The Big Idea: Dan Wells
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.