I’m baffled by people like Scott Peterson, who think murdering a spouse is the easiest way to end a marriage.
I always look for more, thinking the simple desire to get out of the marriage can’t be all there is to it. Surely some dark and twisted story remains to be told, surely secrets will emerge that might make the murder understandable, if not justifiable. But no. In many cases, the husband – or the wife – just wants to be free and doesn’t want to bother with a divorce.
I couldn’t write about such a killer, because the motive makes no sense to me. The person who kills in a fit of rage is easier to understand than these bland people who plot and carry out murder for the flimsiest of reasons. There’s simply nothing there to explore.
Equally off-putting are psychopathic serial killers. Judging by the popularity of this type of book, I’d say mental illness makes good drama for a lot of people, but I can only stay interested in a serial killer novel if the people investigating the crimes are compelling, with their own fascinating stories. A mentally ill murderer’s motive is imaginary, unconnected to the real world, and for that reason, it bores me.
Strange as it may seem, I need a killer I can identify with. Someone I can understand. And that forces me to ask: What is worth killing for? What could make me take another person’s life?
Not an easy question for someone who is basically a pacifist and a physical coward. I seldom see any justification for war. I might get mad enough to say, “I could strangle her!” but I’d never do it. As a kid on a farm, I was always horrified by the casual way adults wrung the necks of chickens. When I find bugs in the house, I usually pick them up and put them outside. But... I kill spiders. I leave them alone if they’re in the yard, but any spider that’s in the house or even hanging around outside a door or window will be mercilessly dispatched. And I’m sure that in some circumstances I could kill another human being.
Self-defense – most of us probably take it for granted that we would kill rather than be killed. Even if the thought of taking a life repulses us, we know the instinct for self-preservation would kick in.
I would kill to save a child, any child. Could I do it to save an adult? I have to admit I’m not sure. The most honest answer: Depends on who it is and what he or she means to me. But I wouldn’t hesitate to inflict grievous bodily harm, at the very least, to stop the torture of an animal.
To create a killer I can write about convincingly, I have to find that dark place where my own murderous impulses hide. I have to pull them into the light, examine the forces that created them, and weave my character’s heart and soul around them. I have to understand my killer’s behavior, and at some level I have to empathize with it. I hope I can also make the reader feel a spark of pity for this person who has been pushed by life into the role of killer.
Writing with these goals isn’t easy, and it makes for some treacherously complex plotting, but working with a simplistic killer would be so boring that I would probably give up long before I could finish the book. Same goes for reading about killers with motives that seem ridiculous to me. If a character is going to commit murder, he’d better have a darned good reason.
How do you feel about this? Do you want fictional killers to have understandable motives that arise from their unique situations? Do you ever feel empathy or pity for a killer?
And what would make you kill?