Like many crime fiction authors, I am fascinated by the criminal psyche. By what causes good people to do bad things. By what makes monsters.
When my husband and I first started dating (what seems like a lifetime ago now!) he introduced me to a TV show that in many ways changed my life.
Criminal Minds snared me from the get-go. I was intrigued by what an investigator can deduce about a perpetrator from how they commission a crime. That offenders inevitably leave behind a psychological portrait at a scene.
A shy, social inadequate killer for example, will likely employ a blitz attack. A surprise assault on the victim such as a hit on the head from behind. Whilst a socially confident UNSUB (to use Criminal Minds parlance) is more likely to use a ruse on their target.
My interest in the field of profiling led me to enroll on a course where I studied profiling and criminal psychology. However, rather than going on to join a law enforcement agency (which, in another life, I would love to do!) I channelled my new found understanding into my writing.
I’m sure most readers would agree that good stories aren’t just about good plots, they’re also about good characters and what I like to call, psychological truisms since a novel has to be believable to be really compelling.
Understanding the way criminals both operate and think at a deep level, has (I hope) enabled me to craft narratives that feel real so that when I develop an antagonist, I’m not just thinking about WHAT they do, but also WHY they do it. I think about their patterns of speech and how their words can reflect the inner working of their psyche. How their body language speaks to their mindset. And how other characters react to them.
In my newest novel, Truly Darkly Deeply, twelve-year-old Sophie and her mother, Amelia-Rose, move to London from Massachusetts where they meet the charismatic Matty Melgren, who quickly becomes an intrinsic part of their lives. But as the relationship between the two adults fractures, a serial killer begins targeting young women with a striking resemblance to Amelia-Rose.
When Matty is eventually sent down for multiple murders, questions remain as to his guilt — questions which ultimately destroy both women. Nearly twenty years later, Sophie receives a letter from Battlemouth Prison informing her Matty is dying and wants to meet. It looks like Sophie might finally get the answers she craves. But will the truth set her free — or bury her deeper?
Although Truly Darkly Deeply is a suspense novel, it is also an examination of how serialists are able to dupe those close to them. How it’s possible to share your life with one without ever suspecting it. And what it means to be a monster – and to love one.
I needed readers to believe completely in the characters and premise. And it was an undertaking I couldn’t have pulled off without having studied criminal psychology and profiling.
Criminal Minds famously cites a quote from Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
I wonder if the same can be said of the people who write about them. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to create convincing monsters without learning to understand them on some level, and so my background in criminal profiling is integral to my writing.
What about you, readers? Do you feel that creating or reading dark characters can exact a toll?
Victoria Selman majored in history at Oxford University and holds certificates in criminal profiling and criminal psychology. She’s the author of the Ziba McKenzie criminal profiler series that was published by Thomas & Mercer. She’s been a #1 bestseller on Amazon, a Sunday Times bestseller, and her first novel was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger award. She is also the host of “On the Sofa,” on the CrimeTime FM podcast.
Photo credit: Andrew Marshall