By Beth Terrell
One of the most challenging facets of mystery writing is creating believable villains. One key to this is to give your villain a compelling--or at least, believable--motivation.
I've heard that there are only 4 motives for murder: love/sex, greed, revenge, and madness. There are variations on these themes--for example, obsession is a twisted form of love, greed may manifest as a lust for money or for power, and revenge may have its roots in the loss of love or in the loss of self-esteem (personal power) through humiliation--but whatever the surface motive, dig deep enough, and you'll find its roots in one of the basic four. Self-preservation could be added to the mix, but it might be said that this particular motive falls either under love (of self), greed (fear of loss of status or esteem), or madness (if the perceived threat is, in fact, all in the killer's head).
Ed McBain once wrote about a sleuth who was driven by the desire to discover an entirely new motive for murder, one that didn't trace back to one of the basic four. He never did.
P.D. James defined the four motives as: love, lust, lucre, and loathing. It's pretty easy to tie this more alliterative list to the one given above. Love might lead to a jealous rage (a husband finds his wife in bed with his best friend), a revenge killing (a woman stalks and executes her daughter's rapists), or obsession (stalker kills actress because, if he can't have her, no one can). Lust might be lust for sex or power. Lucre might lead to treachery or blackmail. Loathing might stem from the desire for revenge over real or imagined slights.
The FBI defines four basic categories of murder. Almost all (if not all) have their roots in the four basic motivations. The FBI Crimes Classification Manual describes the categories as follows:
1. Criminal Enterprise Murder
2. Personal Cause Murder
3. Sexual Homicide
4. Group Cause Homicide
The criminal enterprise murder includes all murders committed for personal gain (insurance scams, gang wars over turf, inheritance, etc.) and those committed during the commission of another violent crime.
The personal cause murder is the result of an emotional conflict. These homicides include those in which the murderer constructs an elaborate fantasy about his or her victim and will do anything to preserve it--including killing the object of his or her fascination. Other types of personal cause murders are domestic homicides, revenge killings, "authority homicides" (in which the victim is in a position of authority over the killer), extremist homicides (committed because of the killers ideology), and mercy/hero murders (such as a health care worker who acts out of a desire to put his or her victims out of their misery). (There is also what is known as the nonspecific homicide, in which the killer's motive is never discovered, but this does not generally make for very satisfying crime literature.)
Sexual homicides are those in which the sequence of events leading up to a murder have a sexual component. These homicides include children killed by pedophiles, women killed by their rapists, and the stereotypical serial killer for whom murder is accompanied by sexual gratification. Perhaps the worst of the sexual homicides are those committed by sexual sadists, who obtain gratification by means of their victims' suffering.
Group homicides are, as the name indicates, committed by multiple assailants. Motives vary, as in the personal homicides.
The Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime (by Eric W. Hickey) lists a number of possible motivations for murder. Again, all were rooted, to some degree, in the Basic Four. This is an amazing book. It can be purchased for a hefty fee; the ones I looked at started at $154. Some of the motives Hickey lists are:
Abandonment/Rejection - the killer feels unloved and either lashes out in anger (many school shootings) or kills in an attempt to keep the loved one from leaving (Jeffrey Dahmer)
Altruism - mercy killings, saving victim from a worse fate or from a sinful life
Cover-up - destruction of evidence, silencing witnesses
Alcohol and drugs - a type of chemically induced, temporary madness
Protection of self or others - ex.: a woman kills her husband to protect the daughter he's abusing
Fatal Abuse - a habitual abuser loses control and goes too far
Frustration/Anger - perhaps a mother "snaps" and shakes her crying child to death, a man beats his father who has Alzheimer's, or a frustrated, back-alley boxer bites off the nose of an opponent
Greed - committed for personal gain
Escape - the killer feels an overwhelming need to get away (perhaps from an abusive relationship or a hostage situation, but also perhaps from a situation in which the killer is a caregiver and feels like he or she has no other way out)
Fame/celebrity - the killer believes he or she will become famous because of his or her killing spree
Hate/resentment - "Mother always liked you best."; "That jerk got me fired, took my job, and now he's sleeping with my wife. Enough's enough."
Jealousy/rivalry - a motivation as old as Caine and Abel
Sexual property - the killer sees the victim as belonging to him
Unwanted Children - a young mother gives birth at the prom, strangles her baby, and leaves it in the garbage can, then goes out to dance with her boyfriend; Susan Nicole Smith drowns her two small sons after her lover breaks up with her because he doesn't want children.
Sadly, there are probably many, many more. How about your villains? What makes them tick? What makes them cross that most irrevocable line?
Excellent article, Beth. The majority of murders are committed among family members, friends and acquaintances, and I can't help thinking about the men and women who have killed more than one spouse and gotten away with it until the third or fourth victim turns up. Unless insurance money is involved, I wonder which group they would fit into.
Did the Nazis who told the Allied judges that they were "just following orders" fall into one of these categories? I guess I'm wondering if someone can feel socially pressured into murder. We didn't prosecute the enlisted men who participated in massacres in Vietnam, so I guess we were theoretically saying that they were not guilty of anything. It's also hard for me to imagine either the Nazis or our own enlisted men acting entirely free from animus. I get the contract hit man doing it for money (greed), but I'm wondering if the "order-follower" is a whole different animal if there's no malice, animus, hatred or whatever you want to call it.
My murderers have had a variety of motives. In the first book, it was religious fervor. The second dealt with greed. The next was a combination of greed and madness. The fourth could be ascribed to a mix of all four motives. The last would fall under the self-preservation part of greed.
Terry, interesting questions. I wonder if the Vietnam massacres may have been a combination of loathing for the "enemy", the thrill of having power over over the victims, and a release of the fear and frustration the murderers had been feeling. (They lashed out at the helpless villagers because they felt powerless over the enemy.) All this would have been exacerbated by the presence of other, similarly aroused peers.
I suspect the people who participated in the Holocaust atrocities harbored some degree of loathing for their victims and also, to some degree got off on having the power over them.
Do you think the order-follower might be seeking advancement in the regime or acting out of self-preservation (fear that, if they don't do as they're told, they might be the next to be killed)?
These killers remind me of the "partner killings" in which one (and sometimes both) of the perpetrators would probably have probably lived out their lives without harming anyone had they never met each other.
Jean, I can't fathom what those spouse must be thinking, but from what I've read, there's usually either some kind of personal gain involved, or the killer wants to move on to another partner but his or her ego won't allow the victim to just walk away. Personal gain or ego.
Chester, that's why people love your books. You're always doing something new.
Beth, your list left off revenge. What better motive for murder? That's the plot behind the murder in my next book. Fun article, Beth.
Beth, I believe you're right in assigning complex, compound motives to the order followers, whatever the war. I forget which Camus novel it was, but it had something to do with a doctor fighting a plague in North Africa. The protagonist shoots someone and kills him, not out of malice, but because all the normal social glues that hold things in place had wasted away in the plague. I was just struck by how devoid of any emotion Camus made the shooter out to be, but that may have been an artificial construct unsupportable by what we can reasonably expect from reality.
Those reasons are based off something that has already happened to the killer. That is my problem, I am trying to find a motive for my killer, who is trying to revive a criminal organisation she was once part of. Something happens to the character to make them like that, in your lists. What I am searching for is something that does not tie them up to some past majorly or seems shallow like greed, power or illness.
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