Dumb or Dumber

by Janis Patterson

I know when we write our villains we want them to be smart – smart enough, at least, to make our sleuth have to work to catch them, and look good when they do. If the villain isn’t a worthy opponent to our sleuth, the story is boring and not worthy of a book.

But is it like that in real life? Mostly, no. There are villains who lay complex plots with lots of red herrings and blind alleys or who skillfully cover their tracks, but they are – thankfully – rare. Let’s face it – most criminals are stupid, or they wouldn’t be criminals. There are even TV shows about how stupid some criminals are. Who hasn’t seen a film coverage of some burglar getting trapped in a chimney or a doggy door, or committing equal stupidities and having to be rescued by police?

Moving it up a level, murder/attempted murder/aggravated assault is a little different. Most burglars/thieves have to do some kind of pre-planning, however little and inadequate. Murder and its attendant variants can happen in the blink of an eye or be planned for a long time. The spur-of-the-moment murder is usually the easiest one to solve and in general is unworthy of our sleuths. If two guys are drinking and fighting and one of them ends up dead while the other is found still holding the gun… no book-worthy story there. On the other hand, the victim dead but seemingly asleep in a locked room… is it murder or is it natural death? If it’s murder, who among the victim’s many enemies did it? And how? That is a problem worthy of our sleuth!

So how do we do this in our writing? How do we make our villains into real people with hopes and dreams and desires? Remember everyone including villains is the hero of their own story – i.e., in their own mind. They have to have a reason for doing it, and never forget that whatever that reason is, it has to make sense to them. While killing someone because they wore purple on a Thursday seems absolutely mad to us, it must mean not only something but something very important to our villain. Remember those old super-hero cartoons of the 70s where the villain screams that he serves evil and does everything he does because it is evil? Doesn’t make much sense outside of a cartoon, unless the villain is a certified mental case, and I’m not sure even then the story is worthy of a book. Even the mad must have their logic, even if they are the only ones who can understand it.

Frankly I’m very glad that most criminals are stupid and therefore caught – in real life. In fiction, however, I love the crafty villain and the intrepid sleuth to be equally matched… at least, almost equally matched. I also like the sleuth and therefore justice to prevail. That makes a story worth reading.



11 thoughts on “Dumb or Dumber

  1. This is a great thread, and I think it offers some great advice for those of us who want to write about crime and mystery; I am uncertain whether I think criminals are ‘dumb’ or brilliant, and I suppose it depends on the crime, the victim and the perpetrator. In pre-9/11 days, surveillance cameras were not installed and we were left with ‘evidence’ that needed to be solved; however, cameras have helped a great deal. There are also various types of murderers to write and read about; think of the Zodiac Killer—still unsolved; Jeffrey Dahmer was caught and so were many others; I think many want to caught and earn their notoriety.


  2. Too many cops in my family. Criminals tend to be really stupid! But the smart ones are the most dangerous. People like Jeffrey Dahmer are the ones who come to mind when we think of intelligent criminals, and for whatever reason, we are fascinated with these psychopathic minds that are so flawed. The stupid criminals make us point and laugh at them, but it’s the smart ones that hold our interest. The question is why? We are repulsed yet drawn to them like magnets. We study them with the hopes of somehow figuring out what made them that way. What went wrong? Is it physical or environmental? Did they fail to get enough love as a newborn? We will probably never understand what makes someone wander off the rails. Thank goodness there are fewer smart real criminals then the numbers found in fiction. 🙂

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  3. Jails are full of stupid people. If the crooks were smart they wouldn’t get caught! But you’re right that fictional villains must be smart. “Columbo” had some crimes of passion, but what made them interesting was how the killer tried to afterward cover up the murder and establish an alibi. Never worked, of course.


  4. I learned how dumb most real murderers are my first year at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference. There is a murder scene and if you figure out the clues and solve it, you attend the next year’s conference free. I didn’t win, but when I found out who the murderer was, I was surprised at his stupidity. That’s when the police speakers told me that in most real-life murder cases, the murderer is unlike the complicated, conniving ones in our mysteries. Instead they are dumber than a post.


  5. I’m sure you’re right about real life criminals, but I do love meeting the crafty villains in fiction. Or the otherwise normal people pushed to despair (I hope that doesn’t say something about me!)


  6. “Most criminals are dumb otherwise they wouldn’t be criminals…” Funny and yet sadly so true!
    Great post.


  7. One of my favorite dumb criminal stories is about the bank robber — and Elmore Leonard was right about them: they’re pretty dumb — who after stealing a bag of loot in which a dye pack exploded went to another bank and tired to deposit the bills.


  8. Hi, Janis,

    My computer has been misbehaving this morning. Hopefully, my comment will go through.
    Yes, in real life I have known a dumb criminal personally. My aunt’s friend had one son who was a bank robber. He used his own car for the getaway and was quickly caught. Like you, I like my fictional perps to be clever and challenging to the intellect.


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