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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

5 Tips for Writing a Believable (and Creepy) Serial Killer

As most of you know, I'm a crime fiction writer, among other things. While it's not a particularly sunny topic, I thought today I'd address how to craft great (read: evil) believable, chill-inducing serial killers.

Let's start with a story: 

So one day a man--we'll call him John--goes to a funeral. He happens to see a pretty girl that catches his eye. That night, after leaving the funeral, John murders someone who was at that funeral, and shows up at his victim's funeral a few days later. Eventually, the police catch John. They determine that he didn't murder the person at the first funeral he attended, but he did murder the person being buried at the second. So why did John do it? Any guesses?

Criminal justice students would probably guess things similar to the following:

1. John had a grievance with the second man. Perhaps he went to the first funeral specifically to stalk him? Nope. Actually he never met or knew anything about his victim until he attended the first funeral. 

2. So maybe something happened after the funeral that made him zero in on the man? Not really. Nothing about that man in particular stood out to him. 

3. Maybe he's just a psycho and needed to kill someone? Well, John is, in fact, a serial killer. So, by nature, he's a bit of a psycho, but that's not why he killed this particular victim. He did have a reason.

The motive behind John's crime is one that pretty much any normal, sane person would never guess. The answer is that he wanted to see that pretty girl again.

Confused? Understandable. That makes absolutely no logical sense. But then, serial killers are far from logical. If they were, they wouldn't being killing people. 

You see, for John, killing is the norm. It's what makes him feel better, what gives him emotional release, how he gets things done. So, when he wanted to see that pretty girl again, it was only natural for him to pick someone in her circle of acquaintances and kill them because he knew she'd show up at the funeral. 

Chilling, isn't it?

If you are a crime writer who needs to write a great killer, check out these tips. (Of course, they can be adapted to write just about any villain in any genre.)

1. Give them a system of logic. Like magic systems, anti-heroes, and just about any other character you write, they have to have a code they live by. The less sense it makes to the reader, the better, but make sure your killer believes in his own lifestyle. Have him state it and live it. 

Example: One type of serial killer is the type that goes after prostitutes, drug addicts, etc. because they believe they are bettering society by getting these kinds of people off the streets. Is that logical? Can you make society better by murdering people? Obviously not. But these killers truly believe that. Give them a back story that illustrates why they believe it and/or what brought that belief about.

2. Give them contradictions. Many people have the misconception that serial killers are weird and will stand out in a crowd. In reality, most seem terribly normal. But to have them be psychotic in one situation and normal in another is exactly what will make your readers feel the creep factor.

Example: This was well done on The Walking Dead this past season. Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead season 4 ahead. If you don't want to know, skip this example. There was a mentally disturbed little girl named Lizzie. (Fans will remember quite vividly.) The thing that made her so disturbing is that one moment she would do something psychotic--like stab her little sister to death and contemplate killing a baby--and the next moment she would break down and cry because she feared one of the adults was angry with her, over something relatively mundane. She was suddenly the innocent, vulnerable little girl again. It was downright freaky. Do this with your killers. It will make your readers shiver.

3. Make them relentless. The truth is, contrary to popular belief, most serial killers, especially if not caught, will stop killing at some point in their lives, for any number of reasons. But, in service of your story, give the killer an objective and make sure that they will go after it, no matter what, even if it's obvious they've been beaten. Keep in mind, their objective doesn't necessarily need to be murder. Maybe it's to beat a cop at the cat and mouse game, reach a particular number or goal with their victims, feel something specific that they haven't achieved yet. The possibilities are endless. And the more specific you are with these objectives, the more memorable your killer will be.

4. Give them creepy quirks. Come up with one or two little, quirky things any character might do. Then turn them on their heads and make them psychotic. It will give your readers something to latch onto. In truth, a killer might be the most difficult character for your readers to identify with, because most readers aren't killers. So give them something to grasp, even if it's grotesque.

Example: A character might cook when they need to unwind, but Hannibal Lector ate his victims. Others might sew, but Ed Gein made dresses of human skin. A character might be meticulous in their appearance and grooming, but Darken Rahl (of the Sword of Truth series) always licked his fingers and smoothed down his eyebrows before doing something particularly evil. Memorable? Definitely.

5. Give them somewhere to go. Like all great characters, killers should be dynamic. They should change as the story progresses. Now, if you aren't writing from the killer's POV, this can be tricky. But in crime dramas, you often hear investigators say that a killer is escalating. This means he/she is moving to a new level of violence. Yup, this counts as a dynamic character. And it ups the tension/drama/terror, because it means the killer is even more fear-inducing than he/she was when the story began.

Hope this helps all you amazing crime fiction writers out there deepen your killers and/or bad guys. After all, the more you can make your readers shiver, the more they'll cheer when the hero succeeds at he final showdown. Happy crime writing!

Do you have any tips to add to help write convincing killers?


  1. Fantastic post, thank you so very much!!!

  2. I'm working on a serial killer book now. I'm stuck so this helps.

  3. I have a question... how do you find your serial killer character's M.O? I'm having a hard time finding inspiration.

    1. I would suggest just exposing yourself to lots of these stories. Read serial killer books and watch lots of procedurals like Criminal Minds. You can pull an M.O. from one of them, or, even better, modify it to fit your villain/story or build upon something that intrigues you.

  4. This was fantastic guidance. Thank you so much!

  5. This has helped tremendously, thank you!

  6. This has helped tremendously, thank you!

  7. "Do you have any tips to add to help write convincing killers?"


    1. consistent and perhaps unique methods of killing their victims. This could be things like a specific weapon or weapon type so that the killing would be identified as theirs in the news.

    2. a ritual they follow with the deceased - do they just leave them there like Jack the Ripper did, bury them under the house like Gacy, eat them like Dahmer/Lecter, or do something else? Mark the body? Take them all to a certain type of place perhaps for a specific reason - beaches, churches, mall parking lots, public parks.

    3. public communications about the crimes. Do they select one news person (or even someone totally at random) to be their voice? Write to / taunt the police? Communicate with their victims before the crime in a manner where the message might not be known but the fact of the messaging might

    4. How and why they select a victim. Men with red hair. Women walking small dogs. Short nurses. The seventh person they see coming out of a donut shop. Alphabetically. Someone who doesn't respond to their greeting. Someone who reminds them of someone else, or even reminds them of themself. Out of the kindness of their heart towards the victims like Abby and Martha Brewster. But I think usually it is something consistent. Conversely, it could be random selection based on opportunity like the DC sniper.

    5. where they choose to kill. Whitechapel (Jack), Green River Killer. Lover's Lane (David Berkowitz - Son of Sam)