Killer Looks: Part Two
in Creating Killer Characters
by Alexandrea Weis

You know by the way a character darted their dark eyes, thickened the ridge above their brow, or eased their meaty lips into a thin line that they have sinister intentions. That is the power of vivid descriptions. They can stir the imagination—creating a scoundrel any reader will love, or hate, lies in the details. Vague doesn’t cut it when making a person leap off the page. The more description, the better, but don’t get bogged down. You might bore your reader and could lose the essence of your character. Your portrayal is meant to be a tantalizing glimpse of your killer, not a mugshot. Make sure to unveil who they are in stages, adding new, important details as the story unfolds. Keep the reader hungry for more. 

Many writers look to the pictures of Hollywood actors for inspiration. This is a good start, but sometimes it can get you into trouble. It is best to have an original evildoer in mind, not a copy of someone else. That is why your imagination is critical. So instead of looking for your serial killer among television or movie screens, go within to carve out a nightmarish degenerate the likes of which the world has never seen.

Most writers relate describing characters to writing a summary of their entire novel. It’s challenging, but instead of going for the physical, go for how you want to make a reader feel. If you need your criminal to terrify, create corresponding characteristics that suggest such emotions. Or you can unwittingly unnerve by presenting someone attractive and charismatic. One who disturbs because they are the perfect partner or dreamy date, but their intentions are utterly heinous. Sometimes the closer we come to a reader’s reality, the more hard-hitting the impact. The attractive, quiet guy next door can sometimes turn out to be more frightening than the haggard old man down the street who shouts at children for playing too loud. 

Remember those details I mentioned? Start with the basics. The look and feel of the skin should be an essential part of your character. Cold or hot, smooth or coarse, lumpy or silky, these are descriptions that convey pleasure or instill disgust. Don’t forget scars, skin coloring, birthmarks, pockmarks, wrinkles, tattoos, odor, and other telltale signs that can add to your character’s personality. Imagine a man, his yellowish skin cracked and rough, with bleeding sores that give off the foulest stench reminding you of dead fish scattered on a lake. Behind a scraggly beard dotted with bald patches, you detect one long scar inching toward his right eye socket. Does this make you want to run into his arms or flee?   

Facial features are another element that can say so much about a person. Are their cheekbones high, sunken, flat, or carved by a master sculptor, instilling lust or jealousy in another? Is their nose aquiline, prominent, or upturned, revealing a rather snooty demeanor? Pert and button noses encourage a sense of trust, whereas long, broken, and hooked noses could instill revulsion. What about their chin? Dimpled ones often bring the girls running, but a pointy one can be seen as witchlike for a woman or standoffish for a man. Are their teeth white, yellowed, crooked, or straight? We all check out people’s teeth when meeting them. It’s important to do the same for your culprit. Finally, don’t forget the forehead. The breadth, depth of wrinkles, and whether it hoods the eyes can say a lot about the person you are bringing to life.

The eyes are a must when illustrating the darker dimensions of who you are attempting to build. How they stare, the depth and color of the irises, the veins or discolorations in the sclera, the size of the pupils, the intensity and coldness they emit. Are they small, downturned, wide, have thick lashes, encrusted with sleep, or bloodshot from too many drugs or alcohol? Everything you put into your psychopath will unnerve and fascinate your reader.

Taking the time to build a true personality involves constructing your Frankenstein one feature at a time, while keeping in mind the emotions you wish to stir. Go for the original and extraordinary, that includes stepping outside your comfort zone. What scares readers most is something they don’t expect, which could take a lot of planning, but be well worth it in the end. If you have fashioned an iconic villain who lives on in the mind and hopefully causes a few sleepless nights, you’ve done your job. Killer characters are more than a pretty face or an ugly one, but you can’t make a great story without first painting an unforgettable picture. 

Alexandrea Weis, RN-CS, PhD, is a multi-award-winning author, screenwriter, advanced practice registered nurse, and historian who was born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She has taught at major universities and worked in nursing for thirty years, dealing with victims of sexual assault, abuse, and mental illness in a clinical setting at many New Orleans area hospitals.

Having grown up in the motion picture industry as the daughter of a director, she learned to tell stories from a different perspective. Infusing the rich tapestry of her hometown into her novels, she believes that creating vivid characters makes a story moving and memorable.

A member of both the International Thriller Writers Association and the Horror Writers Association, Weis writes mystery, suspense, thrillers, horror, crime fiction, and romance and has sold over one million books. She lives with her husband and pets in New Orleans where she is a permitted/certified wildlife rehabber with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries and rescues orphaned and injured animals.