The Killer Inside Us*

By Brett Battles

As writers of crime and thriller fiction, part of our job is to kill a lot of people. I know in my first novel the death toll probably reached two dozen. Thrillers tend to rack up the body count, but even in the most tame of crime novels it’s likely that at least one person has died.

Our job is not to only kill any number of people, but to often come up with new and exciting (perhaps a poor word choice) ways of doing it. Or if we recycle a method used before, do so by adding our own twists. Guns, poisons, knives, ropes, explosions…these are just some of the tools we work with.

And then there are the killers themselves, the characters who pull the triggers or set off the remotes. These people (who they are, and what motivates them) come from our minds, too. Perhaps they are inspired by someone in real life, but believe me, if an author can’t get into their minds, then all he or she will create is a cardboard cutout no one will find believable.

Call me crazy, but I doubt most writers of these kinds of books just came to the ability of being able to figure these things out only when they started writing crime and thrillers. Refined their skills, yes. But not having a predisposition already? I doubt it.

I’ve been a killer since at least junior high. Okay…that might not be completely accurate…I probably started off more a maimer than a killer, but the foundation was there.

Now before you go thinking this is some sort of confession of a heinous crime spree, just sit back, drink that coffee and chill. What I’m talking about is my imagination.

It undoubtedly started off with a lot of “what ifs.” What if the school bus lost its breaks and smashed into a light pole? What if JP, the junior high bully, got so mad he actually beat someone to death? What if that fake bomb threat someone called into school when I was in 8th grade had been real?

From there I would move on to the whys and the hows. What happened to the bus’ breaks? How could someone secretly motivate JP to attack someone else?  Why would someone want to blow up a classroom? Multiple answers, especially to that last one.

These became stories in my mind…little mental plays that I would sometimes write down. Of course in the worlds I created the good guys would always come out on top. (I did, after all, win Citizen of the Year for my 3rd grade class, and have been know to trap spiders and crickets and carry them outside instead of killing them.)

There were other killing triggers, too, one of the best being an overheard conversation. “I think tonight’s the night. Tommy wants me to meet him at that abandoned house outside of town at nine.” Or…”Mark told me he is so allergic to peanuts that just a little bit of peanut butter would kill him.” Or…”Mr. Harris gave me a D for no reason. I could just kill him.”

These days I could get whole novels out of any of those lines.

The point I’m trying to make is that unlike a lot of my friends and fellow students, when I’d hear something like any of those things above, I would start to work them into a plot. I would figure out how to make that rendezvous at the abandoned house turn into the scene of a crime. I’d imagine “Mark’s” girlfriend being so sick of him that she secretly works some peanut butter into a cupcake she’s baked for him. Or I would figure out the best way a student could take revenge on the teacher who’s failed him.

Actually acting on any of these thoughts never crossed my mind in any way other than to use them in a story. But seeing these situations, overhearing these bits of conversations…my mind often goes to the dark place, wondering “what if.”

My God, if a psychologist had dug a little bit into my psyche as a teenager, they might have thought there was something evil at my core. But then if they dug a little deeper, they would have realized that it wasn’t an asocial desire to act out, but a curiosity of humanity…both the good and the bad.

“Hi. I’m Brett Battles, and I kill with my keyboard.”

So who’s with me? Are we a bunch of imaginary killers or am I certifiable? And while you’re at it, share one of those random events that spurred an idea.

* Apologies to the late Jim Thompson whose magnificent novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME I finally read for the first time last month.

Today a little bit of visual creativity. This is an amazing work, if a little odd at times. Well worth taking a look at.


MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

15 thoughts on “The Killer Inside Us*

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Brett,

    I just talked about this subject to a criminal justice class on Tuesday night. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only sick one.

    A couple of months ago, I went to a cooking class at a culinary school here is St. Louis (no jokes). I was amazed at all the advanced food preparation items (I’m talking hardware) that could be used as lethal weapons. Made me want to write a cozy series about a chef that solves crimes.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually I don’t remember having many killing fantasies as a kid or teenager, it was more about being in a thriller situation, some kind of peril, and having to escape.

    Which, if you think about it, is a more female perspective on violence. Not so much doing it as AVOIDING it.

    But I don’t rack up a huge body count in my books, either.

    This is a great post, Brett, it’s making me think.

    I suspect that EVERYONE spins out pretty elaborate fantasies based on situations – like killing their teachers or the school bully, or having that fantasy night with their school crush…

    It’s just my own speculation, now, but I would bet the difference between us and everyone else is that we play ALL the characters instead of just ourselves in the fantasy, and we keep building on the situation until it’s a whole story.

    And then, of course, we write them down.

    Reply
  3. JJ Cooper

    The time I spent as an interrogator threw up plenty of colourful characters and situations to reflect on for my writing. I’ve found the years of study of body language in others has really helped my writing in showing emotions and reactions.

    I do tend to go into ‘mini-trances’ every now and then when something triggers an idea and I run in over in my mind. Usually comes at the most inappropriate moment too. Mainly when my wife is telling me something important.

    JJ

    Reply
  4. Dana King

    I agree completely. Writers who don’t have some of what you describe in them tend to write bloodless, dispassionate stories. (aka cozies. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

    I think a key difference between a writer and a potential sociopath is that a writer will consider the consequences of an act, because he needs to know what happens next, because the story demands it.

    I remember a time when my ex and I were pushing our then-infant daughter through some residential streets and a car blew by us doing at least 40. I left her with the baby and cut throuhg a lot, knowing where the car would come to a stop sign. I couldn’t quite catch him. If I had, I’m sure I would have read him the riot act and left it at that. In my writer’s fantasy/crocodile brain, I would have jerked open the driver side door and pulled him out for a good thrashing.

    But then what happens? Potential for a good story, or an arrest record. The writer chooses one, the sociopath the other.

    Great post.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    I may have been a teenage torturer instead of a killer. Every “story” involved the worst possible image I could come up with, mostly including wasps and razor blades.

    I’ve outgrown most of that.

    And Alex is right. We mentally play all the parts.

    That graffiti video is too cool. Early Disney animators would have taken it as a tribute to them.

    Reply
  6. Rob Gregory Browne

    You know, Brett, I’ve always wondered about you. The way you look at me with those slightly glassy eyes, as if you’re thinking of the best way to sneak up on me and slit my throat.

    Or that time we were driving down the 405 and you wouldn’t slow down and you kept saying, “Imagine if I were to suddenly just whip the wheel to the left…”

    Or the time you said, “Hey, Rob, let’s go hunting,” then brought out an Uzi and a Glock 9 and gave me a kind of crooked smile.

    Now I understand. It all makes sense.

    I’m changing my phone number.

    Reply
  7. J.T. Ellison

    I always say that Taylor is the embodiment of my own hero complex – when the bus’s brakes fail and everyone is imperiled, my fantasies were about how I could save them, then walk off into the sunset with nary a glance behind. With Taylor, I can.

    The Thompson book is a must read for any of us writing psychopaths.

    Reply
  8. Joyce Tremel

    Brett, you’ve pretty much described my childhood.

    Whenever I played outside (or inside, for that matter) as a kid, I was always some kind of crime fighter. We went from playing Batman to Nancy Drew to the Mod Squad (I’m showing my age here, aren’t I?).

    Reply
  9. Christine Cook

    My first novel’s premise was a spin-off of one of these “what ifs.” When I was working in a delicatessen, as a shift supervisor, I had to taste every salad in the case at the beginning of my shift to see if any of them tasted “off.” Any that were going bad had to be taken out of the case and dumped. Some of these salads, like the whitefish salad, were ten or so pounds of expensive food going in the trash. But if they stayed in the food case and we sold a bad salad, we could be dealing with a food poisoning issue.

    So, I thought, what if someone tried to make these salads go bad on purpose? It would set up a food loss problem so expensive the owners of the store would have to take notice. But it could also lead to murder…

    Reply
  10. Gayle Carline

    My fantasies about the world around me change, depending upon the situation. In my youth, I used to see a couple walking into a store and I would imagine them in their kitchen. They were drinking coffee from stained melamine cups, smoking cigarettes, at a formica-and-chrome table. It was depressing, and I should have been in therapy…

    When I was an engineer, I’d sit in boring meetings and play the Earthquake game – I’d picture an earthquake (I live in SoCal) and look at everyone in the room, trying to figure out who’d be helping people to safety and whose footprint would be in my back as they made their escape.

    As far as killings, when someone annoys me, I like to picture an enormous flyswatter flattening them. When they’re really annoying, I imagine them in the local trash truck, being squished bone by bone.

    I haven’t used any of these in my writing, but I have used them to keep my blood pressure down.

    Reply
  11. Catherine

    My musings of death, dismemberment, and assorted other dark imaginings were a device to make ‘sense’ of some strange things going on around me as a teenager/young adult.

    I had over protective parents who would reluctantly let me leave the house after many dire warnings of what might happen if I did not follow their life instructions to the letter. This seemed to be trigger of a lot of wild imaginings.

    Then there was the surge of hormones all around me in my friends and peers. This lead to even more strange behaviour. Boys drinking too much gin and sobbing in gutters at parties. Other boys wailing out girls names into the night.One over large boy losing it in manual arts(metal work) and beating our perfectionist teacher.

    As I got older some people I grew up with actually took the turn into violence to greater depths.Hideous acts. So I’d struggle to try to work out why…at what point did they break from the pack, or were they always there and just hide it better.

    The boy that used to reach up and put me on his shoulders at concerts turned into a druglord.Wah?

    So stories to me are my attempt to make sense of human behaviour, the supposed norm, and the aberrant behaviour that sidles alongside us.

    This is probably one of the reasons I seek out and enjoy crime novels. Other people besides me see the world like this, and resolve it to some degree within a defined space.

    So Brett you might be certifiable, but you are not alone.

    Reply
  12. Allison Brennan

    We’re all certifiable. I don’t think I had young fantasies about murder . . . but I did have a fertile imagination in similar ways as you, Brett (which is scary in and of itself.) Such as a bus crash, or a plane crash, or being chased or standing in the middle of a bank during a hold-up. I’m far more interested in people and what they might do in intense situations. Why do some people kill? Why do some people become cops? Or soldiers? Or lawyers? What drives them? How to they react when faced with the worst? The best?

    But yeah, I extrapolate fantasies from situations all the time. It’s kind of . . . well, other people think it’s weird, but it’s kind of ordinary for me. I’d be bored if I didn’t think the checker at my supermarket was a serial killer . . .

    Reply
  13. kit

    Hi Rob,this is a very re-assuring blog, for some reason! HAH!yes, I grew up thinking of ways how to hide bodies…but then there became more to it than that.I grew up in a very weird area…one foot is firmly planted on the survivalist side and the the other foot is planted in mysticism….or things that really aren’t easy to explain.very fertile ground for story telling…

    Reply

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