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Arlene Hunt on Creating the Bad

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Arlene Hunt

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‘It’s alive, it’s alive!’

Who doesn’t recognise the joyous cry of the demented scientist when Frankenstein, his monster creation, finally comes to life. It’s one of the most classic lines in horror movie history.

Though I leave out the shriek, I often feel this way when a character– once a mere blastocyst of an idea banging about in my brain – fleshes out and takes form. It can be a giddy-making moment when I stop thinking of a character as a thing and begin to think of them as he or she. In general this is a pleasant experience, after all characters are an important part of the crime novel, the people we watch carefully as the plot propels us in, but occasionally I will create a character that leaves me wondering where on earth I found them and why I am so happy to set them loose into the world.

When I think of the murderous villains I have created over the years, from the French waffling Vinnie, through to Caleb Switch, the one thing I never shied away from was revealing how ugly they were. Not in looks, but in their souls. My killers can be charming, aloof, driven by madness, driven by grief, but united with the capability that excludes them from the rest of society, the capability to murder.  Not kill, you understand, for many of us could conceive of killing someone in self defence, or to protect a loved one from danger, but to coldly and clinically murder another living being, well, that takes a certain kind of someone.

Hannibal Lecter, to my mind one of the greatest creations in recent years, is an interesting case. Although quite clearly a flesh-eating sociopath, he nonetheless causes all manner of people to lean in his favour. His charm and erudition cast a spell over the happily captive audience. Readers overlook his more sinistertastes in lieu of his entertaining and thrilling company, unlike say, Thomas Harris’ other creation, Francis Dolarhyde, known as ‘The Tooth Fairy’ in Red Dragon. Unlike Lector, Dolarhyde is socially awkward and unattractive. He has none of Lecter’s rapier wit or charm; we are not won over by him so we cheer his demise. He is no more a monster than Lecter, and indeed considering Lecter’s formidable intelligence, possibly less, but we can imagine sharing space with one, but not the other

When I wrote Blood Money, I created a character called Pavel Sunic, a man @#!*% bent on revenge. Pavel, though, elicited a strange reaction from readers. As savage as he could be– and he was very much so– people still expressed a kind of pity for him, and in some cases rooted for him.  Puzzled at first, I put this down to the brief flickers of humanity he revealed throughout the novel, for here was a man driven on his murderous rampage, not only by vengeance, but by grief for a beloved dead sister.  I had also pitted him against the different kind of monster, that of Frieda Mayweather, a single-minded, high-heel wearing killer of a different stripe. Though a mother and wife, Frieda could order a death without remorse, (she rarely liked getting her own hands dirty).  No one rooted for her.

I wondered what it was it that separated them in such a black and white fashion?  Why did no one mourn Frieda, or root for her. Why is Hannibal given a free pass, but not Francis?

The creation of a killer is endlessly fascinating to me, for what are killers? What is it that makes them tick? Are they monsters, incapable of empathy or compassion, or deeply wounded individuals, lashing out in pain and fear?  Or both. Or, even more perplexing, neither. I should point out I don’t have any answers, but I like pondering upon the questions.

The scope for creating a killer is vast and usually born of our inner fears to a certain extent. For me, the man or woman who can wear a perfect mask of civility, while harbouring murderous intent, is more frightening than the rabid vicious blood-lusting passionate killer. The idea of a pure psychopath, capable of blending into any form of life, capable of creating trust and loyalty with their victims, toying with them, is beyond creepy.  I recall reading from Dr Robert Hare’s brilliant book on psychopaths, ‘Without Conscience’ the checklist used to understand the key symptoms of psychopathy. Among the symptoms are: impulsive behaviour, the need for excitement, a lack of responsibility, a lack of empathy, shallow emotions, egocentric and grandiose behaviour.

Now, he could well have been talking about the cast of Jersey Shore, or indeed any other group of ego driven people, but the truth is these attributes fuel some of the most dangerous people on the planet, and we might never for a moment guess who they are until it is too late.

But they’re out there, folks, remember that. They’re out there.

About the author

(c) Arlene Hunt, November 2011.

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
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