Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What would make you kill?

Sandra Parshall

I’m baffled by people like Scott Peterson, who think murdering a spouse is the easiest way to end a marriage.

I always look for more, thinking the simple desire to get out of the marriage can’t be all there is to it. Surely some dark and twisted story remains to be told, surely secrets will emerge that might make the murder understandable, if not justifiable. But no. In many cases, the husband – or the wife – just wants to be free and doesn’t want to bother with a divorce.

I couldn’t write about such a killer, because the motive makes no sense to me. The person who kills in a fit of rage is easier to understand than these bland people who plot and carry out murder for the flimsiest of reasons. There’s simply nothing there to explore.

Equally off-putting are psychopathic serial killers. Judging by the popularity of this type of book, I’d say mental illness makes good drama for a lot of people, but I can only stay interested in a serial killer novel if the people investigating the crimes are compelling, with their own fascinating stories. A mentally ill murderer’s motive is imaginary, unconnected to the real world, and for that reason, it bores me.

Strange as it may seem, I need a killer I can identify with. Someone I can understand. And that forces me to ask: What is worth killing for? What could make me take another person’s life?

Not an easy question for someone who is basically a pacifist and a physical coward. I seldom see any justification for war. I might get mad enough to say, “I could strangle her!” but I’d never do it. As a kid on a farm, I was always horrified by the casual way adults wrung the necks of chickens. When I find bugs in the house, I usually pick them up and put them outside. But... I kill spiders. I leave them alone if they’re in the yard, but any spider that’s in the house or even hanging around outside a door or window will be mercilessly dispatched. And I’m sure that in some circumstances I could kill another human being.

Self-defense – most of us probably take it for granted that we would kill rather than be killed. Even if the thought of taking a life repulses us, we know the instinct for self-preservation would kick in.

I would kill to save a child, any child. Could I do it to save an adult? I have to admit I’m not sure. The most honest answer: Depends on who it is and what he or she means to me. But I wouldn’t hesitate to inflict grievous bodily harm, at the very least, to stop the torture of an animal.

To create a killer I can write about convincingly, I have to find that dark place where my own murderous impulses hide. I have to pull them into the light, examine the forces that created them, and weave my character’s heart and soul around them. I have to understand my killer’s behavior, and at some level I have to empathize with it. I hope I can also make the reader feel a spark of pity for this person who has been pushed by life into the role of killer.

Writing with these goals isn’t easy, and it makes for some treacherously complex plotting, but working with a simplistic killer would be so boring that I would probably give up long before I could finish the book. Same goes for reading about killers with motives that seem ridiculous to me. If a character is going to commit murder, he’d better have a darned good reason.

How do you feel about this? Do you want fictional killers to have understandable motives that arise from their unique situations? Do you ever feel empathy or pity for a killer?

And what would make you kill?


paul lamb said...

I can't envision a scenario where I could commit a calculated murder. I suppose some of the reflex moments like you describe (to save self, to save a child) might apply to me.

I think, actually, you may be onto a good idea for a story though. Couldn't your detective be puzzled by a murder because he/she is looking for some deeper motive, some compelling reason that he/she could comprehend (if not share)? And so the detective is overlooking the clues/evidence that point to a casual killer with trivial motives. The detective is not seeing the simplistic solution because it just doesn't seem human.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think killing to protect a child is the most basic response. I'd be more likely to protect a child than to save myself (and I don't think I want to examine what that says about my own self-image). There is a reason that in prisons, child molesters/killers are considered the lowest of the low. I think most of us are hardwired to preserve our future.

Re writing a killer--I've never tried writing from a killer's POV, but I've seen good examples (none of which I can remember at the moment, of course). It is a real challenge to create a character who is both twisted and believable, even sympathetic, because you buy into his warped view of the world.

Julia Buckley said...

I really can't think of any other reason that I'd kill except to protect my children, but that reflex was apparent the moment they were born. A man came into the room to take blood from my newborn baby's heel. It took a while, and the baby was crying; the lab guy seemed entirely unconcerned. My husband had to hold me down so that I didn't leap out and snatch the baby away. I felt an overwhelming sense of hate for the man who made my child cry only hours after birth.

Sure, it was a hormonal response, but I think those hormones kick in during a dangerous situation.

Other motives? Even if someone had some terrible evidence against me that could put me in jail, I am certain I would never consider killing them. I would adjust my thinking to prepare for living in jail.

But I'm facing the same dilemma in my current work, Sandra! No motive seems entirely believable, and yet the newspaper is full of reports of murders.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, Julia, the news is full of murders, and the motives usually baffle me. This morning's Washington Post has a story about several teenage boys -- 14 and 15 years old -- who beat and stomped a man to death, then took pictures of him. Why? They asked him for a cigarette and he told them he didn't smoke. But they apparently set out with the thought of killing somebody that day -- just for the fun of it, I guess. They've all been charged with first degree murder.

Pageturners said...

What about a killer who targets, say, clampers? Surely most people could feel at least a sneaking identification with that...

Lee Lofland said...

I was recently interviewed by a Rhode Island newspaper about this very topic. Here's a part of what I told the reporter:

Former Virginia police Detective Lee Lofland, now an author and a police procedure consultant for TV and book writers, has worked on cases in which blood was spilled over what seemed to be petty disputes.

In an e-mail exchange on Monday, Lofland, now of Massachusetts, recalled a homicide case he worked in which twin brothers got into an argument over who should get the last hot dog on the platter. One grabbed a revolver and shot his twin.

“It doesn’t get much more trivial than that,” Lofland said. “I’m a firm believer of the theory that all criminal activity, including murder, is caused by a person’s inability to properly mentally process and evaluate certain situations. These individuals simply don’t have the ability to resolve problems using methods that society considers normal.

“This mental short-circuit can be initiated by various means, such as substance abuse, a brain abnormality” or “extreme anger.”

Barbara D'Amato said...

I don't know about kill, as in really kill, but if I saw someone torturing a dog, I would do something drastic.

Sandra Parshall said...

Barbara, I have actually stolen two kittens -- at different times -- from people who were abusing them. I gave them to friends who adored them and they lived long and happy lives. (And this was a long time ago, so I think the statute of limitations will protect me after my confession.)

Sometimes you just *have* to take action of some kind.

Teresa Fannin said...

Of course, I would defend and save my daughters with every thing I have. But I think it is a sense of justice tattooed on my spine that would drive me to murder, more a visceral reaction. I defend friends who probably wouldn't defend me, I rescue dogs off the street, I have kicked a person kicking a dog-I have no tolerance for bullies and have put myself in some very awkward situations for what others might call trivial. For me to kill it would have to be an accident where I went too far, nothing pre meditated, and then an OMG afterward along with confession.
But I do think that just about anything can cause someone to murder, if they are desperate enough, or lost or hopeless enough. I think that people who murder in someway are more cowardly than those who commit suicide- but they're not willing to blame themselves.

Sandra Parshall said...

Teresa, I feel the same way about bullies. They deserve a great big dose of exactly the same thing they're dishing out.

I can understand murder committed in a rage. I can understand a chronically abused wife waiting until her husband is asleep, then killing him. In cases like that, the "killers" aren't in full control of their actions.

What I can't understand are people who plot murder just because they don't want to go through a divorce, or -- even worse -- because money is at stake. I've always felt cheated by mysteries where the motive turned out to be money. Money is worthless, money is nothing compared to a life. And when you kill someone else, you're probably throwing your own life away too, because most killers are caught. They're too stupid to believe they'll be caught, though. I'm sure Scott Peterson never for one second doubted he would get away with it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

What a sensational posting.

What would make a person kill? Stripping away the layers of civilization and laying bare the basest elements of his soul. Consider what the military does. It drills and drills, stripping personality from a person until that person is part of a group. Then, it presents them with an enemy that is regularly dehumanized. Finally, stir into that stew a life and death situation, where stress levels are raised to critical mass.

I think murder is so often impulse and opportunity. Premeditated murder seems truly pathological.

Anonymous said...

I planned to kill my former spouse. I thought about it in detail, and figured out exactly how to do and minimize the chance I'd be caught.

People disappear every year in this country. Not all of them willingly I think.

The reason I didn't murder him has nothing to do with my high moral character. I got over being very very angry, and very very afraid of being homeless.

Marilynne said...

You made me think deeply. Most of us would kill to protect a child or a loved one.

I think another strong reason for murder is a feeling of betrayal. If a person had been betrayed again and again, and expected to swallow it quietly, I think the anger could explode and lead to murder. Not premeditated, but murder.

I believe most of us have a personal trigger that could lead to murder. Most of us are sensible enough to wait out the rage and think it over. Scary isn't it?


Kaye said...

A great topic, Sandy! I, too, am a pacifist and a coward. Maybe that's why I'm so fascinated with people who do what I never could - kill another human being. That fascination is really why I started to write (and have always read) mysteries. I read a lot of true crime, too, trying to figure out what makes these people tick. I haven't yet, but Lee Lofland's post is probably very close.

Lately, though, I've been tempted to kill some of the people I've seen on TV and in the papers that have severely abused and killed children - sometimes their own! They must be brain damaged. That can't be human.

Of course, as others have said here, if I had to defend my children or grandchild, I wouldn't hesitate a minute.
-Kaye George