Sean Mactire says, in his book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think, that serial killers are looking for notoriety, immortality even. They are nobodies desperately trying to be somebodies. In a previous post, I stated that serial killers are immature sinners with impulse control problems. They also have delusions of grandeur. They want to upstage everyone in order to show how great they are. There’s a myth that states all serial killers want to be caught. In reality, they want law enforcement to get close to catching them, then demonstrate their superior intellect by slipping away at the last second and evade capture. They want to be anonymously famous.
You, as a writer, can use this in your novels. Mactire divided serial killers into four categories, and although he didn’t state it in his book, it looks to me like these four categories are linked to motive. And every antagonist needs a great motive to be a believable character.
1. Vision Killers. These are classic psychotics (or they claim to be). They hear voices telling them to kill. Many times, the claim is that the voice of God has ordered the crimes, but other times the perpetrator blames the devil. Son of Sam/David Berkowitz claimed that his neighbor’s dog, Sam, was possessed by Satan and it was the dog who told him to kill. This claim turned out to be a hoax. Genuine psychosis in serial killers is rare, and if they do hear voices, they are most probably the voices of their own violent fantasies and delusions speaking from the dark depths of the shadow side, as in the case of Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. Psychosis and related visions/delusions can also be produced by drug abuse.
I think this type of bad guy would be extremely hard to craft, but it can be done. If you’re not careful, this antagonist can come across as comical, or worse, stereotypical. This type of killer needs to thoroughly believe that what he’s hearing is genuine, and that he reacts to those voices in a believable way. He’s also got to blend in with society, at least a little bit, to keep attention away from himself – and that’s going to be very hard to accomplish for someone in this mental state.
2. Mission Killers. These killers believe it is their duty or destiny to eliminate certain types of people as a way of cleansing society. This could be the motive for London’s recent killer of homosexuals. In other cases, prostitutes are the targets. “Angels of Death”/killer nurses prey on their patients in hospitals and nursing homes, committing what they call mercy killings. These killers can be either psychotic or psychopathic.
This type of killer is definitely the easiest to write of the four categories listed in this post, as they blend into society much easier than the vision killers (providing they’re not struggling with some sort of psychotic problems at the same time) and they have a motive that readers can comprehend, as opposed to the pleasure killers.
3. Pleasure Killers (also called Hedonists). These are the killers who are typecast as thrill seekers, those who kill for fun, satisfaction, or for profit. They crave a high standard of living and comfort, and have no interest in conventional labor to support their lifestyle. These would be the “black widow” killers like John Haigh, who killed six people solely for their money. Another subgroup is the “lust murderers.” They kill to indulge their sexual desires.
I also find this antagonist difficult to write, mainly because most of my readers wouldn’t truly understand why this killer kills. He is so selfish, so childish, so sociopathic (no empathy for others) that he comes across almost comical–up until the moment he kills.
4. Power/Control Killers. These are the psychopaths or sociopaths whose desires are generally not sexual but concern deriving pleasure from control and exerting power over life and death. These killers enjoy watching their victims beg for mercy and cower in fear. The murderers feed off the fear of their victims, almost like vampires.
All of these antagonists would be difficult to write, but if you can nail down why your killer does what he does, you come one step closer to creating a believable killer.