Rule-breaking Rebel Writers

In an attempt to create more believable antagonists for my works, I’m studying the book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. Douglas is an FBI profiler, so he knows his stuff. I’m in chapter four, dealing with product tampering and poisoners. I found a couple of paragraphs that helped me, so I’ll pass them along for you. He’s talking about the motives of people who tamper with products in an attempt to kill or extort money.

“The general rule is that organized offenders extort for money and disorganized offenders for all the other reasons.” Those other reasons were listed in the previous paragraph: love, sex, vengeance, punishment, recognition, excitement, guilt, satisfaction, hate, and attention. Using this information, you can know if your antagonist is organized or disorganized (I discussed the different profiles for these guys in an earlier post) depending solely on his motive. Then Douglas adds even more great stuff.

“There’s an old saying in law enforcement: ‘Killers don’t call, and callers don’t kill.’ What this means is that you can tell a lot about motive by the UNSUB’s approach. If he calls first, or otherwise declares his intentions, then we start looking for a profit motive. If there isn’t a call but people start dying, then we look to revenge and rage as motivation forces. Of course, this is a generality.”

Then the book offers a case that defies that general rule. I remember this case, as it happened 60 miles to the north of my home. Susan Snow was killed with cyanide-laced Excedrin. Shortly after that, Stella Nickell called police and said her husband, Bruce, had died recently after taking an Excedrin. His death had been labeled accidental, but she wonders if he was also the victim of product tampering. That phone call lead to her conviction: she’d taken out multiple life insurance policies on Bruce, then killed him. When his death was ruled accidental, she didn’t get her payout. She had to kill another person, a complete stranger, then direct the authority’s attention back to her husband. She’d have gotten away with the murder of her husband if she hadn’t been so greedy. 

The fun thing about these ‘rules’ is that you can break them in your fiction if it makes logical sense. If it’s not believable, you’re sunk. That’s why studying profiling and motives is so rewarding for me–knowing my bad guys and how law enforcement expects them to act helps in several ways. First, I know if I’m way off base when I create a disorganized killer who calls his victim to warn her that he’s coming after her. That wouldn’t happen in real life. Disorganized killers are too spur-of-the-moment to make a phone call. Secondly, knowing what law enforcement expects can lead to great twists: having something unexpected happen (if it’s believable) really excites readers and makes them come back for more. 

Try profiling your bad guy. Is he organized or disorganized? What’s his motive for his evil deeds? What should readers expect from him, and how can you twist that into a surprise?

My next post will discuss poisoning as a female crime. Stay tuned.

-Sonja

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