To Write a Killer

May 11, 2021

Last two posts I wrote about two key characters in STEEL FEAR: the hero, and the world where the story takes place (since the ship itself practically serves as a character in the story). Now it’s time to address the most challenging character topic of all: the killer.

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For years, I’ve known the time would come to write a novel. And for years, I wrestled with the question of writing about murder.

I was, after all, the Go-Giver guy. I’d dedicated my adult life to writing about nice, lovely things like leadership, personal development, generosity, and excellence. Positive things. And I am a firm believer in the idea that we tend to increase what we focus on. As Pindar says in The Go-Giver:

“Go looking for conflict, and you’ll find it. Go looking for people to take advantage of you, and they generally will. See the world as a dog-eat-dog place, and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal. Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good will you’ll find.”

Did I really want to spend a year of my life plumbing the mind of an evil, sociopathic ne’er-do-well who inflicts obscene amounts of pain and suffering upon the innocent?

This was the question that gnawed at me: not how to write a convincing killer, but whether to do so at all.

My philosophy of writing says we love stories so much, we need stories so much, because they resonate with our real flesh-and-blood lives.

I believe you and I are the authors of our own stories, laying down draft after draft with each fresh page — that is, each new day — as we rewrite and revise and gradually work out just what this story is that we’re telling.

Therefore, the most effective stories are those that most powerfully evoke our real lives. Not all the details of it, naturally, but the important parts. Stories pinpoint what is most crucial in actual, oxygen-breathing life and distill that down to a tellable tale.

Stories give us the tools to live our lives better. More successfully, more richly, more satisfyingly.

So why do stories have villains?

The essence of every story is this: A hero wants something and is hindered from getting it.

The hero, of course, is you. The want is your want.

And in our actual, oxygen-breathing stories, what does the hindering is most often not a specific human villain so much as a constellation of circumstances: poverty, social injustice, economic inequity, prejudice, social expectations, health issues, and so on. Even our own attitudes and limitations.

Yes, there is real evil in the world. There is ignorance, greed, violence, and cruelty. But these evils typically present in our lives in the form not of a malign villain but of environments and situations.

Still . . . there are people who do seem to personify those evils more than most.

Here’s how Master Chief Robbie Jackson sees it in Steel Fear (from chapter 30):

In the nineteenth century, so Jackson learned during his Master’s studies, some bright social theorists came up with this concept, the Great Man theory of history. Heroes emerged from time to time, so they said, individuals of exceptional virtue who singlehandedly shaped the course of human events. Others argued that this idea was naïve, simplistic. Great men, the critics said—and it was always men in these theories—were simply the products of their time, not the other way around.

Call it the “Great Societies theory.”

Jackson was a pragmatist. In his experience, the normal fabric of events would always give rise to thugs and petty tyrants. Influential, charismatic men—and yes, almost always men—of outsized ego and destructive impulse. Who, left to their own devices, would wreak unmitigated havoc.

Call it the “Terrible Man theory.”

Jackson did not believe in the Great Man theory because he did not believe in Great Men. He did not expect nor want his sailors to become Great. He wanted them to become decent, effective human beings. Lymphocytes of the body politic.

Unlike Jackson, I do believe in Great Men and Great Women. I know quite a few of them. I bet you do, too.

But I also see the evils of the world and aspire to serve as a “decent, effective human being.” A lymphocyte of the body politic that helps make the world a healthier place.

I bet you do, too.

Which is why, I think, we write about killers.

Our stories have villains so we can vanquish them.

This, I suspect, is also why good stories are so often defined as much by the complexity and authenticity of their villains as that of their heroes. Maybe more so. The realer the struggle, the more it resonates, the more it isn’t only about the hero on the page but also about us, you and me.

In Steel Fear I tried to write a character who is as lethal as possible, as terrifying as possible — and as elusive as possible. Because sometimes the greatest obstacles in our own lives are like that: it takes us a while to work out that they aren’t necessarily what we thought they were.

I hope I never have to face the kind of villain our hero faces in Steel Fear, and I hope you never do, either. I figure the foes we face in our lives are already hindrance enough.

But maybe one more good story, with a hero’s struggle that ends in triumph, will give us a little more fuel for our own journeys and inch us that much closer to finding the hero inside.



  1. David Connon

    I loved this quote: “Good stories are so often defined as much by the complexity and authenticity of their villains as that of their heroes. Maybe more so. The realer the struggle, the more it resonates, the more it isn’t only about the hero on the page but also about us, you and me.”

    Well done, John David Mann!

    • John David Mann

      Thanks so much, David — greatly appreciate it!


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