Tag Archives: thriller

How to Build a Murderer


Horror and mayhem are all about the villain. Your murderer has to be  as real as and smarter than your hero, whether your hero is a street smart cop, a yoga teacher framed for the killing or a busy body old lady. And really, why would anyone invite Ms. Jane Marple (Agatha Christie’s heroine)  or Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) to a party? People are falling down dead all around them. All the time.

But I digress.

The challenge in writing a murderer is to push past your own personal revulsion at what the character does and see why he does it.

Why do we love Professor James Moriarty as much as Sherlock Holmes?

Because Moriarty is a whole and terribly wounded person. He has wants, needs and his own (internal) code of conduct. He is at least as clever as, if not more clever than, Sherlock. Moriarty is who Sherlock could have been if he’d been nudged down a different path.

My current work in progress is an urban fantasy thriller. So how did I create a murderer? I did what any writer would do. Research.

I’m probably on the NSA’s watch list based on the serial killer searches I ran from my computer. I read lots of thrillers, murder mysteries, and true crime novels. I took notes.  I read craft books including James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damned Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript.  I highly recommend Frey’s book to anyone writing in this genre. mystery cover

My research confirmed a lot of what I suspected. What makes a good murderer? According to Frey:

“1. Our murderer will be evil.” Frey defines this as someone who is acting out of his or her best interests. I’ll add that this drive toward self-satisfaction will be overwhelming. Our killer doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he gets his selfish desires.

“2.  Our murder will not appear to be evil.”  Sadly, real life bears this principle out. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Aileen Wuornos all looked respectable. Bundy worked a crisis hotline. The idea of evil lurking just under the skin is central to horror stories. Also, if the bad guy is the obvious suspect you fail to create the tension needed to maintain a horror, mystery or thriller.

“3. Our murderer will be clever and resourceful.” Sherlock would not spend his life trying to catch Moriarty if he wasn’t clever or resourceful. The near miss, the hero arriving moments too late, creates tension and makes the chase all that more thrilling. We read thrillers and murder mysteries for the chase and inevitable capture.

“4. Our murderer is wounded.”  A deep psychological wound drives our murderer. After all, he’s taken a step (or several dozen) past the line. He’s gone from thinking of ending someone’s life to actually doing it. Like Jack the Ripper, he may take his crime beyond mere murder and mutilate his victims. He’s shattered the veneer of civilization we all live with, and something outside the normal has made him do it. He (often) justifies killing because of this emotional wound. This is probably the step that most “failed” (defined as stories that didn’t capture my attention) stories miss. Without this driving force shaping your murderer he will feel like a two-dimensional character or a cliché.

“5. Our murderer is afraid.” Even with the thrill of the kill the murderer must worry about apprehension. His fear mixes with an intensifies his other emotions. Your character needs to feel fear whether fear of discovery, losing what he’s built or something else. Fear is a defining human trait. We all fear something. Often many somethings. Fear of failure. Fear of being not good enough. Fear of being discovered as a “fraud.” Without fear a character is a sketch.

Lots of craft books spend time on getting you to flesh out your characters. Your killer should be the most fully realized. You need to know his history and all his actions even though most will never make it into the story – only the results. The psychology of a killer is in many ways more important than his physiology. Merely hitting the high points of psychopathy – like most serial killers in their youth have tortured or killed animals – isn’t enough. Merely hating women isn’t enough. Something in the killer’s path has pushed him over the line from malcontent to murderer.

Did he accidentally kill someone in a fit of temper and “get away” with it but now he has to kill again to protect the life he’s built since (the example Frey uses in his book)? Did he like the thrill? What is he afraid of?

Simply put, if you don’t know how your killer got to the point we find him in this story he’s not going to be very compelling.

Frey spends about 20 pages on developing your murderer and becoming intimate with him. Obviously, I can’t do justice to Frey’s advice in the space of a blog post. But let me leave you with this:

Murderers are three-dimensional characters. They are clever, not just lucky. They are “evil” in the sense that their desires are the most important thing in the world to them. They are highly damaged people. Unless you know what drives your killer (his wound) you can’t know how he kills and won’t keep your reader engaged.

WEB_N Greene-1 You can find me at my blog. Twitter, and Facebook .




ThrillerFest, ePublishing, and Getting an Agent

I recently attended ThrillerFest.

It was a four day event. Last two days are panels of famous authors and lots of awards. I saw Ken Follett speak and met and spoke for a while with Larry Beinhart. The first 1.5 days were called CraftFest, and consisted of three tracks of great panels from highly successful writers in the Thriller genre. At the end of the CraftFest was AgentFest. It was like a speed dating event, but you’re pitching agents. (Forgive my metaphor, as it’s the only one I knew offhand).

The CraftFest portion of the event was very enriching. Lectures covered topics such as “How to develop your voice”, “keeping the reader in suspense” and “point of view, psychic distance, and passive voice”.

Probably my favorite lecture was from Stephen James who had a very fast delivery style (he was covering “nine characteristics of the modern thriller”) and who had an odd technique of literally hurling free books AT the audience, and even his handouts were distributed essentially spraying a cascading fan of paper over the front few rows.

There was tons of advice given, but I heard these basic lessons reiterated and I think they are still the most valuable to give to anyone entering the field:

1) READ READ READ, good and bad, in your genre


Simple no?


Over the last year the volume of press about self-publishing and e-publishing has been deafening. Working and writing about technology in my other life, I was very familiar with the rags-to-riches stories that had been told about application development for mobile phones, and some of these same themes were being explored in eBooks.

During the last year the here’s what I heard through all my sources — all the rumors, discussions, opinions — about e-publishing

  1. There’s no longer a stigma to being self published
  2. Publishing is transforming to digital faster than it did for music or movies
  3. E-publishing is now 20% of the bookbuying market. or 30%. Or something like that.
  4. Amazon sells more e-books than normal books
  5. Not really, Amazon sells more volume because many books are cheaper
  6. Spam eBooks are killing Amazon, and then you’ll need a filter, which will be… traditional publishers
  7. Only Amanda Hocking and Adam Locke did a million and you’re not them
  8. Borders is going bankrupt because eBooks are the future
  9. Barnes and Noble’s new focus is toys, gifts, coffee table books, games, puzzles, DVDs, CDs, and scones
  10. The way to succeed with eBooks is 1) social networking 2) writing half dozen acceptable quality books in rapid succession
  11. Literary agents have been infected with the Hollywood virus and are now out to steal your soul and all your royalties because they no longer work for you they just want to own your back catalog mwah hah ha
  12. E-royalties suck and aren’t fair in traditional deals
  13. Publishers never did anything for midlisters anyway it was all up to them to market themselves
  14. Don’t get an agent you can do it all yourself
  15. Don’t get a publisher you can do it all yourself
  16. You just need to spend a few grand for an editor and somebody to make you a good cover
  17. Oh wait, if you focus on learning social networking and building up your audience you may not have time to write
  18. If you self publish successfully you can get a traditional book deal and sell to people who don’t have e-readers and a few of those still exist
  19. $0.99 to $2.99 ebook pricing is devaluing books
  20. People can’t find your book in a bookstore if it’s e-published
  21. There’s no longer a stigma to publishing traditionally on paper

Getting An Agent

The main reason I had gone to the event was to learn about getting an agent. Here’s what I learned about THAT:

  1. You need an agent because they can submit simultaneously instead of you slowly pitching your manuscript slowly, one publisher at a time, over many years.
  2. You need a “log line” – a punchy one-line hook about your book
  3. Loglines are too Hollywood ; those are for scripts. You need a pitch line and a query letter.
  4. You need to work on your pitch a lot to make your query perfect.
  5. You must address your query letter to the agent and research the agent and address them by name and call to verify their name but you can’t nag and you can’t do anything strange or unusual in your query letter.
  6. Actually you don’t need a query letter they’re too slow. You need to go to conferences and meet an agent and pitch your book. Then they’ll ask you to send the manuscript.
  7. If the agent doesn’t like your pitch, because your one-line description of the book wasn’t short enough and perfect enough.
  8. Wow this is going to be really hard.
  9. Actually you’re interviewing the agents and you need to see if you can vibe with them.
  10. Oh wait, the right agent will like your pitch if your story is good because they’re interested, and will ask for the manuscript.
  11. If the agent doesn’t like your pitch you can simply move on. There are other agents.


The event was amazing (I’m writing spy thriller and some scifi thriller so it was a good fit for me) and I plan to go next year as well. To recap:

  1. There’s no longer a stigma to having a literary agent
  2. Read in your genre
  3. Write a lot