What Criminal Minds Taught Me About Creative Writing

One of my favorite TV shows on right now is the crime drama “Criminal Minds.” It’s different from the normal cop show. Usually it’s detectives following the clues, or sometimes the forensic evidence, trying to find out who dunnit. And both we who watch and the officers on screen don‘t know until the last fifteen minutes of the show.

“Criminal Minds” is different. It’s about FBI profilers who ask “Why did he do it?” in order to narrow their search and eventually capture the killer, or the rapist, or the kidnapper. Another way this show is different is that quite often we see who the criminal is before the end, sometimes from the opening shot.

What I love about the show is more than its unique approach to the crime drama genre, but the characters are wonderfully developed. Both the good guys and the bad guys are very interesting. You may want to Boo the villain, but he is still interesting, if not altogether creepy. I think about this show and it seems to me that “Criminal Minds” has something to offer the Creative Writer, particularly when it comes to character development.

Everyone Has Motivation

Like I mentioned, the FBI agents of “Criminal Minds” ask and answer Why did he do it? to find out who in fact did it. These profilers are terribly overtaken with the motive of the criminal, and it works. You often hear the agents talk of the unsub’s (FBI-speak for unknown subject) stressers and triggers. For example, an unsub might have been abused by his mother when he was growing up. That would be the stresser. And when his mother dies, that might be the trigger that sets this criminal off.

We can’t write interesting characters who do interesting things if we don’t know their motivations. People do what they do for a reason. Before we decide what our characters do, we need to know why they do it. This is not limited to antagonists. Each one of the agents has a reason for working for the FBI as a profiler. Even our heroes need motives, too.

Bad Buys Are Crazy

Almost always the lawbreakers on “Criminal Minds” are suffering from some sort of psychological disorder. To put it plainly, they are as crazy as a pet raccoon. We are all familiar with the mad scientist, and even the evil genius is somehow a little bit off. I remember how agent Graham told Hannibal Lektor in the movie “Manhunter” that even though the doctor was a genius he had the disadvantage of being insane.

I’ve talked to other Creative Writers who don’t like to make their bad guy crazy. They feel as if it makes it too easy for the hero to overcome him. But if done carefully, it could case more difficulty for the hero. The villain does not think the same way as the hero, which could itself be an obstacle to the good guy. We don’t have to have the bad guys ready for the straight jacket and the rubber room only to live out their days drooling into a cup. But something in their mind is not right. And let’s face it, crazy people are fun to write about because they are so different. And for that reason, that are a pleasure to read.

Even Good Guys Struggle

Each of the FBI agents have difficulties in their lives, and this often lays over into their professional life. We have seen agents on the show deal with everything from drug use, poor heath, divorce, loss of family to death, failed relationships, and even the stress of another job offer. And maybe the biggest source of stress for these agents is their bureaucratic boss. She really gets on my nerves. Our main characters should have other difficulties in their lives that just the conflict of the plot. This adds layers to our writing and helps build tension throughout our stories.

Some of the most basic struggles for these people are the same ones we all deal with, the internal struggle. The cares and anxieties of life can distract us or complicate our attempts to get done what needs to get done. We see this also in the lives of the profilers on “Criminal Minds.” Without these difficulties, our characters and our stories fall flat. Consider the example of Hamlet. His external conflict is avenging his father’s death. But his internal conflict is “To be or not to be.” This might be the greater difficulty for Hamlet. And let’s face it, it often is for each one of us. If we all struggle with common difficulties and basic affairs of life, then why not our heroes? To create this tension gives our hero more to overcome and makes his triumph that much more grand, or his failure that much more pathetic.

If you regularly watch “Criminal Minds,” then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t watch it, start now. You’ll be thoroughly entertained, and maybe like me you’ll gain some insight about Creative Writing. If you found this article of some value, please Share it with other Creative Writers. And I would love to know what you think, so leave your Comments in the section below.

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