Creating The Perfect Predator: Tricks of the Trade from a Forensic Psychologist by Mary Kennedy

The Thursday afternoon group therapy session was held in a small, cramped room on the ninth floor of the forensic unit.  It was a hot August day, and since the shatter-proof windows were nailed shut, the room was hot, humid, and eerily still.

The group  members–all  men, all convicted of violent crimes, including rape, battery, incest and  murder–watched warily as I slipped into an empty folding chair near the door.  It was my first week as staff psychologist on the busy unit, and I was still new to the game.

But not so new that I would forget to give myself a clear escape route.

The chairs were arranged in a circle, and my supervisor had given me strict instructions on how to begin each session.  “Start by going around the circle and have them say something good about themselves,” he had ordered. 

I began the session by introducing myself, for the benefit of two new members who sat with their arms folded across their chests, a mocking expression on their faces.  I knew both had been convicted of savage crimes.  The burly guy wearing a red bandana headband and a black muscle T-shirt had raped a toddler while his girlfriend captured the crime on tape.  The skinny junkie with the shaky hands and the swastika tattoo had tortured and murdered an elderly couple after breaking into their home in a failed robbery attempt. 

Biting back a sigh, I began.  “Tell us something good about yourself,” I said, turning to the man on my right.

He stared at me for a long moment and then had me repeat the question.  Maybe he was as baffled as I was. “Good?” He stared at his hands for several seconds and then glanced up at the ceiling.  He shook his head from side to side, mouth twitching in frustration, as if he were failing a pop quiz. “I can’t rightly think of anything good,”  he said finally.

“Oh, c’mon, of course you can,” I said with mounting desperation.  I sneaked a peek at my watch.  Fifty-five minutes to go, this was going to be a very long hour if no one said anything.  “Just say one good thing about yourself–anything, and then we can  move on to the next person.”

He sighed heavily, stared at the floor and then suddenly his head jerked up, his expression brightening as if he’d just had an epiphany. “Oh, wait a minute, I just thought of something,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.  He locked eyes with his friends, clearly relishing his moment in the spotlight.

“Very good. Go ahead, tell us what it is.”

“Well, here’s the thing, Doctor Kennedy.” He looked around the circle, pausing dramatically. “I haven’t killed anyone in eight years.”

I was speechless, but the group broke out in a raucous cheer.  “Eight years!  Way to go, brother, way to go!” The man to his right high-fived him, and his buddy to his left bumped knuckles with him in a show of support.

Not murdering anyone in eight years was clearly a cause for celebration.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

— from the personal forensic files of Mary Kennedy

So began  my year on a forensic unit, a year when I was “up close and personal” with violent felons, sexual sadists,  murderers, drug dealers  and thieves.  The lessons I learned during that year have stayed with me, and I’ve come up with a short list of clinical insights that might be helpful to anyone creating a psychological portrait of a predator.

Predators are cunning, manipulative and possess a superficial charm that helps them avoid detection.  Remember the flashing smile of Scott Peterson, the quick wit of Ted Bundy , and the dazzling charm of Kenneth Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers.  Think of the charismatic Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, the quirky, deadly intensity of John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game.

Along with this superficial charm is a strong element of narcissism. Predators believe they are the center of the universe, and that ordinary mortals exist merely to serve their needs.  Judith French creates a chilling depiction of a psychopath called The Game Master in AT RISK. When the Game Master thinks of his victims they are less than human, they are mere “specimens.”

The specimen had been short and petite, nothing like the supersized stockbroker last Fall…he remembered her name, but she was a discarded game piece, too insignificant to be addressed formally.

Predators frequently think of themselves as hunters, stalkers and relish the thrill of the chase. The Game Master: Lesser  men might be content with the satisfaction of the kill, the scent of blood, and the cries of their victims. Those aspects were enjoyable, even immensely fulfilling, but it was the sport of the chase that thrilled him the most. Stalking his lovelies, watching as ever-increasing fear consumed their lives, kept the game new and challenging.

In The Hunt, by Allison Brennan, the killer’s emotions are laid bare for the reader.  “His heart pounded in his chest, blood rushing through his body, as he remembered. The intoxicating power when he had her to himself.  The feeling of victory that unfortunately diminished with each passing day until there was no choice but to hunt again. The thrill of the hunt was a brief high, and already he missed it.”                                                                                    

Predators are hard-wired to respond to emotions differently than “normals.” They are untouched by human suffering.  Some studies indicate that they don’t even respond to emotional words (blood, cancer, death) or emotional scenes (pictures of homicides or road accidents) in the same way as “normals.”  They are callous, lacking in empathy.  Hunter Morgan created a memorable character called The Bloodsucker in SHE’LL NEVER TELL.  In his warped mind, his victims are “bad,” or “evil” and deserve to die.  Interestingly, many of my clients saw images of “bright red blood,  and “bleeding body parts” in the Rorschach, or inkblot test.

Then the Bloodsucker’s gaze fell to the black blood once again. Black blood that was proof that she was evil.  Proof that she was bad.  There  was no need for him to feel guilty. There  really wasn’t.  

 Predators often harbor a hatred of women, and enjoy the thought of torturing and humiliating them.  From The Bloodsucker, Women thought they were so powerful. All this women’s lib crap. They thought they held the power of the world in their hands because their thing was different from a man’s thing. But they were wrong. That wasn’t  where their power was. It was all in their blood. And they could be depleted of their power. 

 Anne Marie McCall, a profiler  in Mariah Stewart’s book DEAD EVEN, says, “Look at these girls in their school uniforms, at the way they project such innocence. Now look at them through his eyes, at the way he’s left them, defiled them. He’s ruined them. He’s taken something from the. He has tremendous power over them. He’s definitely feeling very proud, very smug. He’s stolen something precious, and no one can stop him…”

In Allison Brennan’s novel, The Prey, the killer fantasizes about the crime he is about to commit. “No, I won’t break her neck. Too easy, too fast. Instead, I’ll squeeze it slowly. Put pressure on her windpipe. Watch as she turns blue. Then release it, give her a breath or two. Make her think she’s got a chance. That there’s hope. Then tighten up again.“

This hatred often manifests in the crime scene, which will be unusually bloody and disorganized.  Dr. Anne Marie McCall, a profiler in Mariah Stewart’s novel, DARK TRUTH explains, “If you’re merely trying to get someone out of the picture, you don’t need to invest yourself in the actual killing. The man we are looking for was doing more than going through the motions. The wounds are too deep, the crime scene too bloody. He was making a statement.

A detective in Linda Howard’s book, Mr. PERFECT, makes the same observation. He knew this murder had been perpetrated by someone who knew the victim because the attack had been personal; the face had been attacked. The multiple stab wounds were indicative of rage.           

A strong element of sexual excitement is present during these crimes.  The killer in Mr. PERFECT muses, “Killing that first bitch had been so…overwhelming. He hadn’t experienced that wild, hot rush of joy, almost of ecstasy.  But the killing…oh the killing. He closed his eyes, swaying back and forth a little as he relived every moment of it in his mind. The shock in the bitch’s eyes that split second before the hammer hit her, the sodden thudding sounds, then the joy that leapt through his veins and the feeling of being all-powerful, of knowing that she was helpless to stop him because he was so strong… 

An FBI profiler  in Erica Spindler’s book, in ALL FALL DOWN, describes it like this. “He’s been nurturing this fantasy for a long time. With Joli, the fantasy got out of control, because unlike the hookers he’d experimented with, Joli stopped behaving as he wanted her to.  In an effort to control her, he killed her. Killing her provided him with a powerful sexual jolt. He’s going to want that again. He’s going to crave it.” 

Predators feel a strong connection with their victims, even after death. The profiler in ALL FALL DOWN explains, “This kind of killer routinely visits his victim’s grave as a way of reliving his fantasy.” He goes on to explain that killers often visit their victim’s families and follow newspaper and media accounts of the crime.

By studying the crime scene, the profiler gathers valuable information about the mind of the killer. If the crime scene is “staged” and the victim is posed in a certain way, it can reveal an important part of criminal behavior.  In DARK TRUTH, a cop gives a detailed description of the crime scene, looking for clues to the killer’s identity.

“Both girls were partially clothed and left in the middle of the bed. Legs crossed at the ankles. Arms crossed over their chests. Head facing the wall. All the lights in the room were on–the overhead as well as a lamp on the table next to the bed and the desk lamp.”

But sometimes gut instinct trumps textbook profiles. In BLAZE, by JoAnn Ross, ATF Special Agent Gage Hamilton says, “You’ll discover that serial arsonists have a lot in common with serial killers.  If you start trying to stick too close to the profile, you’ll risk missing what’s right in front of your nose.”

A profiler studies the victim to learn about the predator.  In Dark Truth, Wes Powell describes the work of a profiler. “She learns as much about the victims as she can, then she’ll study the evidence.  There’s no voodoo to it, there’s no wild guesses or strange formulas.” As profiler Connor Parks in Erica Spindler’s ALL FALL DOWN describes it, “A profile is a psychological portrait of a killer. We create this portrait by comparing what we know about criminal behavior to the details of a particular crime scene. They’re quite accurate.”

The psychopathic personality pattern reveals itself at an early age.  This is useful for writers to know, because they can build some ‘backstory” which reveals psychopathic tendencies.  Bed-wetting, fire-setting and cruelty to animals are red flags, indicating psychopathology. Many writers add a line or two about this “psychopathic triad” when they’re discussing a character’s early years.

Predators frequently take a “trophy” to help them re-live the fantasy of the crime.  As The Game Master says, he “regrets he can’t take the whole body,” and has to content himself with body parts. The Bloodsucker thinks about taking a pair of panties and then decides not to. “The Blood sucker wanted to keep the panties, but he knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t because he wasn’t a stupid idiot. He knew that if he took the panties, it would be considered a trophy by law enforcement. Trophies were a no-no.”

Thanks to television crime show, predators are knowledgeable about forensic techniques, and know how to avoid detection.  As The Bloodsucker says, “He  wasn’t stupid, he watched CSI on TV like everyone else. Even wearing glasses and a hat, he knew that he could leave something behind in a house or a car.  Fibers from his clothes could be traced, even DNA tested if he left behind a hair with the follicle still attached.”

They know the tricks; they know how to be “believable.” They make good eye contact, they don’t fidget, they don’t pick at their clothes when telling the most outrageous lies. Their expressions are open and trustworthy, their voices are calm and reassuring.  In SHE’ll  NEVER KNOW, The Bloodsucker thinks, “she never suspected him, because he didn’t fit the type. And because he was smart. He was smarter than them all.

From Roxanne St. Claire, “ The trick is to use the list of fascinating “predator” attributes to create a “predatory” villain — very believable, yet easily “missed” by the main character. That’s exactly the tack I took with THRILL ME TO DEATH where I wanted the villain to be quite literally in the heroine’s face, yet not obvious to anyone. You have to give them very acceptable motivations and you also have to give them character traits that can be somewhat likeable or endearing — until the reader realizes they are evil and that those very traits are actually  clues to just how truly bad the character is.”

Creating the “perfect predator”  is only part of makes a romantic suspense memorable;  plot,  conflict, motivation, and a sizzling romance are all important ingredients.   As Hilary Rubin, a literary agent with the Trident agency says,   “To me, what makes great romantic suspense is a page-turning plot, off-the-charts romantic chemistry, and a totally fresh angle. Those seem like very obvious components but they are very difficult to put together. Straight thriller writers often have a great sense of action but the emotional angle can be stilted.  Pure romance writers are great with sexual tension but the suspense plot is often derivative or lacking in urgency. A fresh angle though, that’s the hardest. If I had a dime for every manuscript featuring a naive female private investigator tangled up in a gory murder and a gruff but handsome cop…you get the idea. The great romantic suspense writers think outside clichés, and they always surprise you in the end.”

With a right-on-target predator, cutting-edge forensic knowledge,  compelling characters  and a dynamite plot, you too will have a winning formula!


Mary Kennedy is a national best-selling author, and a clinical psychologist in private practice on the east coast. She has sold forty novels, all to major New York publishers, and has made the Waldenbooks, BookScan and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists.

Her current series, The Talk Radio Mysteries, features a psychologist who closes up her Manhattan practice and heads to sunny Florida to take a job as a radio talk show host. watch for her Dream Club Mystery series coming September 2014 from Penguin.

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