"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Dennis Palumbo's Essay "Is Your Psycho Killer Just...Psycho? " Featured in Suspense Magazine September- October Issue

As some of you may know, I'm a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. But I also write mystery fiction, both short stories and novels. Which means I also read a lot of mystery fiction, and have for many, many years.

And since I believe good crime fiction holds a mirror up to society -- exposing both its flaws and triumphs, dangerous excesses and moral ambiguity -- it doesn't surprise me that many contemporary mysteries and thrillers feature ever-more-violent criminals, ever-more-psychotic murderers, ever-more-deranged serial killers. As our world threatens to tilt into chaos -- social, economic, and political -- our crime fiction seems to traffic more and more in the realm of the psychologically-disturbed culprit, the villain whose heinous crimes appear totally random, totally senseless.

Which means, for today's mystery writer, I believe it's also a time to step back and reflect on how truthfully -- both in terms of believable narrative and real life itself -- a crime story villain is portrayed. In other words, is your psycho killer just ... psycho? Does your villain display the verisimilitude that all good fictional characters require -- or is he or she just crazy? Mindlessly, conveniently crazy?

Ray Bradbury once said, "There is only one type of story in the world -- your story." In other words, all writing is autobiographical. No matter how seemingly removed in time and space from the reality of your own life, you're writing about yourself. Even your impulse to tell a particular story arises from an aspect of your interior world.

Case in point: My series of mystery thrillers (Mirror Image, the debut novel, and Fever Dream, its sequel) feature a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh police. This character, Daniel Rinaldi, is Italian-American, was born and raised in the Steel City, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. As did I.

Of course, my crime novels are works of fiction, so there are definitely points at which Rinaldi and I part company. For one thing, he was an amateur boxer in his youth. The other, even more obvious difference, is that Daniel Rinaldi is a lot braver and more resourceful than I am. Most of the dangerous situations he finds himself in would have me running for the hills!

So Daniel Rinaldi both is and isn't me. As therapists, he and I are similar in our theoretical orientations and manner of doing therapy. His best friend, a paranoid schizophrenic, is even based on a patient at a private clinic with whom I was especially close. But, though we share these and other personal similarities, as a character Rinaldi clearly represents a fantasized version of me.

As do, I believe, all characters brought to life by their literary creators -- even those that seem totally removed from who we think we are. I'm speaking here about the writing of villains. Particularly those that are portrayed as crazy, psychopathic, criminally disturbed.

I can't tell you how often I've read thrillers in which the author's depiction of a "psycho" killer is pure boiler-plate: unconvincing, unmotivated, without psychological depth or realism. Why is this? Especially when the writer's other characters seem more rounded, realistic, subject to the usual panoply of feelings and motives?

In my view, it's because these writers are denying Bradbury's tenet about writing, which is that -- however disguised -- it is inevitably autobiographical. By that I mean, crime writers often see their monstrous, unstoppable killer as being "out there" somewhere, beyond the realm of normal human behavior. A caricature of evil out of a child's nightmare.

Or, even worse, they often conjure a conveniently "crazy" killer who commits the crime merely because he's crazy. Merely to horrify the reader. Merely as an excuse for gratuitous and graphic depictions of unspeakable acts. Merely as a bad guy heinous enough to have us rooting for the hero to finally stop him. In other words, the boogie-man.

I've often had writing patients, working on a violent crime thriller, complain that they just can't get inside the head of their villain "because I'm not like that."

Do you feel that way? Do you believe that because you're a nice, kind, truthful person, you can't really create a lying, vicious killer? A ruthless blackmailer? A greedy kidnapper?

Well, if so, I beg to differ.

For one thing, as a psychotherapist for more than 25 years, I've come to realize that people --common, everyday people -- have operatic passions. That stoic guy bagging groceries at your local supermarket, that helpful lady at the pharmacy, the janitor at your kid's school -- all of them, if given the opportunity to relate their life stories, would stun you with the personal dramas each has endured. The heartbreaks and triumphs, the yearnings and dashed hopes. The hurts and shame and missed opportunities they've obsessed about since high school. The deaths and financial losses and mental illnesses with which their families have struggled.

As I say, operatic passions. Great loves and hates. Maybe buried now beneath years of quiet, conventional living. Beneath years of daily toil, paying the bills, driving the kids to school. But those passions are there, trust me. Otherwise soap operas wouldn't be a staple of broadcasting in every corner of the world, in every culture. Otherwise viewers wouldn't be transfixed (often as a guilty secret) with reality TV, with true crime series on cable networks, with gossip in all its forms.

Which brings me back to the crime writer, and what he or she is willing to acknowledge and explore. And, make no mistake, there's a bottomless well, a fathomless sea, a boundless horizon available, if you just have the courage to accept all that it contains.

Deep within each mystery writer lies the seeds of every kind of human. From a nun to a serial killer, a corporate tycoon to a migrant worker, a life-giver to a life-taker. If you can feel, you can imagine. And if you can imagine, then the possibilities -- for good or evil -- inherent in that which you've imagined are available to you.

Here's an example, crude but illustrative. Let's say you've always had a secret yearning to be respected. Perhaps this yearning began in childhood, when your siblings got all the glory in school or on the athletic field, and you felt ignored. Discounted. Invisible.

Imagine, then, that your villain -- a terrifying serial killer, a sociopath who murders without remorse -- has felt similarly discounted and invisible all his life. Rejected. Ignored.

Well, if you're this guy, one thing that definitely gets you some attention is leaving a swath of mutilated bodies in your wake. And if you're clever enough to continually elude the police, you probably feel a sense of pride. Of gratification. Of vindication. Now the world's respecting you, even if it's a respect based on fear. You're certainly not invisible anymore. At long last, you're getting the attention you deserve.

Luckily, regardless of how we were treated in childhood, most of us still grow up to be sane, rational citizens. Maybe our feelings are easily hurt, or we succumb too easily to envy or jealousy, but we're probably not going to do much about it. Certainly nothing criminal.

But in our fiction, we get to act out these feelings. As writers, we get to create villainous characters who do all sorts of bad things -- and, I submit, the more relatable their motives, the more terrifying they are to the reader.

The cold fact is, even a psychopath has his or her reasons. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, believed his neighbor was a demon, ordering him to kill through communicating via his pet dog. Mary Martin Speck, a nurse who killed 23 patients, claimed to be doing the Lord's work. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, felt a need to prove his superiority over those lesser beings trying to catch him.

As I say, the reasons may be irrational, based on delusional beliefs or unfounded grandiosity, but they're reasons nonetheless. At least in the killer's mind.

Which means the brave writer has to visit that mind occasionally. Has to figure out some way to relate to that mind's desires, fears, beliefs, pain, ego.

I recall a group therapy session years ago, when I was an intern in clinical training, in which one of the members got furious at another. Over some real or imagined slight. Regardless, she got to her feet and verbally attacked this second person.

After 10 minutes of vituperative rage and name-calling, the woman finally calmed herself. Then, turning to the therapist who was running the group, she said, sheepishly, "Wow, all that anger and rage ... all that ugly hate ... I'm so sorry. That wasn't me."

To which the therapist responded, "Yes it was. It isn't the sole truth of who you are, of course, but those dark feelings are in there. They're in everybody. They're as real in you as are your other feelings -- your compassion, your generosity, your joy."

As John Fowles once wrote, in his novel Daniel Martin, "Whole sight ... or all the rest is desolation." By which he meant that the totality of the human condition, the entire truth of our experience as people, has to be acknowledged if we're to live authentically. Just as, I believe, the totality of the human condition has to be explored and utilized by the writer seeking to create vivid, compelling, seriously terrifying villains.

So the next time you begin conceptualizing your crime story's villain, don't be afraid to mine your own feelings. Down deep, below the surface. It's where the motherlode of characterization, and all the narrative gold that results, lies hidden.

Just waiting for you, the writer, to bring it into the light.


(This essay first appeared, in slightly revised form, on the "Sirens of Suspense" website.)

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