Thursday, October 24, 2013

Guest Blog- Writing Authentic Characters by Pete Klismet

Today I welcome Pete Klismet, former police officer, Special Agent, FBI profiler, and college professor, who tells us about writing authentic characters.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, if a novelist wanted to create a criminal profiler as a main character, what things would be important to include in the character’s abilities or tendencies to make the character realistic?

There is one common thread I’ve seen in the best criminal profilers I’ve ever worked with, including two of my mentors – Robert Ressler and Roy Hazelwood.  Bob was one of the brightest and quickest people I’ve ever known.  He was a brilliant guy who had the foresight to see into the future and understand the potential of criminal profiling.  Bob’s approach was somewhat ‘shoot from the hip,’ but the neurons in his brain operated at a speed unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.  He had a unique ability to assess information and very quickly make connections which were invariably correct.

Roy, on the other hand, was like a pit bull, doggedly determined, patient, methodical and thorough, almost to a fault.  I told him one time that he reminded me of a kid who would take a radio apart and have pieces laying all over the place. However, what made him different was he could take the parts and put ‘em all back together, and the radio would work!

They were two of the best ever, yet completely different personalities.  The one thing I saw as being common to both Bob and Roy was they had the ability to apply ‘common sense’ to situations that seemed to be overwhelmingly complicated, and suddenly all of those things made sense.

John Douglas completed the triangle of what I still call the ‘Top Three.’  Douglas was probably the best profiler ever.  John, however, possessed an ability to see things very few could see, and using great common sense, could determine the ‘why’ of a crime better than anyone.  He’s still called the “Modern Sherlock Holmes.”  Deservedly so.  The character Jack Crawford in “Silence of the Lambs,” was based on John, who himself has authored quite an impressive number of books.

As an example of how common sense played into a major investigation, one case comes immediately to mind: In Atlanta in the 1980’s, young black boys were being killed at an alarming rate.  Ultimately the death toll reached 33.  During the investigation, Roy Hazelwood was brought down in an effort to provide a profile of this prolific serial killer.  The common belief was the killer was white, probably a member of the KKK.  Roy was with 3 detectives, looking around the area where most of the kidnappings occurred.  All of the detectives happened to be black. 

Suddenly, Roy noticed that all activity stopped and people were looking at the four of them.  He asked a detective what that was about, and the reply was “There’s a white guy (Roy) in the area.”  From that, Roy concluded the killer had to be black, a person who could move around freely without being noticed.  This was not a popular opinion, but it turned out to be correct when one Wayne Williams was arrested and ultimately convicted for the murders.
Here again, there was no psychic insight involved.  Simply assessing a situation, seeing it for what it was, and applying common sense to come up with a solution and answers.

During the investigation, John Douglas came to Atlanta to help Roy.  After the coroner made a public statement that they were getting good forensic evidence off the bodies which had been found, John made a prediction to investigators.  He said, “The next body will be found in a body of water.”  So, surveillances were established in likely places.  Sure enough, about a week later, an officer on surveillance under a bridge over the Chattahoochee River, heard a big splash.  He then saw a car leaving and stopped the driver. 

With no further evidence to go on, the officer took the driver’s information and description of the car.  A day or so later, the body of Nathaniel Cater was pulled from the river.  Sure enough, the person who threw the body over the side of the bridge was Wayne Williams.  This was the critical link in breaking the case, all because of a criminal profiler’s experience, knowledge, and the use of common sense in his assessment of the overall situation.

The point of this would be – when you’re writing an article about a profiler, don’t give him or her supernatural or psychic powers, because a true profiler relies on his or her training, experience and common sense.

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Pete served two tours in Vietnam on submarines, attended college in Denver, then was a police officer in Ventura, California for ten years. He was appointed a Special Agent in 1979 and retired 1999 after 30 total years of law enforcement service. Pete was one of the original ‘profilers’ in the FBI, serving in four FBI offices. He was named the 1999 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by a national organization. Having recently retired as a college professor, Pete and his wife Nancy live in Colorado Springs, CO.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great post, Pete! Plenty for authors to think about. I remember that case in Atlanta, thanks for sharing.

Jackie Taylor Zortman said...

Another great post, Pete. Like Marilyn, I also remember that case with the boys in Atlanta years ago. Interesting to read about what makes a great profiler.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to 2 dear friends and very important people to me. I've been on so many blogs now (haven't been on Jackie's, but not sure if my stuff would work there). And Jackie, I'm sorry about my lack of diligence in eMailing you. Miss Nancy and I have been trying to clean out her dad's hangar @ the airport. As I may've said, he's a hoarder, and we've been involved with this almost every day for the past 2 weeks. A gift that keeps on giving.

Thanks for your comments and love you both.....Hugs........Pete

Holli said...

Thanks Pete for guest blogging for me today. People love reading about profilers, because usually it means there's a scary monster to catch.

marja said...

Pete, I'm a huge fan of common sense, and occasionally coincidence. Excellent post! More people should use their common sense. Oh, and I enjoyed the example you gave us.
Marja McGraw

Anonymous said...

Marja........thanks for your comments. It's always good to see that someone reads the stuff I write!!!


Anonymous said...

Holli....don't hesitate to call on me for future articles. I find posting on blogs to be a lot of fun.