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Peter Swanson: empathy for the devil

There’s a neat little trick that director Alfred Hitchcock employed in his game-changing 1960 film Psycho. After Marion Crane is butchered in the shower, Norman Bates puts her body, plus all of her possessions, into the trunk of her car, then rolls the car into a nearby swamp. He watches as it begins to slowly disappear beneath the surface, but suddenly the car stops sinking, its rear bumper looming out of the swamp, and everyone in the audience is suddenly, instinctually, on the side of Norman Bates, willing the car to keep sinking out of sight.

It’s not sympathy, exactly, but it is a kind of empathy the audience feels. Villains have feelings too, and those feelings might be as small as the anxiety of having their plan go awry, or it might be the horror of a terrible childhood. The writer’s job, as I see it, is to try and convey the feelings of all of the characters, not just the protagonists and the victims.

In my new novel, All the Beautiful Lies, I split the narrative between Harry Ackerson, a recent college graduate trying to discover the real cause of his father’s mysterious death, and Alice Moss, Harry’s stepmother, a woman with her own dark past. Alice, without giving too much away, is a less than moral character. What interested me about her, however, was that she doesn’t see herself that way. Most villains don’t. She’s the hero of her own story, and Alice, in particular, sees herself as absolutely blameless. And as a writer I needed to get inside her head and feel that feeling as well.

It’s actually my favorite thing to do, writing the villains. Inhabiting a character is an act of extreme imagination. You have to place yourself in the mind of another person, and you can’t really do that well if you’re also judging the person. To be in someone else’s shoes means eliminating your own viewpoint. It is the foundation of good fiction. That doesn’t mean that books can’t have a moral viewpoint, but if that’s the primary motivation of the writer I think it shows. People are complicated and fiction, even (or especially) genre fiction, should be as well.

I just thought of another great moment from a Hitchcock film. At the end of Rear Window, the Jimmy Stewart character is alone in his apartment when the murderer from across the courtyard enters. We’ve only ever seen Lars Thorwald, played by Raymond Burr, through windows but when he finally confronts the man who knows he’s murdered his wife, he comes off as both threatening, but also sad. “What do you want from me?” he asks in a plaintive voice, and for a moment there is some empathy for him.

Having empathy for a villain should never trump the empathy one feels as a writer or reader for the victims of a crime. But I do think it’s incredibly important for the sake of the story that villains are given interior worlds. It’s their stories, too, after all, and it’s the writer’s job to elucidate them.

What are your favourite examples of empathy in crime fiction? Let us know in the comments below!

peter swanson
peter swanson
Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson’s debut novel, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, was described by Dennis Lehane as ‘a twisty, sexy, electric thrill ride’ and was nominated for the LA Times book award. His follow up The Kind Worth Killing, a Richard and Judy pick, was shortlisted for the Ian Fleming Silver Dagger, was named the iBook stores Thriller of the Year and was a top ten paperback bestseller.

Follow Peter on Twitter.

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