As a former CSI I tried to understand how the criminal thinks. It's impossible to consider every single motivation but there are some generalities that may aid investigators in uncovering certain clues. As an author I find this insight very valuable because weaving this mindset into your storyline gives a sense of realism I think readers respond to. Everyone wants to understand motive. It's how we begin to make sense of things and challenge our world view. As a reader I want to understand the motivations of the killer, victim, cops, and others too. It helps me understand why they do what they do.
I've talked to a lot of victims that ask me a simple question; "why me?". It's not a dumb question. While it is true that some victim's may just be int he wrong place at the wrong time (like a shark attack), others increase their vulnerability to crime and criminals (like joining a gang). So it's helpful to consider what types of factors criminals may consider when choosing a victim. I thought it would be simpler to frame the discussion within the topic of burglary. In truth, some of the selection criteria can be applied to other crimes as well but let's just stick with burglary for now.
Burglars typically choose a place to burglarize for one of three reasons. These are broad categories with some cross over but they will serve for the discussion.
- Inside knowledge (intelligence)
- Vulnerability with reward
- Opportunity (wrong place wrong time)
In the military this is called intelligence. You'd be amazed how often a burglary can be tied to intelligence. The world war two warning of "loose lips sink ships" actually works with criminals too. If criminals find out that you have things of value they may want to look for an opportunity to take them. I often say that many criminals want "easy" so you have to do your best to avoid helping them. Here are some of the biggest sources of "intelligence leaks" in the household.
- Children. Children are the worst. Kids love to tell stories and brag to their friends. "We just got a new computer", "My mom just inherited a bunch of money", "I just got a brand new XBOX", etc. Even when talking to 'trusted' friends the conversation may be overheard by others.
- Social Media. I am always amazed at people that tell the twitterverse that they are on vacation. They get on Facebook and say "Hey! We're a thousand miles away from our house and NO ONE is watching it". Many don't have the smarts to lie and say something like "Thanks God my brother is on leave from the Marine Corps and is watching the house with an attack dog!".
- Visitors to the house. This can be anyone from your son's new "gangsta friend", ex-boyfriend, or repairmen. We often don't consider what a stranger might see in our homes like jewelry being left out, or even where we keep money (when you pay a serviceman).
I link these two together because the burglar is more likely to exploit a vulnerability if they know there is a reward for their risk. One of the biggest vulnerabilities is easy access to the residence or business. Some of the biggest culprits are;
- Open garage doors
- Open windows or unlocked doors (houses and vehicles)
- Items of value with easy access (like a purse or wallet left on the front seat of your car)
This embodies the "wrong place, wrong time" meme. Obviously, the best way to avoid being in the wrong place is being more selective about the places we visit. I spend a fair amount of time in the back country of the Rocky Mountains. I feel much safer walking through the woods at midnight than an alley in many metropolitan cities. Some places are "wrong" for some folks no matter the time of day. Your characters may increase their risk of being attacked (mugged) because they are forced to go places they wouldn't normally choose. Maybe your PI has to go into a seedy bar or maybe somebody gets arrested and goes to jail for a few days. These exposures put them at increased risk. They may survive without incident but the tension is still there. From a criminal perspective it is literally the fly in the spider net. They simply wait for some unsuspecting victim to cross paths with them. The single attractive woman or suburban teenager with the iPod that has to ride a subway through the bad part of town at midnight.
Considering these factors when developing your plots, characters, and dialog will help explain the motivations of your characters and give a perspective for the reader when digesting the story. Remember, the motive has to align with the risk/reward calculus to be believable. A criminal won't rob a homeless man with a shopping cart full of old smelly clothes, empty liquor bottles, and a dead fish ;).