Ripped from the headlines

Nurse Kills Patient Over Grudge
That headline grabbed my attention a couple of years ago when it appeared in newspapers. Here’s the story behind it: a nurse in a plastic surgery office was accused of killing a patient following a plastic surgery procedure. It turned out that the victim had stolen the nurse’s boyfriend 30 years earlier, when both women were in high school. So this was the nurse’s way of getting some long-overdue payback.

Talk about revenge being a dish that is best served cold.

That passing headline spawned an idea that stayed with me and eventually emerged as a subplot in one of my Fat City Mysteries (I won’t tell you which one, although you probably won’t recognize it in its fictionalized version). Here’s a link to the original article.

I was particularly struck because the story underscored how powerful our emotions can be, especially when we’re young. Who would have thought that a jilted girlfriend would actually murder the “other woman” who happened to turn up in her medical care, thirty years later? In addition to fueling a subplot for my story, the article also made me start reflecting on what was to become one of the themes in my book: jealousy and revenge. To write the story, I had to cast back on my own life experience to flesh out the character of the young person who would turn into a murderer.

I’m one of those people who was utterly miserable during middle school and early high school years. I was withdrawn, and had trouble making friends. There was a group of “mean girls” who made my life a living hell, especially in gym class. I think I can remember every joke they made at my expense, and every slight that was directed my way. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I met any of those girls today. Probably nothing. But during the writing of this particular story, I made a conscious effort to dredge up those old feelings of rage and humiliation. The process helped me be able to see my fictional murder from the killer’s point of view. That was important, because I feel that in most murderers’ minds, their acts of homicide are justified. The victim has wronged him or her, and deserves to die.

I always try to get into my killer’s head, sometimes to the extent that I wind up empathizing with him. The killer may have used the wrong solution, but the homicide must seem justified, at least from that character’s point of view.

So I’m wondering to what extent other writers identify with the killers in their story? Do you have to tap into certain strong and scary feelings to portray the role authentically, the way an actor does? Do you want the reader to identify with the killer in any way, or at least find him sympathetic in some strange way?

Do tell.

7 thoughts on “Ripped from the headlines

  1. Kathryn, we are on the same wavelength here since my fourth miniature series book (just finished) is set at a 30-year high school reunion and deals with a 30-year old grudge!

    And yes, I have ample experience and do call up the “tragedies” of my early teen years when I try to create that mood/character in my writing.

    The feelings aren’t scary so much as intense — I’ve always thought that killers are people who haven’t grown out of that intensity of feeling that adolescents experience, that certainty that this particular act or circumstance is all there is, and that there is only one solution … .

  2. Very interesting to hear that from a female perspective. I had a similar experience as boy and teen. I think I was a pretty odd kid. While the other boys played football and road BMX bikes and motorcycles I preferred to read encyclopedias and roam in the woods alone. These traits meant plenty of mockery and the occasional fist fight…for some reason I never walked away, although I got pummelled every time.

    I wasn’t a total dork though. Not bad in athletics, but never took part in organized sports. But I was a “choir fag” and “drama fag” which meant torture by the jocks just the same. Of course what they didn’t realize that those were the two groups filled with hot girls…part of my own attraction to the groups. But, it was a fruitless venture for me, as I almost never got a date…”good singer, great actor, kinda cute…but he reads encyclopedias…too nerdy”.

    Now in my characters I am easily able to draw those times out and flesh out the emotions build the characters, most of whom are slightly nerdy guys who end up being spec ops or cia types. I have also by the way ended up with a couple of borderline psychotics on both the good and bad guys teams.

    Writing, and especially the podcasting / acting out I do with the stories, seems to be a great way to work out my past.

    A funny aside is that I ended up marrying a very lovely, sweet, quiet Korean girl who had come to Alaska as a student. Over time I discovered she was one of the tough girl bullies as kid (she beat up boys as self-proclaimed protector of the girls), and the only reason she had been so demure when we met was because she didn’t understand English very well.

  3. I don’t really care much if I sympathize with the killer; I just need some understanding of why he’s doing it. This is why I don’t care much for serial killer stories. Too often, the reason falls into the “he’s sick, he likes it, he had a miserable childhood.” HE still has to go for the book to have a satisfactory ending (sorry, Dexter), so I don’t want to feel too close to him. I want to know why he’s killed, and be glad when he gets his.

    There are exceptions, of course, but I generally like my criminals to have selfish motives.

  4. Camille, I have always avoided reunions for some reason–maybe that’s why! Basil, I love the idea of a borderline being able to tilt to the side of the good guys or the bad, depending on how his life evolves! And Dana, you’re probably right that most killers have primariyly selfish motives, and are sympathetic only to themselves!

  5. Great post Kathryn. I keep a fair distance from my ‘killers’ but I think that as writers we do need to get into the mind of all our characters to make them true to their owm motivations. I’m afraid of getting too close to a truly evil character though so I try to make them redeemable – if twisted.

  6. I guess it’s that redeemable part that I really work to dredge up, Clare. Even if you take the worst serial killer in the world, I try to think that they must have been an innocent baby at one point? What went wrong? Was it some horrible experience, or perhaps a twist of brain chemistry? Sometimes I wonder whether anyone is born truly evil.

  7. Personally, I think it takes a lot more talent and effort to create a killer one can sympathize or empathize with rather than someone who kills simply because he’s “crazy” or “evil”. Yeah sometimes when I’ve spent a lengthy stint crawling around in the muck that is my killer’s brain, I may feel like I need an hour long shower and a ginormous bar of soap and loofa, but usually my story is enriched by that experience. You pull readers in to another layer, another depth by creating a villain or killer in whom they recognize themselves. And to me, that’s a much more interesting story.

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