Serial Killers

I’m sharing information from Sean Mactire’s book,  Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think, hoping that other writers will find useful information for creating believable antagonists. Chapter 5 is about serial murder. I’m skipping several pages worth of information, so if you want it all, buy his book. Today I’m going to focus on serial murder. I touched on this in a previous post, but now I’ll dig deeper.

There are a few similarities between mass murders and serial murders, but there is a difference. Mass murderers kill their victims all at once. They choose a field and try to take the lives of everyone in sight. Serial killers hunt their victims. 

The National Institute of Justice defined serial murder as “as series of two more more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time ranging from hours to years.” Mactire argues that this definition is too broad. He suggests that the working definition of serial murder is any series of murders, committed over any period of time, by either a male or a female, for any motive, and in any location or locations. 

Whichever definition you use, you’ve always got a perpetrator, two or more  victims, and a motive: everything you need for a great murder mystery. If your antagonist kills his wife in a fit of rage because she didn’t vacuum the den, that’s not a serial killer. But if your antagonist kills his wife because she didn’t vacuum, then he goes out and kills the neighbor’s wives to make it look like there’s a serial killer on the lose in the neighborhood, then you have the makings of a serial killer. The first victim (the wife) wasn’t hunted, but the next several were definitely targeted.

W. Wille, in the book Citizens Who Commit Murder, identified ten different psychosocial categories of murderers. You can look them up if interested, but I didn’t find them helpful in my attempt to create a believable antagonist. However, the Justice Department came up with eleven motives for serial murderers that I think are worth sharing:

1. Profit
2. Passion
3. Hatred
4. Desperation
5. Revenge
6. Opportunism
7. Fear
8. Contract killing
9. Power/Domination
10. Compassion (as in mercy killing)
11. Ritual

The last four were flagged as specific motives associated with serial killing. The thing I found most interesting in this list is that everyone experiences these emotions, but most people in society won’t let these become a motive for murder. When fashioning your bad guy, he’s going to feel at least one of these so strongly that the desire to kill overcomes any desire to avoid the consequences of murder (jail time or execution). 

This is getting long, so I’ll continue this discussion in my next post.


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