How to Write a Compelling Serial Killer

There’s always been a certain mystique that surrounds serial killers in popular culture. Despite their cruel and gruesome acts, these criminals have oddly captured the attention of many people, inspiring movies, TV shows, documentaries, and books as a result. Serial killers are the subject of intense fascination because they represent a unique kind of villain, different from standard antagonists like accidental murderers or supervillains.

Put simply, they represent real-life evil that poses a threat to our lives, and stories about them absolutely serve as cautionary tales. Of course, with this intense interest comes the inevitable controversy as to whether or not engaging with these narratives can be damaging. However, if consumed responsibly, stories about serial killers can give viewers insight into understanding certain aspects of human behavior. And that makes writing fiction about serial killers a hell of a challenge!

Understanding the Psychology of Serial Killers

Serial killers have an incredibly complex psychology. There are numerous potential motivations, ranging from mental illness and a traumatic past to a desire for fame and power. However, there are often some common psychological traits of serial killers, including a lack of empathy or remorse, feelings of detachment from other people, as well as narcissistic attitudes that lead to opportunistic and violent behavior.

Environmental factors like abuse, neglect, and parental bonding often play a role in real-life serial killing behavior. Ultimately, the motivations driving serial killers vary, and are extremely individualized across cases. Exploring the underlying causes of why serial killers commit their heinous acts is the only way we can hope to understand these individuals, and by understanding them, writing them to be more believable and compelling.

Serial killers fascinate and horrify society, and it is important to note that there are different types of these notorious criminals. Described loosely below, they can encompass the following types:

  • Thrill-seekers (or hedonistic serial killers) enjoy the adrenaline rush of hunting humans (a good example would be Patrick Bateman from American Psycho or Joe Goldberg from You).
  • Mission-oriented perpetrators are driven by a desire to complete a self-given mission (such as Francis Dolarhyde from Red Dragon or John Doe from Seven)
  • Visionary serial killers have delusions that force them to complete their horrific crimes (Norman Bates from Psycho is generally considered the best example of this).
  • Power seekers simply enjoy having victims completely under their control (Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs).

Not only do they have different motivations, but they also have unique traits. A serial killer may display a ‘staging’ during the murder process, while others may be heavily troubled by hallucinations. Some will center their killings around a particular class or occupation, while for others, it’s all about sadistic behavior. Serial killers really can come in a variety of forms, and understanding these characteristics can give us important insight into this dark topic.

Writing a compelling serial killer can be hard work! But if you understand even a little of the psychology of a serial killer, you can build your character on a true-to-life foundation. Most serial killers share a few common psychological traits, such as narcissism, dysfunctional relationships, aggression, and a lack of remorse and empathy. By looking at these characteristics in detail, you can use them to create an interesting and complex villain that feels real to readers. 

To get a better understanding, look back at history’s most notorious serial killers. What particular behaviors did they display, and how did they take shape? Understanding the ‘why’ behind their actions can really help you craft characters worth reading about.

Researching Real-Life Serial Killers

Writing a novel about serial killers comes with an ethical responsibility. It‘s important to conduct research in a way that avoids glorifying or exploiting real-life victims of murder. As an author, you should strive to be respectful and honest while seeking out the information necessary for accurate storytelling. Always consider the sources and keep in mind that inaccurate details can contribute to the sensationalization of crime and might lead to further victimization.

To stay on the right side of ethics, remember that honoring victims of crimes always takes precedence over entertainment values. Research can be fun with great detective work, but act responsibly by avoiding unauthorized access to personal (public or private) information.

Real-life serial killers are now featured heavily in literature and film, so it’s no wonder that most writers look back to some of these infamous criminals for guidance, either consciously or otherwise. The likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer may be particularly well known, but also consider less famous cases such as Randy Steven Kraft or Dean Corll.

While it’s difficult to grapple with how someone could become a serial killer in real life, it can be useful to draw inspiration from their stories when creating fictional characters. That way, we can explore and investigate certain dark aspects of human psychology in a gripping yet thought-provoking fashion.

Creating a Distinctive and Compelling Character

When it comes to creating a serial killer that viewers won’t forget, it’s essential to come up with something truly unique. That could mean giving them a unique style of dressing, or an unusual weapon of choice. Anything that establishes the character’s memorable identity and keeps people coming back for more.

Make sure their motives are just shady enough to intrigue yet remain somewhat difficult to understand. By doing so, they’ll become complex figures that everyone loves to hate. Put as much thought into your killer as you can, and don’t be afraid to get creative. You never know what might stick with audiences!

When it comes to developing a convincing and believable background for a serial killer, it’s important to focus on more than just the ‘how’. While understanding their killing method is important, knowing why your killer does what they do is equally as critical. Consider key elements such as their primary motivation, their sense of ego, any triggers that may exist, and the culture from which they emerged.

If you put some thought into how your character became who they are, it will help craft believable characteristics and behaviors that your readers can easily understand. Be sure to establish the killer’s alignment early on so you can make choices down the line that are both consistent with who the character is and make it more compelling for your audience. Are they calculated or impulsive? Are they driven by pure rage or twisted curiosity?

Fictional serial killers have gained quite a bit of fame both on and off the big screen. From Hannibal Lecter to Anton Chigurh, these characters often capture our morbid curiosity with their violent actions and mysterious motives. These characters possess elements that make them stand out for various reasons.

Not all serial killers are as prominent as those two, however. Some can appear more mundane such as Norman Bates. Despite being fictitious, these characters can give us an insight into what a real serial killer may think or act like — an alluring thought for horror fans everywhere!

Incorporating Tension and Suspense in the Story

Tension and suspense are essential tools when creating a compelling story involving a serial killer. In this context, tension is the underlying feeling of dread or anticipation as the character takes steps that lead closer to uncovering the killer’s identity. This can be amplified through foreshadowing clues dropped during conversations or moments of cold realization.

Suspense, on the other hand, builds up during high-stakes moments where danger lurks around every corner. A great way to instill suspense is to use violent imagery and intense scenes alongside emotional stakes for each character. The audience hangs on each moment in anticipation of what life-or-death decision will come next.

Written skillfully and thoughtfully, incorporating tension and suspense into your story can create an unforgettable tale of mystery and intrigue guaranteed to keep readers hooked until the end. Of course, building tension and suspense can be a challenge for any writer. 

When done well, these elements will keep your readers hooked, on the edge of their seats, and wanting more. One great way to build tension is through foreshadowing, weaving hints into the narrative of what’s to come without giving it all away. Moving the story along at an effective pace also helps ramp up the suspense. Go too slow, and your audience might lose interest, but too fast will lessen the impact of key twists or reveals. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to add some plot twists that your audience won’t expect. Keep them guessing right until the end!

Avoiding Common Tropes and Stereotypes

The way serial killers are depicted in our culture can often be overly sensationalized and full of harmful stereotypes. They become portrayals of the supernatural rather than the humans that they are. This is troubling for many reasons. Not only does it ignore the reality of their actions, but it also reveals how we as a society often oversimplify violence and crime by placing all blame on an individual instead of trying to understand why it happened.

As a writer, you can play an important role in challenging such stereotypes and tropes by delving deeper into characters who have committed horrifying acts of violence. Instead of relying on easily-digestible archetypes, create individuals with multiple layers that provide empathy and context to their behavior while still shining a light on the complexities which lead up to such abhorrent acts.

Writing more nuanced characters helps us better understand our shared humanity. Try not to focus on the glorious evil but rather on the aspects of struggling with mental trauma or similar issues that lead your characters to commit desperate crimes.

While some tropes, such as ‘the lonely white male with a troubled upbringing’, are more common and well-known, the media’s treatment of transgender people, in particular, is often problematic and offensive. When transgender people are depicted as serial killers, it perpetuates the dangerous myth that being transgender means someone is violent or unstable. In effect, this is simply trading one form of fear-mongering for another. 

Writing Serial Killers Is Allowed to Be Fun!

Writing about a serial killer character can be both fun and daunting. It’s essential to remember that this subject, however fictional, is sensitive and to ensure responsible depictions of these characters within our works. Readers need to understand the motivations of your serial killer while maintaining their morally reprehensible position within the story.

Consider the impact of your story and develop empathy within your writing journey. Try to understand how they got there, treat them humanely, and know when it’d be inappropriate to sympathize. Above all else, don’t be afraid to use your imagination while writing! You don’t have to stick exactly to true-to-life details to make compelling art; just stay grounded in reality as much as possible.

Be creative, explore the motivations and background information of your characters, and remain mindful of your readers. Taking a creative and logical approach yields fantastic stories!

About Dan Padavona

Dan Padavona is the hugely popular author of The Darkwater Cove series, The Wolf Lake series, The Dark Vanishings series, The Logan and Scarlett serial killer book series, and The Scarlett Bell series. It’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about writing compelling and hugely popular serial killers!

His works have earned high rankings in Kindle, paperback, and audiobook formats, with several appearing in the top 20. In 2016, the first book of his popular Dark Vanishings series was a finalist for the eFestival of Word’s Indie Novel of the Year award, and he has been called one of the most thrilling writers to emerge in recent years.