Friday, May 25, 2012

Is Your Psycho Killer Just...Psycho?

copyright Dennis Palumbo, 2012             

Ray Bradbury once said, “There is only one type of story in the world--your story.”

In other words, all writing is autobiographical. No matter how seemingly removed in time and space from the reality of your own life, you’re writing about yourself. Even your impulse to tell a particular story arises from an aspect of your interior world.
Case in point: My series of mystery thrillers (MIRROR IMAGE, the debut novel, and FEVER DREAM, its sequel) feature a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. This character, Daniel Rinaldi, is Italian-American, was born and raised in the Steel City, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. As did I.

Of course, my crime novels are works of fiction, so there are definitely points at which Rinaldi and I part company. For one thing, he was an amateur boxer in his youth. The other, even more obvious difference, is that Daniel Rinaldi is a lot braver and more resourceful than I am. Most of the dangerous situations he finds himself in would have me running for the hills!

So Daniel Rinaldi both is and isn’t me. As therapists, he and I are similar in our theoretical orientations and manner of doing therapy. His best friend, a paranoid schizophrenic, is even based on a patient at a private clinic with whom I was especially close. But, though we share these and other personal similarities, as a character Rinaldi clearly represents a fantasized version of me.

As do, I believe, all characters brought to life by their literary creator--even those that seem totally removed from who we think we are. I’m speaking here about the writing of villains. Particularly those that are portrayed as crazy, psychopathic, criminally disturbed.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve read thrillers in which the author’s depiction of a “psycho” killer is pure boiler-plate: unconvincing, unmotivated, without psychological depth or realism. Why is this? Especially when the writer’s other characters seem more rounded, realistic, subject to the usual panoply of feelings and motives?

In my view, it’s because these writers are denying Bradbury’s tenet about writing, which is that--however disguised--it is inevitably autobiographical.

By that I mean, crime writers often see their monstrous, unstoppable killer as being “out there” somewhere, beyond the realm of normal human behavior. A caricature of evil out of a child’s nightmare. Or, even worse, they often conjure a conveniently “crazy” killer who commits the crime merely because he’s crazy. Merely to horrify the reader. Merely as an excuse for gratuitous and graphic depictions of unspeakable acts. Merely as a bad guy heinous enough to have us rooting for the hero to finally stop him. In other words, the boogie-man.

I’ve often had writing patients, working on a violent crime thriller, complain that they just can’t get inside the head of their villain “because I’m not like that.”

Do you feel that way? Do you believe that because you’re a nice, kind, truthful person, you can’t really create a lying, vicious killer? A ruthless blackmailer? A greedy kidnapper?

Well, if so, I beg to differ.

For one thing, as a licensed psychotherapist for over 25 years, I’ve come to realize that people--common, everyday people--have operatic passions. That stoic guy bagging groceries at your local supermarket, that helpful lady at the pharmacy, the janitor at your kid’s school--all of them, if given the opportunity to relate their life stories, would stun you with the personal dramas each has endured. The heartbreaks and triumphs, the yearnings and dashed hopes. The hurts and shame and missed opportunities they’ve obsessed about since high school. The deaths and financial losses and mental illnesses with which their families have struggled.

As I say, operatic passions. Great loves and hates. Maybe buried now beneath years of quiet, conventional living. Beneath years of daily toil, paying the bills, driving the kids to school. But those passions are there, trust me. Otherwise soap operas wouldn’t be a staple of broadcasting in every corner of the world, in every culture. Otherwise viewers wouldn’t be transfixed (often as a guilty secret) with reality TV, with true crime series on cable networks, with gossip in all its forms.           
Which brings me back to the crime writer, and what he or she is willing to acknowledge and explore. And, make no mistake, there’s a bottomless well, a fathomless sea, a boundless horizon available, if you just have the courage to accept all that it contains. What do I mean by this?

Deep within each mystery writer lies the seeds of every kind of human. From a nun to a serial killer, a corporate tycoon to a migrant worker, a life-giver to a life-taker. If you can feel, you can imagine. And if you can imagine, then the possibilities--for good or evil--inherent in that which you’ve imagined are available to you.

Here’s an example, crude but illustrative. Let’s say you’ve always had a secret yearning to be respected. Perhaps this yearning began in childhood, when your siblings got all the glory in school or on the athletic field, and you felt ignored. Discounted. Invisible.

Imagine, then, that your villain--a terrifying serial killer, a sociopath who murders without remorse--has felt similarly discounted and invisible all his life. Rejected. Ignored.

Well, if you’re this guy, one thing that definitely gets you some attention is leaving a swath of mutilated bodies in your wake. And if you’re clever enough to continually elude the police, you probably feel a sense of pride. Of gratification. Of vindication. Now the world’s respecting you, even if it’s a respect based on fear. You’re certainly not invisible any more. At long last, you’re getting the attention you deserve.

Luckily, regardless of how we were treated in childhood, most of us still grow up to be sane, rational citizens. Maybe our feelings are easily hurt, or we succumb too easily to envy or jealousy, but we’re probably not going to do much about it. Certainly nothing criminal.

But in our fiction, we get to act out these feelings. As writers, we get to create villainous characters who do all sorts of bad things--and, I submit, the more relatable their motives, the more terrifying they are to the reader. The cold fact is, even a psychopath has his or her reasons. (David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, believed his neighbor was a demon, ordering him to kill through communicating via his pet dog. Mary Martin Speck, a nurse who killed twenty-three patients, claimed to be doing the Lord’s work. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, felt a need to prove his superiority over those lesser beings trying to catch him.)

As I say, the reasons may be irrational, based on delusional beliefs or unfounded grandiosity, but they’re reasons nonetheless. At least in the killer’s mind.
Which means the brave writer has to visit that mind occasionally. Has to figure out some way to relate to that mind’s desires, fears, beliefs, pain, ego.

I recall a group therapy session years ago, when I was an intern in clinical training, in which one of the members got furious at another. Over some real or imagined slight. Regardless, she got to her feet and verbally attacked this second person.

After ten minutes of vituperative rage and name-calling, the woman finally calmed herself. Then, turning to the therapist who was running the group, she said, sheepishly, “Wow, all that anger and rage...all that ugly hate...I’m so sorry. That wasn’t me.”
To which the therapist responded, “Yes it was. It isn’t the whole truth of who you are, of course, but those dark feelings are in there. They’re in everybody. They’re as real in you as are your other feelings--your compassion, your generosity, your joy.”

As John Fowles once wrote, in his novel DANIEL MARTIN, “Whole sight...or all the rest is desolation.”

By which he meant that the totality of the human condition, the entire truth of our experience as people, has to be acknowledged if we’re to live authentically. Just as, I believe, the totality of the human condition has to be explored and utilized by the writer seeking to create vivid, compelling, seriously terrifying villains.

So the next time you begin conceptualizing your crime story’s villain, don’t be afraid to mine your own feelings. Down deep, below the surface. It’s where the motherlode of characterization, and all the narrative gold that results, lies hidden.

Just waiting for you, the writer, to bring it into the light.



Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (MY FAVORITE YEAR, WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT (John Wiley). He also blogs regularly for THE HUFFINGTON POST and PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.

His mystery fiction has appeared in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, THE STRAND, WRITTEN BY and elsewhere, and is collected in FROM CRIME TO CRIME (Tallfellow Press). His crime novel, MIRROR IMAGE (Poisoned Pen Press), the first in a new series, featured psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. The sequel, FEVER DREAM, is on sale now. 

For more info, please visit


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Dennis. Welcome to Murderby4 today, it's a delight to have you here.

Your article resonated with me on so many levels. For several years, I wrote only from the POV of a very decent man (Gus LeGarde) Finally, my wife encouraged me to write a book from "the killers POV." I balked at first, then finally dipped deep inside my (apparently) very nasty self and created a very creepy villain. LOL. This is the book which is winning the most awards these days (HEALEY'S CAVE), and it's been great fun. Thanks for guest blogging with us today!

Kim Smith said...

Thank you so much for being here today Dennis. This post was great when I read it to myself and even better when I read it aloud to my husband and stepdaughter as we drove through town. I think you make such awesome points I am going to print this out and keep it. I always strive to make my villains normal people doing normal things even though it is THEIR normal and not the rest of society or how normalcy is expected. Villains just don't see themselves as aberrant and that's what makes them so delicious.

Marta Stephens said...

Dennis, thanks so much for sharing your wealth of experience and insight. You’ve put your finger on the pulse of the criminal mind making me wonder about the villains I’ve written and if they have been improved. This one is certainly a keeper.