Dan Ellis Crime Fiction: Why Your Character Might Commit a Crime – What Can Social Science Tell Us?

“He was slouched in a worn armchair positioned in the centre of a cluttered dingy living room. The amber streetlight permeated through the yellowed net curtains. The flicker of the TV screen gently illuminated his motionless face. A burnt out cigarette was wedged between his bloody fingers, and his other hand gripped an empty bottle of scotch. For hours he hadn’t moved, contemplating what he had just done.”

If you write crime fiction, there is no doubt you’ve had a character in a similar scenario to this. They have just committed a crime, attacked someone, killed someone perhaps? The reasons why they may have done this are probably tied into specific events in the character’s life or their personality. Or maybe the plot is to blame – the treacherous conditions you have forced them to go through?

But if you are looking to base the characters’ actions in reality. To create a set of circumstances that are believable and grounded in widely accepted theory, social science can help. I want to take you through some basic criminological and sociological explanations (without the jargon!) of conditions that may push your character to do the dirty deed. Just some questions to think about when you are planning a story or building a character.

What sort of person is most, or least likely to murder someone? What sort of background or upbringing makes the ideal recipe for a criminal? Or what in particular about a society creates the ideal environment for criminality?

Are we in control of our actions?

Let’s take the individual. Do you believe that we are rational actors that make our own decisions? Or do you believe in the idea that there are bigger forces in play that push us into certain behaviours?

These are good questions to start with when creating a character or setting up the ‘laws’ of your story. Depending on which one you lean towards will result in different characters and suit different plots. For example, a rational actor that consciously makes their own calculated decisions is very different from an actor that is not in control and has been influenced by various factors that ultimately have made them act irrationally.

An area of criminology called cultural criminology suggests that people get a buzz from committing a crime, there is a certain thrill element. So here, the actor is fully aware of what they are doing and they have proactively planned to do it, or even built a sub-culture around it. Good examples here would be joy riding or graffiti.

Graffiti is an interesting one because many graffiti artists don’t consider it to be a crime in the first place. This is something else to think about in your story’s world – what sorts of crimes are taken seriously? If a certain type of crime is not heavily enforced or does not carry a particularly harsh penalty, are people more likely to do it?

What about a serial killer? An obvious type of criminal for a crime story. This generally tends towards psychological explanations, but sociology has something to say too. It has been found that many serial killers or people that have murdered someone have had a traumatic experience of sorts. Perhaps as a child they were abused or witnessed horrific violence.

These are probably the more popularised theories of crime given the amount of movies and books based on killers. But the question here is, are they making rational decisions – or have they been influenced by external factors that have pushed them to commit the crime?

Does our socio-economic background determine our criminality?

This area of social science asks what influence a person’s environment has on their actions. The example of a murderer’s upbringing I mentioned earlier is an example, but it is more than just childhood experience.

Take a thief. They may be choosing to steal or get a thrill out of it, or maybe they have a starving family and have no choice in the matter. But going deeper than this, if they live in a deprived area where the authorities are less present, it’s probably more likely that there will be more theft going on.

Broken Window theory suggests that if a certain type of crime appears in a certain area and is not dealt with, it will become more commonplace. So if a drug dealer starts dispensing on a particular road and is never approached by authorities, it’s likely that more dealers will start operating in that area – this can then affect the residents growing up in that environment – or your character!

They may have had a poor education, in the academic and social sense. In this case they may not have developed appropriate morals, or the line between good and bad is distorted. They may not comprehend or understand the consequences of their actions. In a similar way, they may not have fully developed their social interaction skills. Here, they may become agitated or violent just because they feel they are not understood, or struggle to get their point across to someone in a collected manner.

What sort of society creates criminality?

When you are deciding on the setting of your story, the country will make a big difference in how crime is represented. Crime in Western countries like Britain or USA will be very different to crime in third world countries like Libya or Niger.

Depending on how the fabric of society is weaved will affect how its citizens perceive and react to crime. The government is probably the most influential institution here. Does the government enforce its laws appropriately? Are they locking people up for no good reason or torturing people? All of this will affect each and every citizen. The better the country governs their society and responds to crime; the less likely crime is to occur (well, that’s the theory).

Similarly, how are the countries citizens treated? Are there extreme policies in place that pressurise people’s everyday lives? For example, austerity measures in Britain which make it difficult for people on low income to get by, coupled tensions and conflict between different groups. Or, if the government are seen to exclude a certain group of people in society, like youths, this could encourage disorder such as riots.

Another example of this, and again a very popularised one, is how the criminal justice system works. Is it fair? Is justice delivered? If a murderer is released without charge how might that impact the victims – it could lead to vigilantism. What about prisons, if your story is set in a prison, how are the inmates’ rights upheld? Are they physically abused? All of these factors will all affect how your characters behave in any given situation. So it’s worth checking out government policies or researching where promises haven’t been kept – anything that might push someone into angst and act irrationally.

So I hope that this has helped to get your creative juices flowing! There is definitely a lot to think about in creating a relatable criminal story, but social science has endless amounts of answers that can help add depth to a crime fiction story.

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Dan is the creator of the Facebook group ‘The Crime Writers Den’, aspiring novelist, and social science student. The group has enabled writers to connect with criminal justice professionals, to help with technical questions, and just to chat about crime in a fun and supportive environment.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/631273680370573/?fref=nf

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3 thoughts on “Dan Ellis Crime Fiction: Why Your Character Might Commit a Crime – What Can Social Science Tell Us?”

  1. Very well written and good delving. It does bash the frequent unlikely or nonsensical fiction scenarios for something much more believable and substantial. This is also why a character, characterization or detailed building, is so very important.

    Liked by 2 people

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