As part of the research for one of my current works in progress (I have about a dozen at any given time…don’t judge me), I’ve been digging into the world of investigating serial killers to build a better villain.
My protagonist is a deep, well rounded, and well-thought-out character. He has real substance. But my antagonist? Not so much. I came to the realization my villain lacked what he needed to pose a true challenge to this brilliant, no-nonsense investigator. I needed someone just as capable but bent in the opposite direction. Thus began my quest.
My search took me deep into the dark underbelly of the Internet where the ever-present A.I. algorithms threw suggestions into my path. I followed the links until one of them reached up and hit me in the face like a Mike Tyson left-cross. It was a video about the F.B.I. Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) and how they go about building a profile to help identify who committed a specific crime or series of crimes.
The detectives of the BAU developed a set of criteria designed to construct what usually turns out to be a fairly accurate picture of the perpetrator when the law finally catches up to them. My first thought was why not reverse engineer the process and use the same criteria to build a serial killer? Brilliant, right?
FBI agents spent years going into prisons to interview murderers and serial killers. They collected information not only about their crimes, victims, and motivations, but also their childhoods, as well as behaviors before and after committing their acts. According to retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente, the BAU agents ended up determining five main areas of focus when building a profile. These are:
So, what does all of this mean to us as writers? Let’s dig into each of the criteria and see how we can apply them to our own villains.
Like the name says, victimology focuses on the victim of the crime. Who are they and why was this particular victim chosen? Were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or targeted for a specific reason? If this is a series of murders, what do the victims have in common? Does the killer have a type? Maybe the victims are surrogates for someone in the killer's past.
We can use this information to build a back story for our killer. Were they abused by a parent or other relative? Maybe they were rejected by someone they desired. Our villain may be working up to confront the real object of their anger. Or maybe their first victim was the true target and now they’re haunted by the image and are devolving.
Where a victim is found can tell the BAU agents a lot. Is the area hidden and remote, or public and easily accessed? Many serial killers have a preferred hunting ground. Others may have a favorite dump site. The geographic location of a body may point to the killer’s comfort zone—an area they are familiar with and feel safe operating within. The killer may even live nearby.
The location of the body may be a secondary crime scene, with the actual killing taking place somewhere else. The location of the primary and/or secondary scene may also hold some significance for the perpetrator. Is it the site of their first kill? Maybe this is where they experienced the trauma that sent them down their dark path.
Trying to hide the victim may indicate our antagonist has shame or remorse, whereas leaving them in full view could be a sign of brash confidence. This criterion can help us establish some of the psychological elements of our villains.
Crime scenes not only yield physical evidence, but also give the agents a look into the mind of the killer.
Using the method chosen to kill gives us a chance to draw out specific details about the psyche of our villain and what fuels their killing machine. The use of a gun, especially a rifle, may show that they prefer to kill from a distance, while wielding a knife is more close-up and violent. And barehanded killings like beating or choking? These types of murders take time and great physical effort. They are usually very personal and may show a strong connection between our victim and our killer.
Organized killers plan ahead. They think things through, bring whatever they need to commit their crime, and leave little or nothing behind. For them it may be just as much about the lead-up to the act as it is the act itself. On the other end of the spectrum, unorganized killers are messy, impulsive, and may use whatever they can grab at the scene to help them complete the task at hand.
The truth is most killers fall somewhere on the scale between the two extremes. They may even move up and down the scale over time. We can use these changes in the level of organization to indicate the evolving mental state of our villains. They may start out lower on the scale and move up as they hone their skills or become more scattered and careless as they devolve.
Change in organizational level is a great tool for adding tension to the arc of the narrative and creating a complication for our hero to overcome by making it difficult to link the crimes.
Pre and post crime behaviors can tell the BAU a lot about criminals. Organized killers have likely done some surveillance and pre-work before committing their crime. This kind of planning can leave a trail to follow backwards to help in identifying the perpetrator. Behavioral changes after a crime can send up a red flag, narrowing down the suspect field.
With the proliferation of cameras and electronic devices in today’s society it’s hard not to leave a pre-crime trail. In addition to security cameras found in businesses, traffic, doorbell, and home security cams are everywhere. Cellphones can be traced to a degree even if you turn off location services. Is our villain smart enough to avoid these traps? The act of avoidance itself may be a telling pre-crime behavior.
After committing a crime there may be shifts in personality or heightened paranoia noticed by friends, family, or coworkers.
If we want to build a higher functioning villain, they’re going to need to be aware of these behaviors and try to avoid them. Of course, we also need them to slip up so we can solve the crime, but not in a way that is too obvious.
Now that we know the five criteria, it’s time to put them to use. If our hero is intelligent, focused, and a student of human nature then it stands to reason that our villain should be as well if they’re going to present any kind of a challenge.
Think about how their personality traits and physical actions fit into the BAU matrix. What traits might the villain be good at hiding and how might they slip up?
For more information on building better villains, check out these WITS posts by Lisa Hall-Wilson and Ellen Buikema.
What’s your best advice for building better villains? Do you have specific criteria that you use? Let us know in the comments!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
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Fantastic information here!
One thing I do for the antagonists is to give them something positive so they have a smidgen of humanity. I had one teach some kids how to make homemade fishing rods. He did terrible things later, but at least he did one thing that was prosocial.
I especially like your suggestion for pre and post behaviors.
I agree about giving them some redeeming quality. In fact, the first time you meet a villain I like to make them a little sympathetic to create a bond with the reader before I show them what's hiding underneath the façade.
Love that technique, Ellen!
I remember one book, well written with the villians thoughts were shown in small segments and he thought he was always thinking in terms of 'grandness of designing his killings' and 'how bold' and 'how risky', where in life he was so ordinary and never did anything grand or risky and his killings turned out to be accidental deaths, where he just happened to be near, but he confesses to them all. I loved at the end where he is confronted by another prisoner and in his head he is like "I've planned this perfectly, meeting with one of the top criminals in the joint. Now is our time to rule." But the head kingpin prisoner just chokes him to death. It was such a great POV to play against the hero and for the reader.
Wow. That's an intriguing concept. Do you remember the title or author? It sounds kind of like an evil twist on Walter Mitty!
What a great post. This is one for keeping. My villain is a charismatic and, on the surface, a likeable character, but he has revenge on his mind.
Thank you for posting this.
I really like characters like that. They have depth. If you look into it, everyone thought John Wayne Gacy was a just a nice likeable guy, until.....
I've always liked Kristen Lamb's method of plotting by the antagonist. It seems like, if you can get it right, it makes the book move much faster. Stephen J Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files) used to say that whenever he got stuck on plot, he'd ask himself, "What are the Heavies doing?"
Great post to backwards engineer a worthy villian, Bob! I'll use these suggestions in my next dark and twisty tale for sure. 🙂
Okay, this was a fantastic post I wish I'd been able to read yesterday. Thank you. I write historical fantasy, but drafted a story with a serial killer not all that long ago (yes, one of MY many projects). Case of the Deadly Stroll. This post will help me to hone that novel when I return to it. It revolves around a serial killer who may, or may not, be killing to distract from other activity. They're also leaving personal messages for the first female crime scene photographer, Talma Loyal. Only she understands them and they reference a secret she can't afford to share. Ahh … you make me want to return to it right now.
Great info! And what do you know, I'm on the right track building my bad guy. Thanks for the tips!