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For all the fear and pain they cause in real life, serial killers get a lot of play in both art and pop culture. In novels, films and nearly every night of the week on television, we watch stories of human depravity pushed to its extremes.
This entertainment landscape becomes especially troubling when cases involving multiple murders are dominating the front pages.
Recently, Q convened a panel to talk about why we seem so fascinated by the horrific crimes of fictional murderers even as we're repulsed by such violence in real life. Is this something we, as an audience, should feel guilty about? And what is it like to be the creator of one of these characters?
On the panel were two Canadian authors who have recently published novels featuring serial killers — Trevor Cole and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. The similarities in their books, however, stop there. Bishop-Stall's Ghosted, his first novel, features a dark and detestable killer who is entirely lacking in empathy. For Cole, the killer protagonist of his book Practical Jean, finds herself drawn to committing reprehensible deeds — the murder of her friends — from genuinely good intentions. It was the complexity of her motives that attracted him to the character and the story in the first place.
"Jean doesn't ever question what she is doing," Cole said. "Her mother has died a terrible death from cancer. She's devastated by that and is trying to protect her friends from experiencing anything like that, and it seems righteous to her. How could she not, now that she knows what she knows about death, how could she not spare them?"
Cole found that writing about an empathetic character who does terrible things required a delicate narrative balance. But for Bishop-Stall, writing a character without empathy was no easier.
"I'd learned that the way to create character is to have empathy, and I tried to write him as such. But to have empathy for a character who has none himself, I was actually almost writing myself into a knot," Bishop-Stall said. "It wasn't until I had to relinquish all empathy for him that I was able to get close enough to him to write him. I actually ended up doing so a lot in the first person, writing these journals of his, and it was a very difficult and dark procedure. At no point was I certain I was doing a good thing."
What do you think? Why are we drawn to fictional serial killers? Are they pure escapist entertainment? Do they help us understand something about the extremes of human nature, or are they to blame for numbing us to real-life violence? Listen to the panel and join the discussion here or on the Q blog.