dressing the killer up, making him all show with no substance. All too often, I've read books where that's exactly what the author did. They settled for the easiest route to take. I hope Serial Date does well. You pressed on and continued the research to make your killer not a caricature.

  4. Wonderful.

    A brief story:

    A few years ago, I ran into (literally) a lady who I'd last seen in a 6th grade class. A tiny gal, barely 5' came up to me on a street corner in downtown Boston and asked, "Are you Peter Morin?"

    What does she do? She is a forensic psychiatrist who treats the murderers who are committed to the institution for the criminally insane.

    Now there's an interview coming down the road.

  5. Great post. I am super disturbed…the psychopath in my first novel, Chet, was the easiest and most fun to write of all the characters. Um…but yeah, great post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, JD. I'm jealous- writing Azazel was fun, yes, easy- not so much for me. Maybe the next one will be now that I'm no longer a serial killer virgin…

      Hmmm- "Serial Killer Virgin" the next title for a book? The possibilities are endless…

  6. Great article. So many times in movies and books they throw us a killer/bad guy with no reason or look in his head to why he is doing the things he is. It's always so much more interesting when its psychological!

    Thanks DV

    1. Thanks for posting, Jenni. I agree- paper cut-outs of bad guys are so boring. I love a good psychopath who can stand out in a crowd ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Eureka moments are always my favorite. And sociopathic killers are an interesting lot too. Several characters in my Dragonslayer's series are sociopaths. Very unusual group dynamics.

    Good article, gave me a smile because I know all about the research.

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