Welcome to the second post of this series based on the book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. Today’s topic is the Homicidal Triad, or the three youthful behaviors that generally mark the background of a violent offender. I’m going to preface this post with a bit of personal commentary. There’s a lot of “ick” factor coming up because, quite frankly, the whole idea of delving into the mind of a violent offender is going to be icky. So if you have a weak stomach or get creeped out easily, you might want to sit out this series. I hate to drive away readers, but this is going to be a yucky ride, my friends. However, there’s a lot of excellent information in the book that writers can use to create awesome antagonists, so if you can hang onto your stomach, come along.
(Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
Now back to the nasty stuff. “There are three youthful behaviors that together make up what has come to be known as the homicidal triad: enuresis (bed-wetting) beyond an appropriate age, fire starting, and cruelty to animals and/or smaller children.” The authors are very clear to point out that not every boy who displays these traits will grow up to be a murderer or rapist, but the combination of those three traits was extremely prominent in their studies and suggested a pattern too likely to ignore. If you’ve got a boy who kills ants with a magnifying glass on the sidewalk, wets his bed frequently, and harasses his younger brothers and sisters, you’ve got the makings of a violent offender.
The authors go on to say that “serial killers are made rather than born… it is unquestionably true that some kids, from as early as you can observe them, are far more aggressive than others, have far poorer impulse control, are noticeably antisocial. That doesn’t mean they’re doomed to become criminals. But our studies…show that if you start out with a kid predisposed like this, throw him into a severely dysfunctional environment, and then don’t do anything to intervene, you are pretty likely to come up with a violence-prone adult.”
(On a side note, the author also says that while he can explain that type of violent behavior, he in no way excuses it. He’s a big proponent of personal responsibility, and later in the book he discusses the choices that violent people make and their inability to take responsibility for their actions. It’s always the fault of someone else. I will definitely cover this in a later post.)
Writers can use this homicidal triad to create a believable background for an antagonist–or just hint at one. Remember, the presence of these three traits suggests violent behavior to come, but doesn’t necessary have to lead there. Feel free to play with that little tidbit if you’ve got a younger male character in your book, or a set of brothers. But back to the point. Odds are, your antagonist (if he’s male) displayed these three traits in his youth. That would all be backstory, and would have to be delivered to the reader in a non-information-dump method, but you’re clever enough to pull that off.
One last note on this triad: it applies to MALES. The vast majority of violent offenders are males. When a female kills, it’s usually for very different reasons, and the triad does not apply. Maybe I’ll cover this in a later post, too.