Diagnosing Literary Characters, One Murderer at a Time

Murder is contextual.

Meaning, the action of killing by itself tells us nothing about underlying motivation. A murder in war, for example, has an entirely different motive than a serial killer’s compulsive, methodical kills. It’s apples and oranges, really: both fruit on the outside, but very different on the inside.

If we want to understand the mind of a murderer, real or fictional, we need to understand motivation.

Truth is, murderers have motivations for their kills and they usually have a moral code, too. A skewed moral code, but it’s one which makes their kills make sense to them, nonetheless. And hey, when you’re driven to kill, who cares what everyone else thinks. Right?

These three fictional villains certainly don’t. Each one offers a chilling depiction of the psychological organization of a killer. Yet, all have a different motive. Things in murderville can be… um, complicated.

Symbolic Retribution

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Hannibal Lecter [The Silence of the Lambs], who is inarguably one of the most infamous fictional killers, has a strong moral code. In fact, he kills those who are rude, insolent bullies. This fits with the origin of his killing as retribution for the death of his sister, Mischa, who was killed and cannibalized leaving young Lecter traumatized.

Serial killers’ kills, like Lecter’s, are often symbolically significant. Lecter kills and eats victims who he experiences as humiliating others (or him) in an attempt to heal the deep wounds from his sister’s brutal death. If he keeps killing and eating the evils of the world, somehow he vindicates Mischa’s demise. This, of course, isn’t possible, but it motivates him, inspiring one of the deadliest fictional villains to kill.

Dissociative Rage

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And speaking of traumatized… Norman Bates [Psycho] is the epitome of victim turned perpetrator, gripping and haunting readers and film-goers for decades. Although, I don’t typically like formal psychiatric diagnoses, because it limits our comprehension of the nuances and complexities of human behaviors, Norman is an exception. His character fits the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (formally known as multiple personality disorder). This is a rare and dramatic reaction to severe trauma. Although we see forms of dissociative disorders clinically – for example, I worked with many people who suffered a dissociative reaction following 911 – the complete split in the psyche which corresponds with DID is very rare.

However, Norman’s severe reaction is believable. His mother Norma, a victim of trauma herself, created an incestuous relationship with her son, then to make him jealous, took a lover. The result is a young Norman tremendously conflicted by his sexual desires, because sexual arousal has become associated with his mother. When this happens, boys are very conflicted by normal arousal because they are simultaneously physically excited and disgusted. This type of conflict inevitably leads to highly ambivalent relationships with women.

In Norman’s case, it leads to killing his mother and her new man, the one whom Norman feels supplanted him. He poisons them. Traumatized even more, both by his own violent proclivities, as well as, the death of his mother, his mind splits. The murders are blocked out of his conscious thoughts and he takes on the role of his mother. His mind vacillates, depending on triggers – attractive women, who arouse him, in Norman’s case – between his dominant personality, Norman, and an alter ego, his mother, Norma – the killer. While in a dissociative state (as his mother) he kills those who evoke sexual desire, as an attempt to kill the desire within him.

Poor Norman is a sentiment I have heard. It’s almost hard to remember that he is a violent, deranged killer he is so sympathetic. Although, that being said, I don’t sympathize enough to take a room in the Bates Motel.

Betrayal

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Malignant, vicious Amy Dunne [Gone Girl] scared me more than Lecter or Norman. And that’s because her psychological make-up allows her to conceal her murderous proclivities from… well, everyone, including her parents and husband. In fact, Amy is able to control everyone’s perception of her. She’s smart, creative, entitled and so obsessive she will stop at nothing to bring someone down if she feels betrayed. And Nick’s infidelity does just that. He places himself unwittingly into the role of someone who deserves to suffer at her hand. Oh, and in the process she’ll just slash her ex-boyfriend across his throat, in the middle of sex, and leave him in a pool of blood – a small casualty. No biggie for Amy.

The scariest part of Amy Dunne is the extremes she will go to take revenge. This is vengeance at its finest and most harrowing. In order to carry out her plot, she spends a year scheming – a year focused on retribution! Anyone who would invest that amount of time in someone else’s demise is a frighteningly nefarious character. But maybe we can understand why: Amy’s identity is loose and unformulated. Her parents created a fictional Amy, Amazing Amy – an impossible paragon. No actual human could ever be as perfect as Amazing Amy, not even, intelligent, savvy, beautiful Amy Dunne.

Amazing Amy never got away with murder, though. Amy Dunne did. Perhaps that’s… something.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacqueline_Simon_Gunn_Headshot41cjiunu07L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_JACQUELINE SIMON GUNN is an esteemed clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a freelance writer. She received her M.A. in Phenomenological Psychology, another M.A. in Forensic Psychology and her Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology. She is the author of four non-fiction books, including co-authored, Bare: Psychotherapy Stripped, as well as many articles, both scholarly and mainstream. Circle of Trust is Gunn’s second work of fiction, and book two in her Close Enough to Kill trilogy. In addition to her clinical work and writing, she is an avid runner. Gunn is currently working on multiple writing projects, including the third book in her trilogy.

 

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