By Tracy Weber
I had a fabulous time at Malice Domestic the last weekend in April. I was lucky enough to be on a panel with three other fabulous authors (Lori Rader-Day, Sheyna Galyan, and R.J. Harlick). Our wonderful moderator was Patti Ruocco. Our topic? The Psychology of Murder. The questions Pattti asked made me think more deeply about the motives and backgrounds of my characters, and I wished I could share my answers with my readers. So I figured, why not?
Without further ado, I present to you The Psychology of Murder—or at least the psychology of a murder-writing yoga teacher, as interviewed by Patti Ruocco. Questions in bold were asked by Patti. Responses are from me.
In your Kate Davidson series, Kate has some deep-seated psychological issues of her own. (Pogonophobia (fear of beards), fear of abandonment, anger management issues, and early childhood trauma.) Tell us about them, and why they interest you as a writer?
I enjoy exploring dichotomies—people who don’t always act the way we’d expect. Most people I know expect yoga teachers to be flexible, fit, and emotionally balanced. So I wondered: what if I wrote about a yoga teacher who was none of the above?
Which brings me to Kate: a slightly overweight (at least in the first two books), neurotic yoga teacher with anger management issues. As soon as I visualized her, I began to wonder: what made Kate who she is, and how would her less-than-perfect characteristics manifest themselves in the rest of her life? I answered those questions by writing Murder Strikes a Pose.
At first Kate’s aversion to beards was simply a plot device. I needed Kate and her crazy German shepherd, Bella, to both not like beards, for reasons I won’t go into here. But the neurosis quickly grew to mean more than that.
I was driving home from the grocery store one day when I thought, Fear of beards. I’ll bet there’s a psychological term for that! I drove home as fast as I could and powered up my computer. Sure enough, there was: pogonophobia. Fear of beards was a diagnosed medical condition.
The why of it all has revealed itself to me in future books. Much of it has to do with Kate’s early childhood traumas. Suffice it to say, she didn’t have an easy life before Rene, Michael, and Bella arrived on the scene.
Kate’s past would have crushed most people. She’s still recovering. She’s still trying.
As my readers know, she fails all too often, but somehow she always manages to get back up again. Kate has an internal strength I truly admire. She is a person in transition: growing from a woman who is generous and kind, but damaged, to a person with great fortitude and strength. The best part of writing my series is discovering Kate.
At what point in the development of the story did you realize that one of these characters – possibly one you have been fond of – is actually a murderer? And how does that affect your development of that character after that point?
I usually know the identity of the killer when I start writing. In my first two books, I didn’t like my murderers much. By the third and the fourth, I began to sympathize with them. As I’ve matured in my writing, I’ve worked to make my characters more three-dimensional. Not fully good, not fully bad. Kind of like real life, don’t you think?
The villains (if there really is such a thing) in my stories are simply flawed individuals who have done a horrible act. My writing therefore explores why normally good people are driven to do something evil.
I don’t think this new mindset affects my development of the character after the killing, but it does change how I write them as fully formed humans before it.
How do you reveal the psychology of the characters in your book?
I write in first person, so I have to reveal everything in my series through Kate. What she sees, what she feels energetically, what she hears in conversations.
Karma’s a Killer, my most recent book, involves arson. When writing this book, I researched FBI profiles of arsonists. Some of this research showed up in the arsonist’s habits, some in his or her appearance. Some is revealed in the character’s back story, which is revealed later in the book. I try to be fair to my readers, which means that everything they need to know to solve the crime is contained within the pages of the mystery. That includes revealing characteristics of the criminals.
Patti: How do your normal characters stay normal against the staggering events in your novel?
What is “normal?” If you ever see it, please point it out to me. I’ll take a picture. ;-)
In all seriousness though, my characters are never unchanged by death. How could they be? Much of Karma’s a Killer, for example, revolves around Kate’s coming to terms with her responsibility for a death in A Killer Retreat.
Kate stays sane, if you will, through her yoga practice, her connection to family, and by drinking quite a bit more wine than is good for her. Pretty soon she’ll have to start seeing a psychologist.
How are your characters influenced by other characters around them?
According to my teacher, we can see ourselves most clearly in the mirror of our relationships. In other words, like it or not, we are influenced by those around us. Supposedly, when we achieve the true state of yoga, we are as uncolored as clear crystals. Unfazed, if you will, by the people and events around us. I haven’t gotten there yet, nor has anyone else I’ve met. How could my characters?
Diagnose your characters: what do they fear? What pressures are playing out on them during the course of the book?
Kate suffers from depression in my most recent book, and she’s dangerously close to developing an alcohol addiction. The events that take place A Killer Retreat weigh heavily on her. She’s afraid that she’s not nearly as good a person as her friends think she is. Primarily, she fears letting down the people she loves.
A classic psychology technique is to explore the patient’s childhood. Do you create character background sketches as part of your process in fleshing out the characters? Does their past impact their present?
I don’t specifically write background sketches, but I reflect a lot on my characters’ histories. Kate is like a real person to me—a friend who wants to tell me her story. And like a real person, she reveals more about herself over time as she learns to trust me. I didn’t discover the origins of her pogonophobia, for example, until midway through writing Karma’s a Killer. Then again, neither did Kate.
Lastly, as a writer, how do you handle the psychology of rejection?
Very carefully! I want so much for my readers to love my work, and most of the time they do. Sometimes, however, they don’t. I give myself twenty-four hours to brush it off, then I move on. After all, Kate and I have another murder to solve!