A couple posts back, I began a series from the book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker to help authors create better antagonists. The bad guy I’ve been working on is the arsonist. So far I’ve outlined that an arsonist is a coward, preferring to exact his revenge for slights from a distance. He’s not confrontational, he’s got an active fantasy life, and he’s a loner. He gets his charge from victimizing others from a distance. His victims are usually smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable than he is.
(This profile courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
The authors say most fire-starting begins with a triggering trauma. “The two most common events are loss of job or loss of love.” People close to the arsonist, when they get an inkling their loved one is the guilty party, will immediately be able to point to that triggering trauma. They may also notice he has a preoccupation with the newspaper articles regarding local fires. As arsonists love to manipulate and control authority and emergency responders, they get a jolt from reading records of the event. The media attention validates his needs, but will also cause him stress. He may even leave town for a time, which should also be a sign to those who know him. Arsonists usually chose professions that allow them to travel (salesmen, truckers, etc) so they can hit multiple towns along their routes, further frustrating the detectives searching for him.
“One of the most important uses of a profile is to aid local police in limiting and refining their suspect list so they can direct their resources where they might do the most good.” Keep this in mind when writing your story. “Another key use of a profile in certain circumstances is to go proactive, to let the public become your partner in crime solving.” Arsonists usually display some sort of behavior to their family and friends that will implicate themselves–remember, he gets validation from his crimes, and it’s hard to not brag about his achievements to someone close to him. By making the profile public, someone might recognize the description of behaviors and help end the crime sprees.
Once police have a suspect and arrest him, they can “play” to the arsonist’s ego: make him feel important by bringing him in with sirens blazing, lights flashing, maybe even have the press on hand for the perp-walk (taking the cuffed suspect into the building). The brass could wear full dress uniforms. The interrogation room should be staged to appeal to the arsonists ego: white boards with lots of evidence posted, the arsonist’s photo, and a big sign that says IDENTIFIED. Also, the police would want to bring in an authority figure from the arsonist’s life, like his father. It’s hard for the arsonist to lie when someone “stronger” than him, someone in authority over him, is present to hear the evidence. The interviewing detectives should praise the arsonist for his brilliance, but now he’s finished. Doing these things, validating the arsonist’s sense of achievement but at the same time letting him know he’s definitely caught, will many times result in confessions.
At this point, the arsonist will admit to his crimes but try to lay the responsibility elsewhere: alcohol, the presence of flammable materials, an uncontrollable urge that’s Not His Fault. He’s not proud of what he’s done. He was a victim of an incurable disease, and therefore should not be sent to prison. He will, however, plead guilty when it comes time. If you include an arsonist in your story, you don’t have to include all these details. Keep with the basics: coward, loner, fantasy life, traveling profession, and preying on weaker targets.
There’s more to come on arsonists, believe it or not. Stay tuned.