In his novel I Hunt Killers, author Barry Lyga writes about what it would be like to have an infamous serial killer for a dad. Jasper (Jazz) Dent is a likeable teenager who grew up in the most unimaginable circumstances: Billy Dent, Jazz’s Dear Old Dad, passed on his criminal knowledge to his son, hoping that Jazz would become the perfect killer. But Billy has finally been put behind bars, and Jazz has no intentions of picking up where he left off. In fact, after a body turns up in his sleepy, small town, Jazz is determined to use the skills his father gave him to catch the killer.
In order to create the world of Lobo’s Nod inhabited by Jazz and his murderous Dad, Barry Lyga had to learn to think like a serial killer. The strength and authenticity of I Hunt Killers lies in Barry’s mastery of this serial killer thought process.
BUT HE’S NOT ACTUALLY A SERIAL KILLER. We promise. He just thinks like one. Read Barry’s advice below, then complete his writing exercise: write a scene from two different perspectives. Tag your story IHKadvice and the Figment team will choose our four favorite pieces to feature on the Figment homepage! Be sure to tag your work before April 21, 2012 at 4p.m. ET in order to be entered in the contest. Read the guidelines here.
One of the easiest things in the world is to “write what you know.” If you’re a football player, it’s not that difficult to imagine writing a book about a football player. Heck, why do you think so many books and movies are about writers?
A little tougher is taking “what you know” and applying it to a situation that’s similar, but not identical, to yours. Let’s stick with that football player for a second. What if you’re a football player, but you want to write about being a soldier? Well, you’d have to do some research on war, sure. But you could apply a lot of your football experience—being a team player, subordinating your needs to the needs of the unit, taking orders, making and executing strategies—to a soldier’s.
Toughest of all, though, is going completely outside your comfort zone and writing someone totally outside your experience. For my new book, I Hunt Killers, I had to learn how to think like the main character, Jazz Dent, son of the world’s most notorious serial killer. What would it be like to grow up with a serial killer for a father? To have your dad teach you how to take apart a dead body?
More than that, I had to learn how to think like Jazz’s dad . . . and like the new serial killer in town, too!
Given that I’ve never killed anyone (not that anyone’s been able to prove, anyway), this could have been a difficult task. But I wasn’t about let my own inexperience stop me. So, yeah, I did a bunch of research, but I also did something critically important for a writer: I allowed myself to think like someone else.
It’s tougher than you’d imagine. We’re all locked up in our own little boxes, trapped inside our own brains. It’s tough to think like someone else because we spend almost all of our time thinking like ourselves.
But if you want to create really interesting characters—characters who ring true and who don’t all sound the same—then you have to master the skill of thinking outside the box of your own experience.
Here’s a little exercise for you. It’s sort of gruesome and horrible, but you know what? Gruesome and horrible can be cool sometimes. 🙂
Part 1: This is the easy part. I want you to imagine that you’ve been kidnapped by a serial killer. He hasn’t done anything to you—not yet. He hasn’t touched you. He hasn’t even said a word. But he has you tied up in a dark, quiet place, and he’s sitting about five feet away from you, watching you.
Write that scene from your point of view. What are you thinking? What details are you noticing? What are you feeling? (And don’t just say “I feel fear.” Fear of what? Make me feel your fear!)
It doesn’t have to be a long scene. Maybe a paragraph or two. But put me in your shoes. This should pretty easy because you’re living in your own brain, imagining yourself in this awful, awful situation.
Part 2: Here’s where it gets fun and interesting. I want you to rewrite the same scene as in Part 1.
Only this time, I want you to write it from the point of view of the serial killer.
That person who, just a moment ago, you were worried about? That person—that you—that you cared about?
That person is just another victim to you, now.
If you can do this, then you’ll be well on your way to learning how to think like someone else, and you’ll have taken an important step on your way to developing your writing skills.