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CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY
THE WRITER'S WAY

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the writers way jen frankel CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY
THE WRITER'S WAY

by Jen Frankel

I've always been a bit of a criminal psychology buff, a subject you may have already gathered from yesterday that I think I have a certain vested interest in. What is life, anyhow, but trying to figure out just what the heck all that stuff is in your own head and what it's supposed to be good for?

If you want to write about crime, you have to study it.

If you enjoy shows like "CSI" or "Law & Order" and aspire to tell similar stories, I would assume that you already have some interest in reading about crime and criminals.

I certainly do. Studies of abnormal psychology and reports on and about violent crime have always made up a portion of my reading material.

Up to this point, my fave has been anything by John Douglas, the former FBI agent who basically defined and developed the techniques of profiling used by all the major CSI and Law & Order type franchises. An important contribution to both this world and the fantastical, obviously.

Douglas's starting point about serial killers, honed through actual interviews (up until that point, it seems that no one considered that TALKING to violent criminals would serve any point in UNDERSTANDING them), is that they share three common behavioral points in common:

- They wet the bed until an advanced age.
- They like to set fires.
- They enjoy torturing small animals.

All of these, people. Just because you wet the bet a few times in your teens means nothing. And by the time you're old enough to read this, you certainly should know whether or not, deep down, you are likely to be a serial killer. Even if you consider your psychology to be slightly abnormal.

Douglas is, however, essentially a criminalist concerned with the aftermath of particular and specific violent acts. His speciality is profiling, the art and science of using experience to analyze factors new offenses have in common with already known patterns, and discern likely traits the unknown offender may share with those who have killed before.

What he is less concerned with is just what makes a serial killer, or any violent offender. Is it experience? Upbringing? Violent home-life? Significant influences in childhood? Organic damage?

If you want to go deeper into very uncomfortable territory, I highly recommend "Why They Kill," by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes (who has written extensively on the societal impact of atomic weaponry, something at the exact opposite end of some spectrum from up-close-and-personal crime). It's an investigation and distillation of the work of visionary criminologist Lonnie Athens, who puts forward the revolutionary notion that criminals, instead of acting out in uncontrolled ways, are actually conscious of and responsible for their violence.

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"Why They Kill" goes deep into the difficult realm of motivation, free will, and the effect of upbringing on the creation of the psyche itself. If you want to write abnormally violent characters, I think it's a must-read.

Athens himself comes from a climate of violence. Raised in low-income transitional areas of America, often in racially diverse, volatile neighborhoods, in a family headed by an abusive patriarch, he was significantly at risk for becoming a violent offender himself.

That's a telling point in just why he began his studies into criminology, and why he has had a success in discovering common risk factors overlooked or just plain misconstrued by researchers who had never been close to what they studied. Athens could, because of his own experience, develop a rapport with criminals, because he understood how to speak the same language and idiom.

And he has developed a theory of violent criminality that stems, much like Douglas's dissection of the serial murderer, from common factors in upbringing.

But he goes further, to look more deeply into just how we see the world, how we discern our own relationship to it, and what informs our decisions in that world.

Most significantly, he points to definite reasoning that makes me believe, as he does, that there is hardly ever such a thing as a true "crime of passion," something psychologists, pop- and otherwise, always try to make us believe is the basic key to violent behavior.

How many times have you heard the expressions, "in a moment of passion," "just lost control," "senseless crime..."

We want to believe that criminals are out of control, and it cripples our ability to understand why crimes happen.

Athens talks about his own observations, from interview after interview with violent offenders of both sexes, all classes and levels of education and privilege, that people DECIDE to be violent. It's the way that decision is made, the interpretations leading to it, that creates a violent response as opposed to some lesser, more socially acceptable means of answering a situation.

For example, Athens uses the example of a young man who is beaten up outside a liquor store. He returns with a weapon and ends up shooting and killing one of the gang, and wounding others.

Under Athens's questioning, he recreates his thought process leading up to the assault. It begins, strangely you might suppose, with the feeling that the people who beat him up deserve to be punished for their violence.

And it grows from there, as he works his way through a series of judgements about which gang members deserve punishment more than others, and how badly they deserve to be hurt.

This is scary stuff, not because it's so alien to the way you or I would approach a situation, but because it is just so similar. What is alien is the conclusions a criminal prone to violent response comes to as opposed to what we might choose.

I might walk away, or call the cops, or cry, or go into shock.

Beat me up enough times, though, and I might want to fight back.

Athens traces the process that can lead, for example, from a child who hears his mother being raped and tries to pretend it's a dream, to a man who rapes.

It's too easy and too tempting to make criminals either far too stupid or far too calculating. The real fascination for me is to get far enough into what really makes people commit violent acts to build characters who have a layer of truth underlying them. The more you understand about real crime and real criminals the better you will write them.

And the more you can tie criminal behavior to the behavior of human beings generally, and your target audience in particular, the more powerfully you'll affect them.

"Why They Kill" is scary because it shows how narrowly you and I may have missed becoming exactly what we fear most.

Recommended reading:

"Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist" - Richard Rhodes

"Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited" - Lonnie Athens

"Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit" - John Douglas

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CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY