Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

35 thoughts on “Tips To Write a Character You Hate

  1. I haven’t written any serial killer type characters, but of course writing characters who are on opposing sides of a conflict is common. You are right–as writers we have to identify with them, get in their head to write them effectively & make the reader feel it.

    From my own experience with a story I’m still revising—the feedback I got on my bad guy was that he was too one dimensional—too cookie cutter bad guy–which means that I didn’t capture his essence. Even those who behave wickedly believe they have a really justified reason for doing so. And that has to be conveyed to the reader for them to buy in.

    • True. Most fictional villains do feel justified. Israel Keyes did not. He said, he just hates society and took pleasure in torture and murder. Hence, my initial struggle in breathing life into him. He’s better off dead.

      • I saw some of the videotaped confessions made by Keyes and there was nothing there. He was empty, a hollow man. How does one write about someone so empty of feeling yet full of crime without being contaminated in some way? How do you cut through to what’s inside, assuming there is anything there? And yes. The world is a better place without Israel Keyes.

        • I agree, Robert. Empty and shallow describe Keyes to a tee. There’s nothing there, an empty void, a human shell. It’s not easy to base a character on someone like him. I don’t think it’s possible without being affective. Hence why he haunts me. The sooner I get him out of my head the better. But, for some crazy reason, he fits in this particular story. Go figure.

  2. Thanks, Sue. This was great during breakfast! I wish it had been a full English, blood sausage and all. We all know that you really have the heart of a young, sweet girl…that you keep in a jar on your desk (that’s an adaptation of an old quote by Robert Bloch).

    How many other Israel Keyes walk among us, you ask? My guess is that at least one per city square block has the potential. Let’s all sleep on that one.

    Enjoy your week, Sue!

    • Haha! In my defense, I wrote it late in the day. Never considered it posting during breakfast. Oops. 😉

      Thank you for the sweetness, Joe. Have a wonderful week!

  3. Tough questions, Sue.

    Two people I knew well in real life serve as inspirations for most villains in my books. Neither committed murders or chopped up bodies.

    Both put up excellent facades that made them appear respectable and even admired by society. Yet under the surface, they were vicious, selfish people who inflicted cruelty on helpless victims and enjoyed doing it.

    When I write villains, I ask, “What would X or Y do in this situation?”

    I can usually think of an episode in real life where one of them did something similarly horrible. Then I extrapolate on that. “How far would X or Y go if there was no chance they’d get caught?”

    If they wouldn’t get caught, they’d happily go to evil extremes.

    • I have a similar process, Debbie. This antagonist, however, has shattered that process. It’s a risk to write such a despicable character. Hope it pays off in the end!

      Now you’ve piqued my interest about the psychopaths you knew IRL.

  4. I just did a quick Google on Keyes, Sue. I’d heard the name but what a monster!

    I wrote one true crime book about a double ax-murderer who hid in his ex-girlfriend’s attic for two days only to emerge at 3 am and chop her and her new lover to death. A good deal of the book is from his perspective based on 22 hours of taped conversations I had with him, and I used verbatim quotes from the transcripts. It was a case where I simply and easily let him tell his side of the story. Twisted and hateful guy, for sure.

    • Garry, I remember IN THE ATTIC well. Perhaps that’s why the story has stuck with me. Hmm…

      Right? Keyes is brutal and heartless. Like you, I feel he needs to tell his own tale, but I can’t wait to get him out of my head. You’d think after a lifetime of studying serial killers his actions wouldn’t faze me. They do, though.

  5. Great post, Sue. Thanks for this discussion. I started a thriller series with such psychopaths, but set it aside for teen fantasy for my grandchildren. I plan to resume that series at some point. What I remember about writing the villain was learning his justification for his actions, then getting into him through his head and his rationale. One could figuratively imagine descending into a sewer of blood, guts, and excrement, to a chamber where we “become” the villain, knowing that when we emerge we can dispose of our clothing and take a shower. But, I like your method better.

    Have a hate-free day!

    • Steve, normally I have a similar process for my villains. Keyes is different. He has no justification other than his hatred toward society and his sick, twisted fantasies. He freely admits he had no ill will toward any of his victims. He’s just heartless, brutal, and omnipotent. I can’t wait to get him out of my head.

  6. I worked in school administration for ten years and had my belief that kids were, at their core, good. But then I found out about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. While it can be obvious from facial features in some people, it’s completely undetectable in most – until it manifests itself with behavior that you’d think a child incapable of. What was horrifying was that there wasn’t just one student, but they were scattered throughout the system. Several were foster kids and some of those were “given back” to the state because love and attention didn’t help, and their foster parents became afraid of them. These are the kids who could give you a sweet smile while breaking a kitten’s neck, or a classmate’s arm. No remorse. No concept of cause and effect. Lying, stealing, manipulating, and they don’t outgrow it. The daughter of a good family stole checks and forged her mother’s name, managed to steal her sister’s whole college savings (yes, it was in a bank – long story), disappeared from her group home, and has abandoned two children at her parents’ house, one by prying a window open and dropping him inside. They’re grateful she didn’t kill them. How many of these FAS people are walking around in our lives and we have no idea? I try not to think about it, but it’s definitely made me distrustful.

    • This sounds all too familiar, Becky. Well said. Cold, brutal psychopaths walk among us, and most of would never know it till it’s too late. But as you said, there are signs to look for. Knowing those signs help keep us safe. Although, another killer I focused on in class was a guy who said, “Once I saw them [college girls] on the street, their life was over. They never stood a chance.” And they didn’t! But even he seemed like a pussy cat next to Israel Keyes.

  7. What a powerful post, Sue. (I just checked the locks on the doors before I commented.)

    I know there are evil people in the world, but I don’t write about them. The villains in my books have both good and bad characteristics. They get caught in a web of their own wrong-doing and keep going.

    Thanks again. I’m just going to double-check those doors.

    • Hahahaha! Probably best, Kay. Lock the windows, too. 😉

      After all my research into Israel Keyes, I sat my husband down to form a plan on what to do in case of home invasion. That plan helps us both sleep better at night. Now, I almost pity the dude who breaks into my home in the middle of the night.

          • I’ll share it in my next post. Each house is different, so the plan will change depending on your layout. But I’ll write some general tips to keep safe and things to look for in your home that are easy entry points. I watched an interview with this burglar who broke into 5,000 homes. He had great advice, which I’ll also include. Till then, ladies, stay safe!

  8. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values.

    Yes indeed, Sue. In my workshops I have the students write out a closing argument (as if in front of the jury) for the villain. Because no villain (except Dr. Evil) thinks he’s evil. He thinks he’s justified, has every “right” to do what he does. I use Goering’s defense at Nuremberg as the prime example. Putin has been making such an argument for weeks now.

    This three dimensionality is what gives readers a deeper and more impactful read, and greater satisfaction when justice is finally achieved.

    • Keyes only justification for torture and killing was to satisfy his sick, twisted urges. He even says in his interviews that he harbored no ill will toward his victims. He hated society as a whole. The victims fit the fantasy in his head. It’s the part of him I struggle with. The killer I based on him does have a motive for targeting my protagonist. I still can’t stand him, though. 🙂

  9. I have written from a hateful character’s POV. Yes, I handled it in similar fashion, playing devil’s advocate for her. It was disturbing, but the resulting short story sold and will be published next month.:-)

  10. I hate serial killers and psychopaths. They are one-note monsters with very little of interest going on behind those inhuman, soulless eyes. What they do is disgustingly interesting, at best. I don’t want to read them, I always skim their viewpoints, and I’ve never written them as viewpoint characters. They are the goons my really interesting bad guy hires to end the good guys who capture the psycho so the bad guy has to finally get his hands dirty.

    A sociopath, on the other hand. My antagonist Cadaran in STAR-CROSSED is a sociopath who has good points like being a great leader to her troops and treating them well, but she is profoundly broken. She hates men, and she uses them as pawns for power in her professional life and as torture victims in her bed. I created her as the physical manifestation of a society where men are nothing but sex objects, but I didn’t totally get her as a person until a scene with her newest bed slave. He says, “Did some big bad man mangle you?” That was my OMG that’s what broke her and has driven her moment.

    This character has given me some fun moments when talking to fans in person. I’m a hobbit matron and about as scary as a plush toy, but fans talking about her start to back away from me because I wrote that monster. Snicker.

    • Not all serial killers are psychopaths. 😉 My readers absolutely love the main serial killer in my Mayhem Series and his three pet crows, Poe, Edgar, and Allan. He’s a well-rounded, delightful character who happens to also be a serial killer.

      Good point about what broke your sociopath. There’s her justification.

  11. When I was young, single and naive, I dated a nutty psychiatrist, Harvard educated who was very high profile and very successful. Also controlling and very manipulative. He shared a story with me from his early childhood about the day his mother walked out on him and their family. In my head, I was thinking, I don’t blame her! But it gave me a great tool for writing thrillers. I always put something in the bad guy’s backstory, some tragic hurt or abuse. Yup, it is cliche. And the fact is most people overcome sad childhoods and go on to live great lives (including a number of US Presidents who have served in my lifetime). But it gives me a tool I can use in story world. I used this in my first thriller, which went on to make PW’s Top 100 Books list when it was published, so it works for me. Plus when my own writing leaves me wanting to sleep with a night light, I know I am on to something :). I am also a fan of nervous tics and phobias. I gave one villain a case of cystic acne (which made no sense as he was a grown man). But he was evil and I gave him more boils and cysts with every edit so by the end of the book he needed a dermatologist (but I killed him off). Great post.

    • Hahaha! Love that you gave him boils, Margaret! That had to be satisfying.

      Yes, I normally do the same with my killers. But this guy–man, I can’t stand him. He needs to die a torturous death, like Keyes did to his victims. 😉

  12. I often wonder if the scarier antagonistics are those who look and act perfectly normal. The guy next door kind…you know them. We wouldn’t hesitate to talk to them because of…what?

    I’m writing one who is that guy. He isn’t a killer, but what he does is far worse. And if you met him at a party, you’d be planning your wedding.

    • Definitely agree, Jeanne! Israel Keyes was like that. To look at him you’d never imagine what he was capable of, and that’s terrifying all on its own.

  13. Will Hitler do? Mass murderer? Check. Barmy in the crumpet? Check . . . ? But wait. His profile lacks most of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist traits. No insanity defense for him. According to a relative, little Adolf was at least once beaten unconscious by his father, Alois Hitler, but most abused kids don’t kill millions. It was Hitler’s belief that the end justifies the means that set him aside, made him Evil with a capital E. He tried to hide what he was doing, too, so he knew at heart it was wrong. Those grandiose Parteitag spectacles were not a measure of Hitler’s self-worth, but of his abysmally low self-esteem.

  14. Great post! I’ve written a couple of books with a sociopath as the antagonist. About halfway through one, I felt the book was flat and realized I hadn’t gotten into her head. I had kept putting it off because I didn’t want to go there.

    But I had to if I was going to finish the book. I started researching and reading case histories until the character came together. I don’t know if I could write a character like Israel Keyes.

    • I understand, Patricia. It’s not easy to climb inside the heads of psychopaths and sociopaths, especially if we base them on real killers, but we have no choice if we want the book to succeed. Good for you for digging deeper!

  15. When I read the headline teaser for today’s TKZ email, I immediately thought of Sue. Then I laughed when I scrolled down and confirmed that she had penned today’s post. lol.

    I’m a scaredy cat when it comes to reading, writing, and even thinking about serial killers. Of course I know that I could be sharing the checkout line with one at the grocery store, but I just don’t want to invite him into my book.

    But wow, I admire your willingness to go for it completely. You commit to representing your character as well as you can and do the work to make it happen, even when it comes at a personal cost. That is admirable.

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