Saturday, May 31, 2014

Getting Inside the Mind of a Killer

One of the skills a thriller writer needs to master is getting inside the head of the villain. This can be hard to do if you’re not a villain yourself. I’ve never killed anyone or ordered an execution. I’ve never tortured an enemy or smuggled drugs across a border or hacked national-security secrets out of a Defense Department computer. The challenge isn’t describing how to do these things; you can read manuals to learn how to hack a computer, and there have been excellent newspaper stories detailing the mechanics of smuggling. (And if you want to learn how to torture someone, just read a book on the CIA’s recent history.) No, the problem is describing the why. Why is the villain doing all these awful things? Does he/she have a reason or an excuse? A traumatic childhood? A thirst for power or riches or revenge? A misguided idealism? Or just plain old psychopathic insanity?

Without a thorough understanding of your villain’s motives, you run the risk of defaulting to the Snidely Whiplash cliché, the evildoer who cackles and twirls the ends of his mustache as he reveals his foul plans. But how can you achieve this understanding without descending into villainy yourself? You have to employ your imagination, sure, but what can you use as a real-world guide?

One strategy is to read the memoirs of famous villains. Mein Kampf is a good example. The manifesto of the Unabomber is another. It’s definitely not pleasant reading, but it can be instructive. You learn that evil really does exist. And that we should take hateful people seriously and never underestimate them.

This past week, as a result of the horrible murders in Isla Vista, California, we have another manifesto to add to this sad genre. The 22-year-old berserker, Elliot Rodger (who killed himself after stabbing three people in his apartment and fatally shooting three more on a rampage across the college town), wrote a 140-page memoir titled “My Twisted World” and e-mailed it to two dozen people before he went on his spree. After reading about the killings in the New York Times, I clicked on the link to Rodger’s memoir and spent the next hour perusing it. Here are the things I learned about this kid’s particular strain of banal evil:
1) He was a pathetic creature full of grievances, both large and petty. One of his earliest memories was getting upset at his three-year-old birthday party because another kid got the first slice of cake. His background wasn’t extremely privileged, but he had some contact with the spoiled-brat Hollywood world, and its screwed-up values infected his mind. He expected everything to fall into his lap and threw tantrums when it didn’t happen. He played computer games for hours at a time and failed at school. He became obsessed with playing the lottery and freaked out when he didn’t win. And he grew enraged at all women because none of them would have sex with him. This was his primary grievance, the one he repeated ad nauseum throughout the manifesto. He was an “unkissed virgin” and he deserved better. It drove him mad to know that other people were having sex and he wasn’t. So he decided to take revenge.

2) Were there any mitigating circumstances? He was bullied in school. His parents divorced, and he had conflicts with his stepmother. And yet I got the sense that he was the main cause of his own misery. He wasn’t liked because he wasn’t likeable. It’s a vicious circle, I suppose.

3) I was shocked at how openly racist this kid was. He was a Eurasian obsessed with “hot blonde girls” and he shows vile scorn for any Asian, black or Latino man who has the nerve to date a white woman. I know there are millions of other racists who share these attitudes, but it’s rare to see them expressed in print like this. The newspaper reports didn’t emphasize this aspect of his personality, which seemed surprising given the fact that three of Rodger’s victims were his two Asian roommates and their Asian friend. In the manifesto, Rodger calls his roommates “repulsive.”

4) The kid was a world-class narcissist. Just listen to him: “Humanity has never accepted me among them, and now I know why. I am more than human. I am superior to them all. I am Elliot Rodger… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent… Divine! I am the closest thing there is to a living god. Humanity is a disgusting, depraved, and evil species. It is my purpose to punish them all. I will purify the world of everything that is wrong with it. On the Day of Retribution, I will truly be a powerful god, punishing everyone I deem to be impure and depraved.” It’s hard to take this stuff seriously, right? And yet the kid kept his promise. He had his Day of Retribution.

No, it’s definitely not pleasant reading. But texts like this are windows on the world of evil, and getting a good view of the Adversary can be useful for both fiction and life.


  1. I just finished reading Without Conscience, a book that delves into the psychopath mind and extreme narcissism is one of the traits. It's hard for normal people to believe that someone can born so full of evil. We want to find a reason—abuse, divorce, something. When sometimes there is no reason.

    1. The concept of evil is hard for me to get my head around. I think "full of evil" as you said, hit the nail on the head. Whatever it is or is not, this kid was full of it.

  2. Fascinating. But extreme. I couldn't fit a villain such as he into my books. It's beyond my comprehension. Insanity isn't a motivation, it's a mental disease. I prefer my villains to have a reason for being dastardly.

    I think a book about this guy's life would bore me.

  3. Thanks for this post, Mark. The summary of Elliott Rodger's manifesto was very helpful. I had thought about reading it, and didn't want to. Now I don't need to.

    Many villains of the bully type are a combination of narcissism and controlling personality. A book that helped me understand the controlling personality is CONTROLLING PEOPLE by Patricia Evans.

    Thanks again for the post.

  4. Thanks. Eye opening, and as a UCSB alum who lived in IV for three years, painful on another level. We've all known people who have inflated feelings about their own worth – delusions of adequacy – but few (I hope) take them to his extreme. And yet, for all his whiny sense of entitlement and self-grandeur, his "day of retribution" was pretty banal, wasn't it? Awful, horrific, but in the end, he comes across as a pathetic loser instead of an Old Testament god dispensing divine depraved justice.

  5. Oh, this is opening Pandora's Box of evils. I have trouble processing my thoughts about narcissistic, self-pitying, grandiose-thought villains such as Rodger. They seem so small and pathetic in real life. But the damage they do to others is so real and large. It reminds me of Hannah Arendt's phrase: "The banality of Evil."

  6. It seems over dramatic to me. Though he may have felt those things, he seems to embellish quite a bit, probably thinking his written words would be the final period to his deeds. Maybe it was, but I don't find him creepy evil, not like a true villain. He was just a mixed up kid who experienced unpleasant things. Where most kids are resilient and move on, his spoiled life and sense of entitlement drove him literally mad.

    I like my villains to be evil, purely so, with no mental scars.

  7. Mark--thank you very much for this summary. You provide the essence of the manifesto, meaning I don't need to read it.
    I write thrillers. But because my stories don't traffic in plots that place the country/planet/environment/cosmos as risk, I must emphasize my characters. But I've grown a little tired of most nut-case bad guys, so how can I develop antagonists? My answer is to write stories that involve ordinary people, and confront them with heavies that have little or no conscience. In the first of my Brenda Contay mystery/thrillers--The Anything Goes Girl--I use a college-educated killer who sees himself as a simple instrument of fate. When he kills, that just means the victim's time has come. A card has been turned over, that's all. But he doesn't like the work, and uses blackmail (plus his college degree) to work his way into the corporate security department of a multi-national holding company. In other words, he too is "ordinary." He'd rather set up security systems than assassinate people. He's tired of hassles with the IRS, and wants reliable benefits, etc.

  8. Yeah, pretty freaky stuff. I think you nailed it with the following quote: "He expected everything to fall into his lap and threw tantrums when it didn’t happen."

    This sounds rather innocuous, but it's really loaded with all the rage behind it.

  9. When I read your post, I laughed at realizing that I wasn't the only author who spent probably too much time reading that memoir of the Isla Vista killer. And yet even as I say that, I know it's not really a waste. It's a great case study.

    For all he talked about the "hot blondes," I found it an interesting part of his pathology that they were probably the least described of all of the people he discussed in the memoir.