How to write a good serial killer?

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starrystorm

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I've watched countless videos about serial killers at this point, but I feel like my serial killer is falling flat. I'm going to have to completely scratch and redo him. You don't know his real identity until the end, so that makes it hard. For people who have written serial killers before, what helped? How did you do it? How do you make him (or her) memorable?
 
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stephenf

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Not exactly shure what you are needing to know . Are you , trying to make your characters more believable or are you asking what is the character of a sirial killer.
 

owlion

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I think it might be good to try reading fiction that includes serial killers. You can always do a lot of research into the real thing, but when you're reading how someone else did it, you get to see their techniques to make the character believable. I personally haven't written about a serial killer, so can't offer advice on that front, but there's a lot of fiction that includes them.
 

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The answer depends on whether or not your serial killer gets a POV.

For a non-POV killer, you're probably doing the right research. For a POV killer, you've got to treat them just like any other character. I do think it's difficult to write a credible POV for someone that severely outside the psychological norms, but it's been done once or twice (Ripley and Dexter). If you've got a POV, I'd focus less on real-world serial killers and more on those who've resonated with readers.
 
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Maryn

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Yeah, I'm with them. (Gestures at previous answers.) A lot depends on whether you are ever in the killer's point of view. If you are, then you show the readers his mental process, his life, his past, his rationale for doing what he does. In his version of your story, he's the hero and everything he does has a valid purpose. And yes, you can be in his POV and still hide his identity. How often does any of us think of our own names or any identifying features or aspects?

If you are not in the killer's POV at any time, then all you have to go on is what the POV character(s) know of him and what non-POV characters say about him. So what do they know and how did they find out? What parallels and conclusions are they drawing? Are they right?

But let me repeat, because it's that important: Everything your serial killer does makes sense to him and is fully justified. "He's crazy" is not a reason to kill.

Maryn, who knows a number of people with mental health issue but not a single murderer
 
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starrystorm

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No, the book isn't going to have his POV. I was just wondering what makes a serial killer memorable. I don't want to make him too gory. No rape. Just a kidnapper who mentally tortures his victims for a bit before killing them. He mainly takes teenage girls (but not in a sexual way). He just finds them easy targets. I also think he might be affected by his own daughter dying before she got to be a teenager, and therefore is taking it out on the town's residents.

The number one trope that makes me mad is mentally ill equaling crazy. It creates a terrible stereotype. So, he'll be sane but sadistic.
 

ChaseJxyz

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I'm mentally ill and I really, really dislike that trope, too, but it's not really possible to be a person that goes out of their way to kill people multiple times without something going on that could benefit from going to therapy. That doesn't mean he has to have bipolar, borderline, psycopathy, schizophrenia, or any diagnosable thing in the DSM5, but he will have something going on that is causing him to process his emotions, desires, or view of societal norms differently than a "regular" person. It might be a concussion, it might be a traumatic event in his life, it might be being raised in a culture/setting where life isn't respected, but there is something that caused him to go down that path.

There's a few different things that can make a serial killer memorable:
  • The number of victims. The more you kill over the shorter period of time, the scarier that is
  • The types of victims. If it's homeless people/sex workers/drug addicts, then people (including the police) are going to not care all that much, but if they're young pretty white girls then people are going to lose their minds. At least one serial killer had his victim returned to him by the police because "oh well that's just what gay men do, I guess!"
  • The way they kill or dump bodies. Uniquely mutilated bodies, being found in the middle of the desert, "calling cards" left on the bodies. This goes into....
  • Their "brand." We remember the Zodiac Killer because of the puzzles he sent to newspapers and the mystery he built around himself, even though he only killed 5 people. Sometimes the "branding" is created by police/newspapers and builds this mythology of who they are
  • The person themselves. Serial killer clown! Really hot guy! A regular looking nurse at the hospital! If they look really scary/creepy or they look incredibly normal or even attractive, that really draws people, too, based on what people assume evil people to be (i.e. ugly)
It's usually a mix of these things. The scariest thing one can come up with is in your own imagination, so don't go into a bunch of gory details if you don't feel comfortable doing it, but let your readers fill in the gaps themselves. Their brains will come up with something that is incredibly scary to them, so take advantage of that.
 

starrystorm

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I'm mentally ill and I really, really dislike that trope, too, but it's not really possible to be a person that goes out of their way to kill people multiple times without something going on that could benefit from going to therapy. That doesn't mean he has to have bipolar, borderline, psycopathy, schizophrenia, or any diagnosable thing in the DSM5, but he will have something going on that is causing him to process his emotions, desires, or view of societal norms differently than a "regular" person. It might be a concussion, it might be a traumatic event in his life, it might be being raised in a culture/setting where life isn't respected, but there is something that caused him to go down that path.

There's a few different things that can make a serial killer memorable:
  • The number of victims. The more you kill over the shorter period of time, the scarier that is
  • The types of victims. If it's homeless people/sex workers/drug addicts, then people (including the police) are going to not care all that much, but if they're young pretty white girls then people are going to lose their minds. At least one serial killer had his victim returned to him by the police because "oh well that's just what gay men do, I guess!"
  • The way they kill or dump bodies. Uniquely mutilated bodies, being found in the middle of the desert, "calling cards" left on the bodies. This goes into....
  • Their "brand." We remember the Zodiac Killer because of the puzzles he sent to newspapers and the mystery he built around himself, even though he only killed 5 people. Sometimes the "branding" is created by police/newspapers and builds this mythology of who they are
  • The person themselves. Serial killer clown! Really hot guy! A regular looking nurse at the hospital! If they look really scary/creepy or they look incredibly normal or even attractive, that really draws people, too, based on what people assume evil people to be (i.e. ugly)
It's usually a mix of these things. The scariest thing one can come up with is in your own imagination, so don't go into a bunch of gory details if you don't feel comfortable doing it, but let your readers fill in the gaps themselves. Their brains will come up with something that is incredibly scary to them, so take advantage of that.
Looks like someone's done their homework!

Your second point is called "the lesser dead." And I remember that case. Wasn't the boy fourteen or something? Terrible. I don't even think the teen was gay, just the killer.

Calling cards. So that's what they're called. Thank you. I wanted mine to leave some, but didn't know what they were called.

Thank you so much for all of this! I will be going back to this.
 

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So, you want him to kill teenage girls, and it somehow relates to his deceased daughter?
What if he's really bad at relationships? You may know someone who's always dating someone new, and all their friends are shaking their heads at what a bad match it is, and, sure enough, there's an ugly breakup. Or would have been, except that one of the parties just ghosted.

Maybe he comes off as a nice, normal guy - but he keeps trying to be 'fatherly'., Picks up a teenager hitchhiking on a lonely road, starts in with the paternalistic lecture about not being out alone at night, taking rides with strangers, etc. She gets annoyed, he gets mad, a scuffle breaks out, she gets hurt, he realizes that he's in trouble, so he kills and buries her.
Next girl he gets into a dispute about her dressing 'trashy', or smoking weed, or shouldn't you be in school. Maybe have a couple of girls-that-got-away, either because they
nodded politely and said 'Yes, sir', or because they were bold enough to just leap from the car?

But, frequently, he makes up a reason to kill them, because it's safer for them, and, anyway, they were on a downhill road (in his mind).
 
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Writelock

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There has already been a plethora of excellent responses, the only thing I will add is, as the writer, you should have a firm grasp of the killer's POV - lest they become just a one dimensional boogeyman. With this in mind, you must never forget that what the killer is doing either seems absolutely reasonable or their attempts to resist it are similar in manner to someone trying to overcome an addition wby sheer willpower and failing. Once you firmly grasp which camp your killer belongs to, the resulting actions will not only be clearer but utterly faithful to the characters, and I am a firm believer in being faithful to call characters, even those who never make a prominent appearance in the work.
 
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starrystorm

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Thanks everyone. I've got a few new ideas I'm excited to work with. This is the first time I've really taken a deep look into the antagonist before, I quite frankly, it's terrifying.
 

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I've watched countless videos about serial killers at this point, but I feel like my serial killer is falling flat. I'm going to have to completely scratch and redo him. You don't know his real identity until the end, so that makes it hard. For people who have written serial killers before, what helped? How did you do it? How do you make him (or her) memorable?
I'm a research junky and so I would say read up some of the FBI's files on seral killers, plus there are some great books out there that give a succinct report on the SK and their methods and murders. I shall look through the ones I have and get back to you. Sometimes, truth IS stranger than fiction!
 

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Okay, here we go...

Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers by Carol Anne Davis

Criminal Profiling from Crime Scene Analysis by John Douglas, Ann Burgess, Robert Ressler and Carol Hartman.

Articles from Interviews with 36 Sexual Murderers by the FBI Behavioural Science Unit.

The Deadly Dozen: America's 12 Worst Serial Killers by Robert Keller.
 
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Donnettetxgirl

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Dean Koontz writes about some twisted serial killers. He goes into their POV and spends a good amount of time developing their character. You're going to need a believable reason why your guy is the way he is. Many serial killers come from abusive backgrounds. Some of the child abuse they faced was very traumatizing. And they justify their actions. For example. A girl they may have picked up should have known better than to have gotten into a stranger's car, etc. As if the victim deserved what happened to them. If you get an opportunity to watch real interviews with serial killers, police investigations, etc, you can get a good feel for how these people think. Most of the time it doesn't come down to mental illness. It comes down to a very abusive childhood, As a child, they were treated especially cruelly. There could be sexual abuse involved or severe discipline.

I hope this helps.
 

KayHooper

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Thanks everyone. I've got a few new ideas I'm excited to work with. This is the first time I've really taken a deep look into the antagonist before, I quite frankly, it's terrifying.
One suggestion. Write a few scenes from the killer's POV. Even if you don't want to do that in your book, do it as an exercise. As a general rule, you learn more about characters if you're telling part of the story, or at least about their actions, if you're in their POV.
 

starrystorm

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One suggestion. Write a few scenes from the killer's POV. Even if you don't want to do that in your book, do it as an exercise. As a general rule, you learn more about characters if you're telling part of the story, or at least about their actions, if you're in their POV.
Thanks. THis is a great idea. I usually don't think much about my villains (which I should really change) but I know for this story I know the killer is one of the most important aspects.
 
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Unimportant

but appreciated anyway...
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They say "write what you know", so maybe if you went out and killed a bunch of people..... here, let me give you a list of names! :D :D
 
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Holly Green

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This is the first time I've really taken a deep look into the antagonist before, I quite frankly, it's terrifying.
Writing about the killer from the victim's POV just as an exercise, can be useful. I scared myself silly doing that.

I second the Dexter recommendation. Hannibal, the tv series, was also memorable.
 

be frank

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They say "write what you know", so maybe if you went out and killed a bunch of people..... here, let me give you a list of names! :D :D
I'm glad to see I'm not the only person whose mind immediately jumped to this. :ROFLMAO:
 

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Maybe watching crime shows like “The New Detectives” and “Forensic Files” might help?

They do a lot of serial killer stories which Pluto TV has as separate channels streaming 24/7 of those two channels for free.

They are really good at giving a writer unique examples of evidence to put in their novels.
 

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A lot of good advice here, so I'll just add this. There was a good documentary series on A&E called Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America. It focused on Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway, Dennis Rader, and Jeffery Dahmer. Might give you some helpful insight.
 
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