Fire Bugs

The book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshake contains excellent information for writers who need to create believable antagonists. Chapter Two is all about bad guys who play with fire and what makes them tick. Even if your story doesn’t contain a fire-starter, almost all violent offenders played with matches when they were boys. Therefore, at least some of the information in this post could provide background for your character.

Warning: because of the nature of the violent mind, nasty stuff gets mentioned in the book. I try to tone it all down, but there’s no getting around the ick factor. So if you have a tender heart or a weak stomach, read with caution. Even with fire-starters, the ick factor is still going strong.

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The author begins by reminding the reader of the homicidal triad: bed-wetting, cruelty to animals and/or small children, and playing with fire. Children with violent, anti-social tendencies who dabble in two or more of the triad often end up as violent offenders. But what is it about flames that attract these boys? Please note: there’s a difference between a six-year-old who pulls a fire alarm to see what will happen and a sixteen-year-old who sets trash can fires, then watches the response. A lot of the time, the attraction is sexual. David Berkowitz admitted to setting thousands of fires, then hanging around to masturbate while he watched firefighters battle the blazes. Because of the relationship between setting fires and self-arousal, police and firefighters often photograph the crowds who gather to watch firefighters battle the blaze. The guy in the crowd who looks like he’s aroused is often the arsonist.

Because so many criminals begin their career with arson, it’s an important crime to study. Like rape and murder, “Arson is often an attempt to gain control and power and attain a feeling of success in their lives. Look at all the people an arsonist gets to manipulate and control: the victims of the fire, firefighters, police and other figures of authority, the media, and even the community in general.” Arsonists usually have a rich fantasy life, as well, conjuring up fantasies of burning those who have wronged them in some fashion. When the fantasy is no longer enough to satisfy, they use real flames to achieve the same satisfaction.

Like serial rapists or killers, arsonists have their favorite methods and generally stick close to them. Some set fires using materials at hand. Others bring their accelerants and matches with them. Some set fires at the ground level. Other set them at waist or chest height. Some set nuisance fires only (trash cans, empty buildings, garbage heaps) while others target places where people could be injured or killed (he’s escalated to predator). If he’s targeting people, is it a specific type of person (Asian, female, homeless) or will any live body do for a victim? Some only set fires when the weather is agreeable, while others only set fires during freezes. Knowing why your antagonist starts fires will help fill in some of these methods.

This is getting long, so I’m going to stop here and continue in the next post. Stay tune.


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