Welcome Allison Gamble to The Writer’s Forensic Blog.
The Relevance of Realistic Criminal Profiling in Writing
Media these days is saturated with television shows and movies that address the topic of criminal profiling, probably because it’s such an intriguing and enigmatic discipline. With so much exposure to the world of crime through the news, Internet and even cell phone apps today, normal people are becoming increasingly interested in what really makes criminals tick. Creative writers do their best to capture the nuanced principles of profiling in literature of all kinds, but it’s difficult to do this realistically while remaining entertaining, especially if they don’t have the organic experience of being a real profiler. The first step in writing organic crime stories that involve profiling, then, is to understand the basic tents behind the discipline.
1. Criminal Profiling Has a Purpose
Lots of scientists consider forensic psychology a “soft science”—that is, one that doesn’t require rigorous quantitative analysis or an objective focus on accuracy. What’s interesting about this debate is that it actually provides an entire subset of conflict for creative writers to address in their work. Criminal profiling came into existence because federal agencies of all kinds (the FBI included) realized the benefits of being able to get inside a serial criminal’s mind. How do you prevent a terrorist attack or stop a killer from taking another victim if you have absolutely no preemptive advantage over them?
Understanding that the point of criminal profiling is preemption is important. Too often do writers create crime stories where one man or woman is an FBI agent and a profiler and a medical doctor and a sketch artist. Can you see what’s wrong here? The FBI has an entire unit, the Behavior Science Unit, dedicated to psychological criminal profiling so that field agents can get the job done faster and more accurately.
Consider Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series. These iconic novels deal first-hand with criminal profilers trying to get an upper hand on a psychotic criminal. They do this by getting into Hannibal’s head, which is often both an enlightening and extremely scary experience. Their background in psychology allows them to look at common actions in unique and insightful ways that propel the story forward. This is an example of organic storytelling that takes advantage of an authentic profiling experience.
2. Criminal Profiling Takes Time
Lots of historically successful crime stories hinge on suspense, and profiling itself is a suspenseful action. A serial killer just took his fourth victim, and now it’s your job to do some rigorous psychoanalysis and figure out his next move before he does. Will you beat him? That’s suspense. Yet criminal profiling doesn’t happen over night, it takes a long time and involves the coordination of lots of different people. Successful crime stories exploit this suspense by making it difficult to put a profile together rapidly. This allows an audience to play detective and do the profiling and speculation on their own, based upon facts and information that you provide for them. As an audience puts the puzzle pieces together they not only feel a stronger connection with the profiler, but they also feel a connection to the criminal.
3. Criminal Profilers Often Don’t Have Much Time
Contradiction is the writer’s main tool for generating conflict in a story. Sure, it would be ideal if criminal psychologists could sit around and profile for weeks, but that’s typically not how it works. Criminal profilers often work with rapid response teams where immediacy holds priority over all else. You know those movies where a profiler gets a call at 1:00 a.m. and they’ve got about two hours to generate a killer’s M.O? Sometimes that’s all the time a police force has. It’s not in any way unrealistic, it’s bred from the idea that any preemption is better than none at all and it promotes a sense of urgency in crime writing, which prevents unwanted stagnation.
4. Profilers Humanize Criminals
You want your audience to connect to your criminal. The best way to do that is to prove to them that your serial killer or psychotic cannibal is a human being deep down. Isn’t that what criminal profilers do? Don’t they look deep into a criminal’s humanity to understand why does what he does? Profilers often look at things like family background, education, financial status, love life and past social interactions to get a better sense of a killer’s motivations. This is just a short list of things though; real profilers look into very detailed cracks to extract information on a killer. You can create an authentic profiling experience for your readers by doing research on the various types of strange facts that these professionals use to gain leverage on a criminal.
To portray anything realistically means to understand it from a professional level. If you’re going to write a crime story, do research. Learn about the gritty details. Try to find real on-the-job accounts from forensic psychologists, and if you’ve got a friend who’s one that’s even better. Make the experience real for your reader by understanding what makes it real in the first place. Most importantly, don’t speculate, that’s the criminal profiler’s job.