What true crime stories can teach us about fictional characters

I like to read true crime books, if they are well-written or if the case is interesting to me. And one thing I’ve learned about true crime stories— it’s all about the characters. There are some true crime books published every year because the murder cases garnered a few headlines and people want to read more. But the books soon drop out of sight, because most people don’t find the cases all that interesting.

Other cases— like those of Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and O.J. Simpson— remain of interest, no matter how much time goes by. Why is this? The difference is about the characters.

Some murders are almost routine. Armed robber kills victim. Pimp kills prostitute. Violent husband kills wife. Wife poisons husband— or a series of them— for the insurance money. These cases make headlines at the time, but most of them are quickly forgotten once the trial is over.

But the interesting cases are those with something special. A murderer that is notable and interesting— like O. J. Simpson, once the nation’s hero during his football career. Or perhaps an accused murderer that many believe is innocent, like Lizzie Borden. Or a sympathetic victim, like little Grace Budd who was lured away by Albert Fish and cruelly murdered.

Murderers aren’t normally the kind of people we want to spend time with, but the good true crime author presents the case as if it were a fictional tale with heroes and villains, and an ending that often brings a degree of closure.

Fictional stories are like that. It’s all about the characters. If the characters are dull and prosaic and walking stereotypes, the book is dull and you may not be able to finish it.

I knew an author that had a longish book out on Kindle. I read a lot of the beginning but I couldn’t find characters I much cared about or plotlines where I just had to know the outcome— perhaps because they involved characters that hadn’t caught my interest. But then the author wrote a novella about one of his more minor characters. He did a great job on the novella and on the Lead character. It still didn’t give me the inspiration to finish the longer book, though I did try. But my experience makes the point— the characters are the thing.

Many writers, like those with Asperger Syndrome or autism, lack the social skills and insight to learn enough about the real people around them to create book characters based on these real people’s traits. But reading books, both fiction books and nonfiction like true crime, allow you to benefit from some other person’s social insights. Of course, a true crime writer might be inaccurate about the details of some of the characters. Some writers repeat local gossip about a murderer to blacken that murderer’s name. I read a book about a woman who killed all of her own children, perhaps because of the mental disorder Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. The local gossips accused the woman of being part of a rumored witchcraft coven in the area. But the evidence seems to point to the idea that this woman was quite conventional and attended Christian churches.

Now, fictional characters are not exactly like real people. Each fictional character has a function in the overall plot of the story. Real life isn’t that neat. But learning more about real people, even through a habit of true crime fandom, can help you create more compelling fictional people.


OJ Simpson interrupts soap operas once again

OJ Simpson’s done it again— not the double-homicide which he got away with in spite of the blood trail that led to his house, but the other awful thing he’s done—- interrupting soap operas.

His trial caused my soaps to be interrupted so regularly that I think they never got their viewership back— which is why 2 of them were cancelled a few years back. And the other day my sole surviving soap, General Hospital, had a massively exciting episode featuring the kidnapping of a kid— only we had to watch OJ Simpson lying at his parole hearing instead.

I AM interested in the OJ case. I feel sad for the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had their lives cut short, and that their families never got to see the killer convicted. I feel horrible that Nicole Brown Simpson’s children had to be raised by their mother’s killer.

I even feel compassion for OJ. He’s a sinner like the rest of us. But I can’t help but think he’d be better off if he had told the truth.

Imagine if OJ, the second he got done with the murders, had experienced a moment of clarity. Imagine if he had run into Nicole’s house and called the police, announcing he had just killed his ex-wife and a friend of hers in a moment of madness, and he had kept proclaiming his guilt even when lawyers wanted him to try an insanity plea.

The crime would have been considered a crime of passion. There is a long history of men who catch their wives with a lover getting no jail time for killing the pair of them. Confessing immediately would have played into that. He might have been able to plead to some lesser sort of homicide and done very little jail time.

He would probably have lost custody of his kids, at least during his imprisonment. But that would have been good for the kids. It must be scary to have as your sole parent the dad that murdered your mom.

OJ would have lost a civil wrongful death case, as he did in reality. But with a criminal conviction there would have been little attention paid. And having owned up to his guilt OJ would not have been able to justify holding back his possessions from the Goldman family.

So— at the time of the robbery, OJ’s debt to the families of his victims would have been long paid off. None of OJ’s personal possessions would have been in the hands of memorabilia dealers, so he would not have gone to jail for nine years. His jail time for the crime-of-passion killings would be long over.

And right now, today, OJ would probably been looking back on years of gainful employment after the killing. No one would be yelling ‘murderer’ at him on the streets because he himself had acknowledged his guilt and paid the price. Even Fred and Kim Goldman would be close to being able to forgive by now, though they could never forget.

I kind of think that’s part of what the Bible means about the truth setting you free.


I think it would be a good thing for all of us who have followed the OJ case to take a moment to pray for all involved. Even OJ Simpson.

Celebrating H. H. Holmes, a very bad man


It’s Celebrate the Small Stuff day, and today I’m celebrating serial killer H. H. Holmes. ¬†Unlike what you may have heard in the promos for a reality show on the ‘History’ channel, Holmes was NOT America’s FIRST serial killer. In fact I know there are a couple of female serial killers who came before him.

Holmes was also NOT Jack the Ripper. Holmes’ killings were of people he knew and there was a money motive involved as well as the sadism. Would he really stop his serial killing in the US, go off to commit 5 or so slayings in England using a totally different M. O. and earn the nickname Jack the Ripper, go back to the US and commit killings in his normal method, and never even drop a hint in his confession?

Holmes wrote a tell-all confession after he was caught, which included some abortions (“illegal operations”) he committed. He listed a lot of his victims— some of whom were found alive.

He was caught because he killed a partner in crime in an insurance scam, and then took off with three of the partner’s children in order to claim the insurance. The three children were murdered. There was a nation-wide manhunt for Holmes and the children, and he was caught, but too late for the children.

Holmes constructed a building later known as the Murder Castle. It had two rooms in which victims could be gassed to death, a chute to the basement where there was a gas oven which could cremate bodies, and a walk-in vault in which women were left to suffocate. He stripped the flesh from some bodies and sold the skeletons to medical schools.

H. H. Holmes seems like an odd fellow to celebrate. But it was an interesting case, Holmes was caught, and he was executed so he was unable to kill more people. And now his great-grandson has his own reality show from it. Which would be more of a thing to celebrate if they had hired an experienced historical researcher to help. But of course then they couldn’t link the case to Jack the Ripper.

Another thing— H. H. Holmes committed so many more murders than the Ripper that trying to prove Holmes was the Ripper is a little like the Beatles trying to prove that they were the Monkees.

Visit the Celebrate the Small Things participants by following this link: http://lexacain.blogspot.com/