Slashing Your Way Through Backstory?


Part 2: Motivation

If Jack the Ripper had a writer’s tool box instead of a medicine bag he could have written more tales of horror, blood and mutilation instead of being the instigator of terror to just a half dozen women. (The number of victims is unclear.) And if Jack the Ripper had written stories of his illegal misbehaving we might at least have an accurate account of who he was and why he hated immoral women. Well, all women. (This was a guy who collected wombs in jars) But what Jack the Ripper does, even though he’s been dead for a very long time, is teach us that life isn’t always neat and tidy and that the enigma of a character, whether real or fictional, has lasting effects on the mind. It burrows deep into the subconscious and it makes us ask the question, why? Why did he commit those atrocities? I want to know.

Why? That three letter word is the reason we tend to keep reading about someone as horrible as Jack. We as readers and writers want to know what drives a character into doing what they did. Okay. There are many theories about Jack’s motive. We will never really know why he did what he did. Conspiracy or not, the man evaded being caught. That’s why we’re fascinated by him. What a character. So let’s (pardon the pun) dissect the questions that popped into my head.

I ask myself what drove Jack the Ripper. What or who pushed him over the edge?

1)      His mother:

  • Was his mother a whore? (In actual fact she was.) What kind of life did she bring him into?

2)      Was he browbeaten by a wife perhaps?

  • Did people mock him for not wearing the pants?

3)      Did he kill because he wasn’t able to fulfill his duty as a man?

  • Did a prostitute laugh at him? Embarrass him. Did many?

Those questions are all related backstory. The history of your character gives you the reasons for the motive. Would a reader believe in a character, sympathize or empathize with someone as sinister as Jack if he had the sweet life every boy dreamed of? If he had the most beautiful wife who gave him bountiful sex or a loving mother who taught him that God will sort out the sinners. We don’t know the real backstory of Jack the Ripper but it is essential for you as a writer to know your character’s backstory, every little sordid detail. You don’t necessarily have to write everything in the story, but you definitely have to know it.

Here are some more questions:

4)      Was he just a misunderstood gynecologist?

5)      Assuming he was a surgeon or a medical man of some sort why did he want to dissect a cadaver whilst it was still warm?

6)      Or, he didn’t make it into medical school because he had spent his fortune on Mollies.

This also relates to backstory, even if it is in the present. He has made choices in his past that have led him to the moment of slicing and dicing and the taking out of … it’s just too gross.

7)      So he cut the women’s throats:

  • Was it to silence them?
  • Was it because he wanted them to die slowly?

8)      He mutilated their faces(which got progressively worse):

  • Was it because he knew them?
  • Was it because he was feeling guilty?
  •  Was it because he was playing out a fantasy he would like to do to someone else who he was obsessing over or couldn’t live without?

9)      The dissection of what makes a woman different to a man?

  • Did he have womb envy?
  • Was it the final act of male domination?

Animals kill differently than humans. Their tools include claws, teeth, speed and strength to get the job done. A psycho has his method and tools of the trade too. For Jack the Ripper, he had a scalpel. The method of killing is important to further character development. He was not sloppy. He had ample opportunity and plenty of time. Remember, he slit their throats, cut up their faces, then did all those things that make every woman want to cross her legs. For him it was close and personal. So method is important. He was a methodical man, he took his time. That says a lot about a character. Modus Operandi gives an insight into the dark side of any killer.

10)   Could the reason for killing the women of the night simply be because he was less likely to get caught? He needed the darkness and of course no respectable woman in 1888 would be seen out at night on the streets of London by herself. How improper indeed.

  • Did he have a day job?
  • If he was married, did he have to wait for his wife to fall asleep?

Let’s not forget that scenery, the place, time and era are all just as important. Location, location, location. Ask yourself, could Jack the Ripper in today’s technological era get away with the crimes? There are so many more eyes in the world, , cameras, mobile phones, people preoccupied with seeing if they can witness something a little out of the ordinary. Could he have done it in the day time and if he had chosen respectable women would he have been able to get away with it? If Jack’s victims were mothers of two and church goers, would the police have made a more aggressive effort to find him faster?

There are a hell of a lot more questions I could ask, but that would mean a 10,000 word essay on the matter and I hate essays.

It’s a lot of fun getting to know what your character’s motives are. The reason I chose Jack was because he never got caught and therefore nothing is really known about him, but boy, we would love to know, right. That’s the power of mystery. We want to know. Take that into consideration with any character your write about. They don’t have to be scary or monsters. They can be everyday people. The only thing is you have to make us think there’s more to this person and to want to get to the bottom of it, to want to find out what makes this person someone of interest.

I did have another question but unfortunately it has sparked an idea that I don’t quite want to share. It was one of those questions that would make you think outside the box. But the unique take on the Ripper was too much to pass up.

I’ll keep you posted.

Rip into writing

Dissect every character and have fun doing it

E. J. McLaughlin


2 thoughts on “Slashing Your Way Through Backstory?

  1. ddigman says:

    I am currently down with the ‘flu and am frustrated with my inability to get to work! When I saw your post about Dear Old Jack, I had to comment!

    Without making any truly cutting remarks, I too question Jack’s motivation. There is one observation about that I would like to raise.

    “1. But what Jack the Ripper does, even though he’s been dead for a very long time, is teach us that life isn’t always neat and tidy and that the enigma of a character, whether real or fictional, has lasting effects on the mind. It burrows deep into the subconscious and it makes us ask the question, why? Why did he commit those atrocities? I want to know.”

    I absolutely agree about the effect that Jack’s career has upon our thinking, but the above quoted passage raises an interesting point: Jack’s killings were generally very neat and tidy. Surgically neat and tidy. The incident involving the “Double Killing” in the wee small hours of Sunday 30 September 1888 serves as a case in point.

    It is estimated that at approximately 12:45 am on that day, Jack murdered Elizabeth Stride. That slaughter was interrupted by the arrival of Israel Schwartz, a local resident. Then, less than an hour later, at approximately 1:35 to 1:45 am, Jack killed and slaughtered Catherine Eddowes.

    The slaughter of Elizabeth Stride was incomplete, but nonetheless neat and tidy.

    It has been shown that Catherine Eddowes’ killing was more frenzied than the other killings, and her entrails were placed on more dramatic display (read an account here: Some have surmised that Jack was frustrated by the interruption of Israel Schwartz, and so he took that out on Miss Eddowes.

    Nonetheless, Jack’s partial vivisection (and there are reasons to call it a partial vivisection, not a mere dissection) of Catherine Eddowes was completed with surgical precision, albeit in a frenzied fashion.

    This is the main conundrum about Jack: the degree of deliberation and cold-hearted surgical precision he showed.

    I think this presents a real challenge in working out his motivations.

    Why the stone cold-hearted precision?

    Some have suggested that Jack must have been either a surgeon, a dentist or perhaps even a butcher.

    Whilst I would discount none of these options, why oh why could he not simply have been a surgical hobbyist? Self-taught in the art of animal and human vivisection? Perhaps he may have acquired a copy of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, using it as a “cut by numbers guidebook” when he was teaching himself.

    Just a few cheery thoughts to entertain us as we nestle into our warm beds for the night.

    Love the post, and love the blog!

  2. Sue Gannon says:

    You make a good point. Let’s not go for the easy or the obvious explanation for a character’s behaviour. After all, we are writers. We’re supposed to have a working imagination.

    I love the notion of a surgical hobbyist, almost as much as I love the notion of a “cut by the numbers guidebook”!

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