The Big Idea: Dan Wells
Posted on March 30, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 33 Comments
Sociopaths are not easy people to love, almost by definition. Naturally, that makes them an interesting literary challenge for authors, a challenge author Dan Wells happily takes on in I Am Not a Serial Killer, which introduces us to a character who says he’s not a serial killer… but knows that he easily could be. How do you get into the head of someone like that and make him a character worth rooting for? Wells explains how he (heh) took a stab at it.
I have always been fascinated by serial killers. What makes them tick, and why? How do they see the world differently from a normal person—and how do they see it the same? Most stories about serial killers focus on who and how they choose to kill, but even more intriguing to me is the time they spend being completely and utterly normal. John Wayne Gacy, Jr., killed approximately 33 people in the course of six years: that’s a lot of killing, yes, but the vast majority of those six years were peaceful and ordinary. He got up, he ate breakfast, he went to work; on weekends he threw block parties for his neighbors, often dressing up as a clown to entertain the children. How can the same person be that evil and that normal at the same time? How can the two sides of your personality be so completely different? To quote my own book: “It’s not weird to be fascinated by that, it’s weird not to be.”
Thinking about serial killers (as I often do), and specifically about their psychological development, I started creating the character of John Cleaver: a teenage sociopath, fascinated with death and obsessed with serial killers as a sort of pop culture mythology. He knows their names, their methods, and their stories down to the grittiest detail—he knows them so well, in fact, that he recognizes all of the warning signs in himself: he could become a killer at any moment, and he would be good at it. And that would have been an interesting story, but it’s not the story I wanted to write. In that story, John is the villain or, at best, the ‘protagonist.’ I wanted to go for broke and make him the hero, fighting bad guys and saving people and being as sympathetic as possible. I wanted to take this dangerous, screwed-up, terrifying character and make you love him. I Am Not a Serial Killer is the result.
How do you make someone love a sociopath? How do you get your readers to identify with someone who, by nature, can’t identify with them? I started with the broad concept of familiarity, and made John the first person narrator of his own story: everything we know, everything we experience, we experience through him. That helps the reader to see his side of the story, which helps a bit, but his side of the story is not especially endearing. I needed more. The next thing I added was pain—humans are inherently social creatures, always striving to help each other, so when we see someone in pain we have an automatic urge to make them feel better, to solve their problems. Inflicting pain on John Cleaver was pretty easy, too, because I was basing him on the standard serial killer template, and that’s FULL of pain: dysfunctional homes with absent fathers and abusive mothers, few or no friends at school, a complete inability to fit in with anyone, and on and on and on. People start to identify with John whether they want to or not, just because they feel sorry for him.
But feeling sorry for someone and actually liking someone are two different things, and I wanted readers to really like John. The next step was to make him funny: when we laugh with someone, we feel a kinship with them. Think of the celebrities you’ve dreamed about meeting; you may have had romantic fantasies about the hot ones, or revenge fantasies about the hateful ones, but the ones you’d like to hang out with—the ones you think would make good friends—are guaranteed to be the funny ones. We like funny people. We like to be around them. John Cleaver’s life is a pretty horrible one, but he’s funny about it, and we like that. He may be kind of weird, but he’s an alright guy.
Only one thing left: I don’t just want you to like him, I want you to LOVE him. I want you to get all tied up with him emotionally, and feel what he feels, and cringe when he’s in danger, and root for him when things get really rough. That takes more than just a crappy life and a sense of humor—it takes connection. You have to see yourself in him, and really want him to win. Thankfully, the answer to this problem was already built into the story: he’s a good person. He doesn’t “feel” the difference between good and evil, but he knows it, objectively, and he’s built up a vast set of rules to keep himself from doing anything he shouldn’t. And then we reinforce this dedication to goodness by calling the whole thing into question, confronting him with an impossible choice: a real killer comes to town, and John’s the only one who can stop him…but only if he breaks his rules. The book is essentially a moral struggle: is it better to follow his rules and let the killer keep killing, or to destroy the monster and, in so doing, become a monster himself?
Don’t get me wrong: John’s still a very, very creepy guy. He thinks things, and does things, that most of us would never dare. But because we love him, we’re with him all the way, and my favorite comments are the guilty ones:
“I couldn’t believe I was rooting for him.”
“I didn’t want him to do what he did, but I didn’t want him to stop either.”
“His methods were so disturbing, but I really wanted him to win.”
I Am Not a Serial Killer was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you have just as much fun reading it.
I Am Not a Serial Killer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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Sounds like Dexter catching himself as a kid.
“I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER”
pssh, I’m not falling for that one again…
Man, I tried to find this in Half Price books, and failed.
Which brings me to a question: why aren’t book stores organized like Libraries? I can easily find a book in a library; when I go to a book store, unless I’m looking for SciFi, I’m completely lost.
I guess that’s the point, though. You can go to the section that interests you, and browse until you find something interesting.
Author, in your studies of serial killers, did you find that most of them were in denial about it? Or do they eventually (after being caught) take credit? Most seem to be narcissisits. At least the ones I’ve read about.
This is an interesting concept and I have to say I can’t wait to read this one!!
Added to my list, but I’d also like to read some good non-fictional accounts and psychological studies of serial killers.
Any recommendations, Mr. Wells? (Or anyone else?)
Though since I enjoy Dexter, I’ll check it out.
For non-fiction read Robert Ressler, he’s an FBI profiler that interviewed most of the “big” names in serial killers, and some not so well known.
I love that John’s middle name is Wayne. Wayne is a modern-day “avoid this person” name, a marker for bad parenting and bad decisions in popular culture.
Fun fact: it comes from Old English for wagon maker.
Sounds really interesting – might have to make a run to Bolen Books today! (Oh good, a new excuse!)
@9: “wainwright”, eh? (SFF education FTW!)
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought of Dexter, although I only watched one episode and didn’t really like it.
This isn’t a new book to me, since Dan’s been pimpin’ it over on Writing Excuses forever, but it was very interesting to see the conception all laid out like this. If I get to the bookstore soon…
“Dexter” and I Am Not a Serial Killer have similar starting points in that the protagonist is a sociopath, but beyond that they’re quite a bit different. They’re as different as any two stories featuring, say, a rule-breaking police officer might be.
I liked watching “Dexter,” but it grew old in a hurry.
I loved reading I Am Not a Serial Killer, and was super-pleased to have been given access to an ARC of the sequel.
This sounds, well, fascinating. I’m going to have to check it out. I like the methodical approach you describe for writing this: figure out what you want this book to do and how you want your reader to connect to it, and determine the elements the book needs to accomplish that. Cool! (Actually implementing that in the text is another matter entirely, of course, which is where it truly becomes art.)
(Love your podcast, too, btw.)
Man, I have found so many new authors/books through this Big Idea series. Just bought Serial Killer on Audible.
@9…. well, um. Wayne was probably there because of John. You know… John Wayne?
@9 Except you might also believe that more crimes happen around a full moon as accuse the middle name of “Wayne” been a meaningful indicator. Many many people named their kids Wayne because of The Duke. And News of the Weird likes to point out the connection between criminals and middle name of Wayne, but they never tell you how many millions of boys are named Wayne and that there is no direct association.
/someone not named Wayne, but did get to meet the legend once as a little kid.
I wonder if he consulted any psychiatrists in his research for this novel. Are true sociopaths able to exercise the protagonist’s amount of self-awareness & control? I have no idea.
Anyone have a clue?
I definitely have to get a copy of this to read.
This is one of those ideas I HAD, but luckily I knew my writing skills are very slim and I’d never give it the treatment it deserved. And I just don’t have enough time these days to work on writing. Ah well.
These are such great books and Dan is lovely. Was great fun chatting to him at WHC this year. Hope the Cleaver books get the attention they deserve.
If you like this one the sequel is already available in the UK. It’s easy enough to find online.
David @17: Yeah, I know a few people who are like that to a greater or lesser degree. If you’re unfortunate enough to be born without the empathy switch turned on, it’s pretty much the only way to survive in this world without going off the deep end. Religion can come in handy here, as can the military or other externally-imposed rulesystems, but there certainly are sociopaths who are smart enough to build their own. They’re the ones you don’t hear about because, well, they’re not going out and killing people. They pass well.
Eeeee! I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now, and was so frustrated it was only out in the UK. *Primes*
I am completely looking forward to reading this one. I have had it in my queue for a while and reading this Big Idea just makes me want to read it that much more.
@6: There is a great book called “Without Conscious” by Robert Hare that I highly recommend.
Looks like one I’ll have to add to the reading list.
On a general note, thanks for doing this feature. I just picked up my first “Big Idea” selection – “Plague Year” by Jeff Carlson, and it’s fantastic. It’s always fun to discover new authors.
Really enjoying the story so far. I won’t post any spoilers, but I have a question for the author. “Mister Crowley” huh? Was that, or was that not, a Black Sabbath Reference?
If you’re unfortunate enough to be born without the empathy switch turned on, it’s pretty much the only way to survive in this world without going off the deep end. Religion can come in handy here….
Religion and sociopaths. Not a good mix. Not a good mix at all.
I didn’t think of Dexter while reading this big idea, but of Mr. Brooks. It wasa movie about a serial killer, but he is portrayed as a likable guy. The comment about laughing with the charater creating a bond I found especially true with the movie. There were a couple humorous scenes that really made you like Mr Brooks.
David @17 – sociopaths come in a lot of stripes, although common features include low frustration tolerance, high need for stimulus and inappropriate emotional reactions. So they’re often very dysfunctional in the sense of being unable to cope when their usual strategies – being charming and manipulative, and not playing by the rules – fail them.
Serial killers are a whole nuther variety; it’s not so much that the empathy switch didn’t get turned on, as it got jammed into “off” and then torn out of the wall. Dan is absolutely right about the ‘standard serial killer template’ – we’re not talking about people whose dad drank a lot or whose mom yelled at them, but horrible, cringe-inducing neglect and abuse (of all kinds) from birth on that snuffs out any empathetic connection a child might ever develop. If you read about actual serial killers, your second reaction will probably be to want to go find their parents and beat the everloving snot out of them with your bare hands.
I second the recommendation of the FBI’s VICAP report, and also the book Hunting Humans, if you want to read nonfiction that explains serial killers without falling into the “man, aren’t they cooooool” nonsense. Not sure you should do it unless you have a strong stomach and don’t particularly need to sleep well for a week or so, mind.
Huh. Did anyone else think of Bradley Denton’s Blackburn? Another very sympathetic serial killer, and a very good read.
Some serial killers develop without any abuse at all. They’re just plain born evil. What’s worse is that the “born” ones also tend to be the highly organized killers that are so much harder to catch.
Remember, they aren’t called Sociopaths any more, they are people with Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Ah, Dan Wells, you are so awesome.
Hank @28: Yup, Blackburn came to my mind as well. Terrific book.
Interesting plot – check
Interesting character – check
Interesting cover and title – check
You sir, just convinced me to order your book for the bookstore I work at. Looking forward to read it and recommend it to our customers. :)