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TRUE CRIME WRITING: The Devil is in the Details

Jon James Miller advises finding the humanity in a character, especially one that society labels “evil” or a “psychopath” is essential, especially when writing true crime.

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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TRUE CRIME WRITING: The Devil is in The Details by Jon James Miller #scriptchat #amwriting

I was in film school when I met my first psychopath. He was a co-worker at the college commissary and a fellow psychiatry minor. We were in aberrant psychology class together and since we already knew each other, decided to be study partners. During one late night study session Ted (not his real name) and I gave each other the Hare Psychopathy Checklist that was developed in the 1980’s by Robert Hare for assessing and diagnosing the condition. By the end of that session, Ted and I knew two things: He was a psychopath and I was not. Needless to say, the walk home from the library together late that night was more than a little unnerving. But it was also fascinating and sparked a decades-long curiosity in me to understand what makes some of us more predisposed to become predators, and others prey.

Just 1 percent of the population qualifies as psychopaths. My friend Ted was charming to a fault (all the ladies loved him) and invariably made a good first impression on everyone he met. He was also incredibly self-centered, would often lie a lot for no apparent reason and could be callous and cold towards friends. He was also incredibly brilliant, had a wicked sense of humor and didn’t have a violent bone in his body. About the only crime I ever witnessed Ted commit was feeding the change machine at our local coin laundry with dollar bills he had copied on the color copier at school. As far as psychopaths go, that’s pretty benign stuff. Instead, Ted used his powers for good (mostly) and graduated at the top of our class.

So, why am I telling you about my psychopathic college friend? Because ever since Ted and I took the Hare Psychopathy Checklist late one night in an overheated library at the top of South Hill in Ithaca, New York, I learned a valuable lesson that has served me well as a writer: finding the humanity in a character, especially one that society labels “evil” or a “psychopath” is essential, especially when writing true crime. That’s because the best true crime stories capture all aspects of a criminal, not just the ones we normally associate with predators or psychopaths. Very often, the best true crime stories illicit sympathy for a criminal’s origins, or, at least an understanding of how and why they committed their crimes. I mean, as Norman Bates famously once said in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho: “We all go a little crazy sometimes.”

Of course, Norman Bates is a fictional character. But Ed Gein, the psychopathic killer who Robert Bloch based Norman on, was real. Gein fancied eating people AND making furniture out of them, which even by today’s standards is a little hard to take. Ironically, I do believe Gein’s story, vis-à-vis his fictional alterego Norman Bates, gave America an appetite (pardon the pun) for true crime stories. Our insatiable desire to understand how psychopaths do what they do, without remorse or guilt, gives a substantial amount of us a thrill - even as we condemn them for being monsters. We want to know what makes these maniacs tick. But the trick for any true crime writer is not to write them as maniacs – but rather render them as fully-dimensional real people. People who just happen to kill other people and not feel bad about it afterwards.

I find the more normal you can make someone who isn’t normal is a vital key to making a true crime story compelling. Who are these criminals, aside from their crimes? What are their interests, likes and dislikes? How do they function in society, and so often get away with their heinous crimes for far too long? These are integral details, the devil in the details, that gives an audience the ability to relate to a villain enough to want to know all about them. It’s that line, the line most of us thankfully never cross, where we think of doing evil to each other but stop ourselves short – that runs through every great true crime story. It’s thrilling to see criminals, passion killers, psychopaths and even your garden-variety sociopath cross that line. But without the personal details, the ones that make each devil human in his or her own way – then the thrill is muted and less compelling to an audience. That’s true for every genre, and a major advantage with true crime, in that the details are already there - you just have to have the patience and skill to carefully dig them up and bring them into the light.

Oh, and whatever happened to my friend Ted, the psychopath from film school, you may ask? He works in the entertainment industry and is quite successful.

Don't miss Jon James Miller's webinar
Devil in the Details: True Crime Documentaries and Podcasts



At a Glance:

  • Learn the documentary structure for true crime storytelling.
  • Gain a greater understanding of working with archival text, images and footage in creating a compelling, authentic documentary.
  • Understand how to research and craft podcast interviews that will bring insight and fascinating detail to true crime stories.