Once upon a time, I was asked to write an article about how I add mayhem to my mysteries. I assumed I knew what ‘mayhem’ meant, but decided I’d better start by looking it up. I must confess to being a bit surprised when I saw the dictionary definition: the willful and unlawful crippling or mutilation of another person.
Good heavens! That sounded pretty awful. But as a mystery writer isn’t that exactly what I am required to do? Still, crippling? mutilation? I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Then I looked back at some of the villainous acts my bad guys have perpetrated. They’ve killed by drowning, strangulation, anaphylactic shock, skiing into a tree. I’ve written shootings, a taser attack, hand-to-hand violence. In What She Saw, a massive thug of 6’4 and weighing in at more than 17 stone roughs up a young woman half his size. And in Inkslingers Ball, someone is firebombed in a tattoo shop. That all sounds pretty mayhemmy to me.
I will confess, as a fairly non-violent person myself (just don’t try to wrest my favourite book away, or that cream scone), these are not the easiest scenes for me to write. True life murder has come far too close to me. In 2000, my twenty-seven-year-old daughter was shot to death by her boyfriend, a special agent of the U.S. federal government, who killed himself, too. So I now write from a unique perspective that I would never wish on anyone. For a long time after this personal horror, hearing gunshots in my mind, or visualizing looking down the barrel of a gun—things one must do in order to write a realistic scene—were difficult, to say the least. Yet, while it may not be true that time heals all wounds, it does blunt them.
Even before my daughter’s death I was interested in the psychology of violence, from both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s points of view. When writing a violent scene, I put myself in the shoes of each party to the action and try to comprehend how it might feel to be that killer, or come face-to-face with one. I ask myself what is each actor’s motivation?
Every villain, whether in the real world or in the one created on the page, is an individual with his or her own specific set of motivations and needs: the need for love and belonging, the need for safety and security, the need for power and respect. Many factors go into the choice to kill, but usually one or more of these underlying needs was neglected early in life and becomes a prime motivating factor in the crime.
In my books, the killer is usually an ordinary person who, because of a situation he’s created or has landed in, finds himself under extraordinary stress. Pushed to the point of no return, he may go to extreme lengths to resolve the issue. It might be the desperate need of a jilted lover grasping for control, fighting to hang on to the last wisps of the relationship, refusing to let the other person go. It might be a serial killer who, horribly abused as a young child, felt utterly powerless over his own life, and a need to dominate and control drives him to murder. It’s like a drug—the look of terror in the eyes of his victims gives him a rush of adrenalin that he feels compelled to recreate, over and over. Or perhaps the killer is a charismatic leader whose religious zeal leads his followers down a dangerous path. Or maybe it’s someone bent on revenge for a real or imagined slight. The possibilities are truly endless.
In order to create memorable characters, whether villains or heroes, what’s most important is that there is some motivation behind the mayhem they create and that, whether it’s revealed in the story or not, the author knows what that it is. What could be more fun? Mystery writers have the enviable task of creating whatever kind of mayhem appeals to our imagination and then untangling it in a way that pleases us. That’s so much better than the real-life version.
Shelia Lowe lived in Southern California for 50 years, but Sheila Lowe still considers herself a Brit. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series, Sheila is a real-life forensic handwriting expert and the author of the acclaimed The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and Handwriting Analyzer software. She is currently president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes education in the area of handwriting. Sheila holds a Master of Science in psychology and lectures around the country and in Canada and the UK. Her analyses of celebrity handwritings can be seen in various media. Last year she was featured in the Daily Express and several other major UK publications.
Find out more on Shelis Lowe’s CRA Profile.