Posting for Sheila Lowe, who is having technical problems.

I was once asked to write an article about how I add mayhem to my mysteries. I thought I knew what ‘mayhem’ meant, but looked it up. Here’s the dictionary definition:

the willful and unlawful crippling or mutilation of another person.

That sounded pretty awful. But as a mystery writer isn’t that exactly what I am required to do? Still, crippling? mutilation? I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Then I looked back at some of the villainous acts my fictional bad guys have perpetrated. They’ve killed by drowning, strangulation, anaphylactic shock, skiing into a tree. I’ve written shootings, a taser attack, hand-to-hand violence. In What She Saw, a massive 6’4 thug roughs up a young woman half his size. And in Inkslingers Ball, someone is firebombed in a tattoo shop. There’s a mailbox bombing in Outside the Lines. That all sounds pretty mayhemmy to me.

I confess, as a generally non-violent person (unless you hide my favorite book or take the last oatmeal raisin cookie), these are not the easiest scenes for me to write. True-life murder has come far too close to me and affects how I approach them. I’ve often written about my daughter, who was shot to death in 2000 by her boyfriend, a special agent of the U.S. federal government. For a long time after this personal horror, hearing gunshots in my mind, or visualizing looking down the barrel of a gun—things one must do in order to write a realistic scene—were extremely difficult. Yet, while it may not be true that time heals all wounds, it does blunt them.

Even before my daughter’s death, as a handwriting analyst I have always been interested in the psychology of violence, from both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s points of view. When writing a violent scene, I put myself in the shoes of each party to the action and try to comprehend what it would be like to be that killer, or come face-to-face with one. I ask myself what is each actor’s motivation?

Every villain, whether in the real world or in the one created on the page, is an individual with his or her own specific set of motivations and needs: the need for love and belonging, the need for safety and security, the need for power and respect. Many factors go into the choice to kill, but usually one or more of these underlying needs was neglected early in life and becomes a prime motivating factor in the crime.

In my books, the killer is usually an ordinary person who, because of a situation he’s created or has landed in, finds himself under extraordinary stress. Pushed to the point of no return, he may go to extreme lengths to resolve the issue. It might be the desperate need of a jilted lover grasping for control, fighting to hang on to the last wisps of the relationship, refusing to let the other person go. It might be a serial killer who, horribly abused as a young child, felt utterly powerless over his own life, and a need to dominate and control drives him to murder. It’s like a drug—the look of terror in the eyes of his victims gives him a rush of adrenalin that he feels compelled to recreate, over and over. Or perhaps the killer is a charismatic leader whose religious zeal leads his followers down a dangerous path. Or maybe it’s someone bent on revenge for a real or imagined slight. Or…well, the possibilities are truly endless.

In order to create memorable characters, whether villains or heroes, what’s most important is that there is some motivation behind what they do, and that, whether it’s revealed in the story or not, the author knows what that it is. Mystery writers have the enviable task of creating whatever kind of mayhem appeals to our imagination, and then untangling it in a way that pleases us. That’s so much better than the real-life version.


16 thoughts on “Mayhem”

  1. I am surprised to see “person” attached as the target of the dictionary definition of mayhem. Totally agree about needing to know the motivation of such attacks. As mystery writers we often write at a distance from ugly aspects of reality, trying to make sense of the senselessness that threatens our worlds.


  2. Reality vs. Fiction. When I read the definition you found for mayhem, it sounded yucky. In reality. But when I put my writer’s hat on it’s rather yummy. I’m writing a book that’s based on human trafficking. It’s fiction (duh) but the research has been filled with mayhem. It’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever studied.

    I think it’s interesting that, after the reality of your daughter’s murder, you chose to write crime fiction. Seeking justice, maybe?

    Great post!


    1. I had started writing Poison Pen before Jen’s death, and had always planned to write mystery because it’s my first love in fiction. But definitely, that experience has informed my writing ever since.

      Can’t wait to read your next book. It seems stunning that after all we’ve learned from history that human trafficking–slavery–is still going strong


  3. Great post, Sheila! I agree, the motivation behind acts of mayhem is essential in mysteries and I think, as Sue stated so well, is a way for us to try and make sense of the senselessness that threatens our world. The why behind what pushes a seemingly ordinary person to kill is interesting to explore, but also one of the tougher aspects of writing this genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good post with a lot to think about. Since I write children’s stories, the mayhem I create must be a lot softer. Still there are consequences to actions that have to be dealt with. In mine, the “bad” guy is often redeemed by a change of heart and restitution. And forgiveness on the part of the offended.


  5. Great post, Sheila. I’ve seen writers (and I’ve done this myself) make their villains super evil, but rarely are people like that. They’re always a reason behind the madness.


  6. Great post. I think ” mystery readers like a good “mayhem” incident in books because we don’t want to experience it in our own lives. I am sure many of us have experienced tragedy in our daily lives, and no one wants to relive something that terrible. Reading mysteries, thrillers, crime novels, can transport us to a make-believe world where tragedy does not touch us and there is always some sort of ending, perhaps not always a happy one for every9one, but an end, none-the-less. See you at The Book Carnival in Orange with your next book.


  7. Thank you , Sheila. Lovely post! It’s an interesting balancing act, making the villain villainous enough without reaching that cartoon point. A very gray area, I believe. Mayhem? Wow, I did not expect that definition.


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