Have you ever wanted the villain to win?
Or maybe not win, but at least have things turn out okay for them?
Indie author Susan Kraus has written two books that exemplify the art of the three-dimensional villain. She draws on her experience as a therapist and mediator to present both sides of the story, even when the bad guy’s side seems at first glance not to make sense. Her exceptional character development provides insight into the motives behind seemingly impenetrable actions and forces the reader to question their own biases, even against people whom it would be easy to hate.
In the first novel, Fall From Grace, therapist Grace McDonald is targeted by a stalker after her counseling enables a formerly repressed woman to leave her abusive husband. Danny, the ex-husband, blames Grace for the dissolution of his family and takes vengeance by murdering her husband in their home. After a handful of unfortunate circumstances, Grace is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted. Only the interference of Mandy, Danny’s ex-wife, leads to the truth of Danny’s guilt and exonerates Grace.
This book is quite a ride, with rapid, thriller pacing and a dramatic climax between Danny and Mandy. The writing style is acceptable, though a smattering of typos will annoy meticulous readers. But Kraus’s true achievements lie in her characters.
Danny is not portrayed as the typical villain who was abused as a child and now hates the world, the end. On the contrary, Kraus takes us inside his mind and shows us his reasoning: Why he feels he was wrongly divorced by Mandy. How much he wants her back. How much he cherishes their son. How he tries to change his personality and actions to win her affection. How confused he is when this doesn’t work. How he sees Grace’s conviction as a sign from God that he was right, rather than a horrible development from his own crimes. For every wrong thing Danny does, we understand exactly why he does it. We see how it makes sense from his point of view.
At the end, we even feel sorry for him and want to see him turn his life around.
Keep in mind that this man is an abuser, stalker, control freak, and cold-blooded murderer.
Yet we kind of want a happy ending for him.
So, why does this happen?
It’s because we understand him. We walk a few miles in his shoes. Kraus expertly utilizes her therapy experience and shows us the inside of the villain, rather than just his external choices. She shows us what makes him tick. She shows us his regrets and humanizes him through his emotions. She lets us see the potential for redemption, even when that redemption isn’t forthcoming.
This has been attempted frequently by thriller authors, but rarely does a novel bore so deeply into the psychology of the criminal and attempt to show things from his point of view. Rarely does an author bring such a profound understanding of abnormal psychology to the table and put it on the page. As a therapist, Kraus no doubt had to get inside her clients’ heads, and in her novels she takes us there with her.
We see them as people, not just maniacs who exist to provide challenges to the protagonists. In many ways, the villains are the real main characters of these books, and the heroes are there to react to them. The villains make the choices that drive the story.
In the second novel, All God’s Children, things get political when the villains we’re supposed to understand are the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing at funerals and proclaiming the hatred of God for America and its people. Grace McDonald must mediate a custody case between a woman in the church and her former boyfriend, with whom she had a son.
It would have been ridiculously easy to characterize the WBC as a stereotypical cult – “they’re bad; we’re good.” Indeed, things start out that way. The reader hopes, along with the protagonists, that the boy David will be able to spend the rest of his life with his dad, outside the influence of the WBC.
In the end, that happens.
Except we no longer think it’s a good idea.
Where it would have been simple to write a good vs. evil story and go off on tangents about the controversial beliefs of the group, Kraus instead keeps the focus tightly on David and his welfare. Through meticulous research and her ability to portray her characters’ motives, not just their actions, she shows us that both parents want what is best for David; they just have different views about what that means.
We see the good parts of David’s childhood in the WBC. We see his deep attachment to his parents and extended family. We see him grow slowly closer to his father. We see his desire not to upset the delicate balance between the two worlds where he lives. He begins asserting his own identity, and we cheer for him, hoping he will be able to retain what he likes about his former life while connecting to his new one. Such is the purpose of joint custody mediation.
David’s father also realizes how David loves his mother and would be devastated to be apart from her. In the end, when David winds up living with his father full-time (and you’ll never anticipate how that’s going to happen), both the father and the reader realize it might crush him irreversibly. The book ends on a somber note, as David’s future is uncertain despite him now having everything the “good guys” wanted at the beginning of the story.
Kraus is unafraid to show the good parts of her villains or the bad parts of her heroes. She lets the protagonists doubt themselves and doesn’t provide easy, feel-better-now answers. Sometimes the villains might be right. Sometimes the heroes realize that too late. The reader leaves each book still on the side of the protagonists, but a little closer to the dividing line between them and the “bad guys.”
At the very least, the reader comes away with understanding. And understanding is the first step toward empathy.
If you like to challenge your beliefs and expand your understanding of people who seem impossible to comprehend, read these books. They’ll take you for a dramatic, plot-filled ride, and teach you about humanity along the way.