Many of today’s bestselling mystery and thriller novels revolve around serial killers. Makes sense as this type of killer seems to appeal most to the fear factor in us, or the bogeyman or bogeywoman come to fictional life, waiting to be taken down by law enforcement.
Of course, not all invented serial killers come across as believable, as many authors rely on stereotypes, active but not necessarily accurate imaginations, or even Hollywood’s cookie cutter serial killers in creating this villain. The most convincing serial killers in fiction are those that lend themselves to the verisimilitude inherent in real life serial killers.
As a criminologist and thriller writer, I am an expert on serial killers and use that knowledge accordingly in driving my fictional stories, tension, and character development. But you don’t need a background in criminology to create a believable and frightening serial killer. A little knowledge can go a long way in strengthening your serial killers, what they are made of, and even how to profile and apprehend them at the end of the day.
What is a serial killer? The general assumption is that it’s simply a killer who has killed a lot of people over the course of time. In fact, a person can be called a serial killer even if he/she has killed as few as two people, assuming the murders occurred at different times or places by a killer who systematically targets victims. Of course, most serial killers are not recognized as such until they have killed a few people at minimum and are associated with the killings by authorities.
In my latest thriller, Before He Kills Again, the serial killer happens to abduct two victims at a time before eventually killing together. Though it is rare in real life that serial killers target more than one victim at a time, it has happened–meaning double the danger for potential targets and double the risks for the killer in terms of succeeding in his or her objective, while avoiding detection and capture.
Let history be your guide in creating fictional serial killers who ring true in their presentation and tactics and cause one to cringe with each page. Learn about some of history’s scariest serial killers, such as Jack the Ripper, Belle Gunness, Ted Bundy, John Gacy, Arthur Shawcross, Richard Ramirez, Gary Ridgway, Aileen Wuornos, Robert Yates, and the list goes on. Information on these and other serial murderers are easily accessible online and give you some perspective on how they carried on in the real world, chose their victims, escaped detection, were brought to justice, etc.
In characterizing and shaping the fictional serial killer, here are a few things to keep in mind in relating to actual serial killers that will bring life and credibility to your killer:
- Violent and/or sexual fantasies tend to play an important role in the mindset and actions of many serial killers.
- Most serial killers can aptly be referred to as psychopaths.
- Substance abuse often plays a role in the onset and continuation of serial murders.
- Many serial killers have or had dominant, cold, and/or uncaring mothers.
- Serial killers were often victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse.
- Serial killers typically were cruel to animals and other children during childhood.
- Serial killers tend to have a fascination with other serial killers and police investigations into their own crimes.
- Serial killers invariably become more organized and dangerous with each person killed.
Aside from the general nature of serial killers, these types of killers can be categorized as well, allowing for a wider range of character development and storylines.
There are essentially three kinds of serial killers:
- Serial killers who brazenly kill and make no effort to conceal the corpses of their victims.
- Serial killers who go out of their way to hide their victims and attempt to conceal the murders.
- Serial killers who fit the definition, but are not recognized as such by law enforcement. These types of killers are often transitory in nature, making it more difficult to associate their crimes to a single perpetrator. In some cases, however, the killer may make a conscious effort to keep the authorities guessing by changing their modus operandi from one victim to the next.
Within these types, there are subcategories of serial killers, making for even more interesting choices in creating terrifying fictional serial killers:
- Spree killers – those who kill a series of victims during a continuous span of murders.
- Sexually sadistic killers — murderers who derive great pleasure through inflicting pain and torture on their victims
- Hedonistic killers – those, such as lust killers, who kill for the thrill or pleasure derived from the act.
- Predatory killers — persons who hunts for victims to kill for recreation or sport.
- Mission-oriented killers –those who target certain individuals deemed unworthy of living, such a prostitutes or abusers.
- Functionaries of organized criminality — hit men or women for the Mafia, gang members, mercenaries, and terrorists.
- Custodial killers — medical personnel or foster parents who kill for financial gain, revenge, or altruism.
- Mentally unbalanced killers – persons who are delusional or hallucinational in their serial murders.
- Control-oriented killers – murderers who like by being in control of their victims in deciding life and death, when, where, and how they will die.
With such a broad range to work with, it allows for a multitude of intriguing and realistic possibilities for fiction involving serial homicides. Good luck with your next fictional serial killer mystery or thriller novel.
R. Barri Flowers is the award winning and internationally bestselling author of nearly seventy books–including thrillers, mysteries, true crime, criminology, romance, and young adult fiction with such publishers as St. Martin’s Press, Harlequin, Kensington, Prometheus, and Audible. He has also served as the editor of two well-regarded mystery anthologies and one true crime anthology. His fiction and nonfiction books have been widely acclaimed. As a criminologist and true crime writer, Flowers has appeared on the Biography Channel’s Crime Stories and Investigation Discovery’s Blood, Lies and Alibis and Wicked Attraction series. He is the recipient of the prestigious Wall of Fame Award from Michigan State University’s renowned School of Criminal Justice.
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