The Backstory: Part One
in Creating Killer Characters
by Alexandrea Weis

Every character must resonate, making any movie, television show, or novel riveting—what would Star Wars have been without those adventurous misfits. However, when embracing the challenge of the thriller genre, the history of your more sinister characters needs an almost forensic psychological breakdown to explain their motivations for depravity, rape, revenge, or murder. 

Ever been unnerved by documentaries about serial killers? Who hasn’t? Understanding the workings of their minds is a different kind of horror. But if you want to write about those outside society’s norms, you must discover who they are, what they did, and why. Learn about the psychology of those who kill and use it to create your character. This doesn’t come from reading other fiction books. You must become acquainted with theories of deviant behavior and comb profiling techniques to custom-build your killer. Don’t present ludicrous ideas that won’t sit well with an audience inundated by shows like CSINCISCriminal Minds, not to mention those numerous documentaries. 

Behind every reaction is an action compelling your homicidal maniac to execute their dastardly deeds. It is your job, as a writer, to find that motivation, slowly unearth it throughout your novel, and give the reader something to establish why your character has ended up in their predicament. Avoiding an explanation is like watching a movie, investing two hours of your life relating to characters, becoming sucked into the story, only to have the ending leave you with unanswered questions. You walk away angry, confused, and frustrated. If a book lover feels that way about your story, they might not return for more.

Establish a character history from childhood in the same way a forensic psychologist would. Use charts to build your character’s past until it feels as authentic as possible. Include key indicators of disturbing behavior exhibited from a young age, such as violent acts against people or animals. Trauma markers like loss, bullying, betrayal, or abuse can define turning points in a killer’s psyche. Explore parental influences, sibling relationships, or an unstable home life to earmark a pattern of inner turmoil. Not every character has to have such a detailed plan, but it is better to do your homework to appease an audience. Some murderers defy convention and are a fascinating study, but for your Richard Ramirez wannabe, mapping the development of evil tendencies can avoid pitfalls. Your evildoer’s inner workings should be second nature before you put him/her on paper. Having all the elements of your psychotic in your head will help your writing flow and aid the story’s ability to enthrall.

You also want to make sure you don’t become bogged down in details. Writing a thriller novel is akin to learning an intricate dance. You must master the steps to one move before you can proceed. Slowly unmasking your mesmerizing character, with their mysterious, catastrophic pasts, will pull your reader in. It is essential you address every issue, answer every question but not bore your reader with too much information or science. Balance is the key. From collecting trophies to methodology, use a character’s history to address their issues but keep the story moving. Blending enough fact with fiction always makes for a tantalizing tale.   

To make your killer delicious—someone who remains in the mind long after the book is put aside—determine how the character makes you feel. If they haunt you at all hours, occupy your dreams, and live in the back of your mind, then you’ve done your job. You can never obsess too much when it comes to constructing a cutthroat character. You want them to feel as if they can almost step out of your book and occupy your world. 

Remember, sensational doesn’t always sell. It is a good story with great, believable characters that reels in an audience. A carefully crafted villain will drive a storyline, so don’t always go for what is flashy, shiny, or high-tech when it comes to your madman or madwoman. Every tale needs sound footing, something to build on. Create this by doing your research, studying the psychology of the criminal mind, and learning about other masterminds who have come before. Building your Frankenstein isn’t easy, but the more work you put into the character, the more frightening he/she will be.  

Delving into the thriller genre is not something every writer wishes to do because of the endless research or gut-wrenching gore. Still, when you pull off a dark, seething murderer who intimidates and horrifies, there is no greater sense of achievement.   

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.