Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing is a psychological suspense novel. It’s twisted a story of plotting, murder, more plotting, more murder, and a little more plotting for good measure told through the POV of four different unreliable narrators (two of whom are undoubtedly morally relativistic sociopaths…you probably have a few of these gems in your Facebook friends list).
Although each of Swanson’s motley characters merit analysis in their own rights, it’s the protagonist, Lily Kintner, who compels readers the most. A reserved bookish type, Lily’s an unlikely lifelong murderess. Smart, sympathetic, and compassionate, Lily’s ability to justify her actions to herself and to readers makes her the kind of anti-heroine that readers hate to love.
Making a Murderess – It Starts with a Screwed Up Childhood
If Fitzgerald had penned a sequel to The Great Gatsby—one where we saw how Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s daughter Pammy grew up, she’d probably be something like Lily Kintner. Lily was raised by hedonistic, alcoholic, adulterous, inattentive parents in a large, remotely-located Connecticut home affectionately called Monk’s House. Often filled by strangers and visiting artists, Monk’s House was an unconventional place to raise a child.
Justifiable Homicide – Make the Guy Who Gets It the Kind Worth Killing
We meet Lily the summer of her first real murder (technically, her first was that of a stray cat who was harassing her beloved cat Bess). Lily’s oblivious mother, an artist named Sharon, has invited a lecherous child molester “outsider artist” Chet to spend the summer at Monk’s House. One night, during a party, Chet sneaks into preteen Lily’s room and touches her inappropriately. Having once observed her parents having sex on the beach when she was three, Lily knows what sex is, and she believes Chet plans to rape and murder her.
She considers talking to her mother but dismisses the idea believing that her mother will suggest that she should sleep with Chet or that her mother will blame her for Chet’s behavior.
After the murder, Lily waits to feel guilty; however, she has no remorse for ending Chet’s life. He was, after all, the kind worth killing, a predator. More than anything readers sympathize with Lily for having been put in such a predicament. Further, given how little we knew about Chet, no reader would champion him or mourn his loss.
Love is Nuts – Believe You’re the Vigilante, Be the Vigilante
With her next murder, a recurrent theme emerges in which Lily believes this murder will be her last. Lily’s second victim is Eric; Eric is Lily’s first love and college boyfriend who makes the fatal mistake of cheating on her and lying about it (ladies, sharpen your knives).
Believing that Eric will go on lying to others and hurting them, Lily does the world a favor and ensures Eric “accidentally” drunkenly eats nuts when he visits her in London and that he “unfortunately” can’t find his allergy medicine in time. Pity. At least Lily’s finished murdering now (dusts hands).
Once again, readers have limited perspective into Eric’s life, which means it’s easy to accept Lily's rationale that being the kind of person who compulsively hurts, uses, or abuses others makes one the kind worth killing. What’s more, Lily has already planted the central justification for committing murder, which is that we’re all going to die anyway. What’s the harm if a few bad apples are picked off a little sooner than nature intended? It’s simple logic that fuels Lily’s entire disposition on murder. The simple rationale allows Lily to believe herself to be the good guy and to think she’s the victim.
Lily Goes Apple Picking – Revenge is a Dish Best Served in Cold Blood
It’s at this point in Lily's life that Swanson’s novel actually begins. The novel starts with an adult Lily “coincidentally” meets a nice looking man (and Swanson's first narrator), Ted Severson, in an airport lounge. Lily recognizes Ted as the husband of the woman, Miranda, who stole her dead college boyfriend (life’s funny like that), but Ted doesn’t recognize Lily, and Lily doesn’t buy him any vowels on who she is or that she knows him.
A gin-swilling Ted confesses that his wife is cheating with their block-headed contractor, Brad Daggett--Brad's the guy who’s building their oceanfront McMansion in Kennewick. Ted “jokingly” confesses that he wants to kill Miranda. Lily surprises Ted by telling him that’s not a bad idea and then supplies her “we’re all going to die anyway” logic and that bad apples, like Miranda –and Brad for good measure (nobody likes dangling fruit), deserve to get plucked off early.
During a flight shared from London to Boston, Lily and Ted start plotting and agree to meet up later if they are still interested in going through with the plan. No pressure, am I right? Both Lily and Ted are attracted to one another and both show up for the meeting. It’s game on.
Unfortunately, the Ted and Lily never get the chance to ride into the sunset on the souls of the slain (they don’t even get past second base); Ted’s completely unredeemable wife, Miranda, has Brad murder her husband (twist!).
A Worse Kind of Murderer – Make Your Readers Choose Between Two Evils
With Ted dead, Miranda picks up the narrative slack. Now, Miranda and Lily are telling the story, and we learn that Miranda is just the worst. By her own admission, she married Ted for his obscene wealth and had no problem staying in a lackluster marriage for that level of swag; however, after a few years Ted’s little hiccupping snore and propensity for doting made him the kind worth killing.
Thus, compared to Miranda, Lily’s positively virtuous, and as a good virtuous heroine, when her potential future love interest is killed, she steps up and honors Ted’s legacy by going through with “the plan”.
As an aside, Lily justifies not telling the police she knows Miranda orchestrated Ted's death for a couple of reasons. One, she fears the police will screw up the investigation and that beautiful Miranda will bask in the limelight of the inevitable Lifetime movies for years. Also, Miranda just needs to die. Did you not catch that part about the college boyfriend?
After Miranda and Brad are dead, Lily swears she’s finished killing (seriously, for real this time, you guys).
Word Crimes – It Never Hurts to Say, “I’m Sorry.”
While all of this takes place, Lily’s attracted the attention of the lead detective in Ted’s murder, Henry Kimball. Detective Kimball steps in as Swanson’s final narrative voice after Miranda’s snuffed out. No, Kimball’s not suspicious of Lily (not much, anyway); he’s hot for her and comes up with reasons to see Lily to talk to her. He also starts stalking her, which is not okay. Even more offensive, he starts writing bad sexually-charged limericks about her (naturally making him the kind worth killing).
This time, though, Lily’s thwarted, and she’s arrested. She does little to fight back and isn’t sorry Kimball will live. The story concludes with Lily’s pending exoneration because they found Detective Kimball’s embarrassingly bad limericks; however, Swanson throws in one final twist in the last line that implies beyond a doubt that Lily’s career as a murderess will be uncovered. Oops.
So, Why Do We Love Lily? (& How Can You Create Equally Complex Characters?)
As you can see through the summary of Lily’s role in the book there are a few reasons the audience champions Lily despite the fact that she’s a sociopath who rationalizes committing the worst possible crimes against humanity.
- The audience gets the most face-time with Lily. Lily’s the only narrative voice that readers hear throughout the entire story; the majority of readers’ impressions are formed by Lily’s POV.
- Lily’s morally relativistic justifications for her crimes are simple and straightforward; they’re easy for the audience to accept.
- Other than Miranda, the audience never hears the voice or POV of Lily’s victims; the audience never observes any qualities making these characters even remotely redeemable or sympathetic.
- Lily and Miranda are just similar enough (both beautiful, clever, killers) that Miranda serves as an excellent foil for Lily. Miranda is the “evil” version of Lily and is the one who deserves her just desserts.
- Showing Lily’s neglectful childhood and sexual abuse help readers relate to her as a victim, not a villain.
- Swanson picked the right kind of crazy for Lily. Had she been a psychopath and had no affection for anyone, then it would’ve been hard for readers to champion her.
- Though she’s an unreliable narrator, readers really do believe that Lily would love nothing more than for “this” to be her last murder and for her to be able to spend the rest of her life alone “not hurting anyone.”
Swanson nailed the Lily Kintner character. Lily was so complex and dynamic that readers hated to see her go. Those are the kinds of characters you want to create in your writing--characters who are so bad they’re good…characters who can literally get away with murder (bada-boom).
If you’re worried your characters are falling short of your expectations, get feedback! Consult your peers, seek beta readers, and get a manuscript critique from a professional editor. Feedback will help you see where your characters are missing the mark and will give you detailed guidance on how you can breathe dimension into flat characters.