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?