30 May 2015

Rooting for the Bad Guy

A few days ago I found myself in an unusual situation. I was between books (I'd just finished reading one and hadn't yet started another), I was between stories (I'd just finished writing a mystery that I've since submitted and I hadn't yet started writing another), and I--for once--didn't have anything new from Netflix to plug into the DVD player. Since I was too lazy to move from my recliner and wasn't in the mood for Dancing With the Stars (I can't recall ever being in the mood for Dancing With the Stars), I fired up Apple TV and began looking for something to stream.
Atticus Finch Has Left the Building

What I found was Payback, a 1999 movie with Mel Gibson. I remembered watching it years ago, and remembered it mainly because he played a thief named Porter, a renaming of the "Parker" character created by the late Donald Westlake. This movie was in fact a remake of the 1967 film Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, which was adapted from Westlake's novel The Hunter. Anyhow, something like that sounded just right for both my temperament and my timeframe, that night. I remembered something else about the appropriately-titled Payback, too: its logline (the little teaser phrase that had appeared on the movie posters and the DVD boxes) was "Get ready to root for the bad guy."

Root for him I did. The casting helped, of course. Mel Gibson, like James Garner and Tom Selleck and Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds and George Clooney and Paul Newman and a very few others, is hard to root against--even when he's an outlaw and a killer. Beyond that, though, I found myself wondering if there might be a lesson in the plot, for mystery/crime writers. It seems that's it's okay for your protagonist to be a bad guy as long as (1) he has some kind of personal code of honor regarding right and wrong and (2) there are others in the story who are even worse than he is. Hoping that your readers will sympathize with your hero/heroine just because he/she is the lesser of the evils would appear to be a risky business, but it seems to work. Of the four short stories I have coming out soon (EQMM, Crimespree, The Saturday Evening Post, and an anthology), all four feature criminals as the main characters--and I think they were even more fun to write than if they'd had regular law-abiding protagonists.

The Good, the Bad, and the Questionable

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some unlikely heroes that movie and TV audiences pulled for:

- Tony Soprano
- Michael Corleone and family
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Thelma and Louise
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Chili Palmer, Get Shorty
- Henry Hill, Goodfellas
- Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction
- The cat people in Cat People
- Thomas Crown
- Danny Ocean
- Hud Bannon
- Cool Hand Luke Jackson
- Cat Ballou
- Walter White, Breaking Bad
- Verbal Kint (Keyser Soze), The Usual Suspects
- Most characters in any Quentin Tarantino film
- Most characters in any adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel
- Marion Crane, Psycho
- Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler
- Abby Marty, Blood Simple
- Stuntman Mike, Death Proof
- The Man With No Name, Sergio Leone's westerns
- Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones
- Those trying to get away in The Getaway
- Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, Top Gun
- Red and Andy, The Shawshank Redemption
- The three escapees in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- The two stingers in The Sting
- William Munny, Unforgiven
- Django, chained or unchained
- Pike Bishop and his Wild Bunch
- Nancy Botwin, Weeds
- Frank Underwood, House of Cards
- The heated bodies in Body Heat
- Snake Plissken, Escape From New York
- Frank Morris, Escape From Alcatraz
- Ben Wade, 3:10 to Yuma
- Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire

Two questions. First, can you think of any good "bad" characters that I missed? (I intentionally left out borderliners like Han Solo, Shane, Ferris Bueller on his day off, etc., as well as otherwise good folks who went bonkers like Norman Bates and Jack Torrance and Annie Wilkes. And I know you're probably saying to yourself that Maverick in Top Gun wasn't really a bad guy. You're right, he wasn't--but he was an unlikely hero for that situation. He was a reckless, Smokey-and-the-Bandit troublemaker, a loose cannon rolling around on the deck, and that's usually not the kind of guy you want piloting an F-14.)

Second question. Do you as writers sometimes use bad guys as your protagonists? If so, why? If not, why not? I read somewhere that Lawrence Block had a few misgivings before launching both his Bernie Rhodenbarr (burglar) series and his Keller (hit man) series--probably because of how hard it would be to make those protags likable and acceptable to the reader. Thankfully, he did it anyway.

The Rise of the Anti-Hero

I haven't counted them up, but I figure at least ten percent of my short stories have featured lawbreakers, or at least lawbenders, as the main characters. Almost any heist story or revenge story relies on that, and I've done a lot of both. In that regard, I'm always comforted by the old saying that law and justice are two different things. I think readers will sometimes accept and forgive illegal behavior if it's done for the greater good and if the end justifies the means. That's probably the sole reasoning behind the series Dexter, as well as the reason for its success.

The thing is, even when our heroes are basically good men and women, they're rarely perfect. Rick Blaine was an alcoholic, Inspector Clouseau an idiot, James Bond a stone killer, Sherlock Holmes a drug addict, Randall McMurphy a nutcase, Conan a barbarian. In our real lives we try to choose as our friends people who are sane and kind and honest and decent; in our fictional creations we (writers) try to choose as our characters people who are not. As Nicolas Cage said to Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, this ain't Ozzie and Harriet.

Another quote. In an online article called "The Rise of the Anti-Hero," pop-culture enthusiast Jonathan Michael said, "Perhaps it's the darkness that reels us in, because we relate to the darkness. But even so, we hope for the light."

Tell that to Hannibal Lecter.


  1. Great analysis of the anti-hero, John. And a great list, too. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say "law and justice are two different things." Isn't that what Dirty Harry is all about or Death Wish all about, getting justice when the "law" doesn't work. And there's a couple more movies (movie series) and characters to add to your list. Harry and Paul Kersey.

  2. Even though he's covered in " Most characters in any adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel," I have to mention him by name -- Boyd Crowder, from TV's "Justified." Even his nemesis, Raylan Givens, liked him deep down. (And Raylan, himself, wasn't as far from being a 'bad guy' as he might have believed.)

    Really miss that show ....

  3. John, don't forget Donald Westlake's John Dortmunder, who's kind of a hapless comic version of Parker.

    Then there were the "charming" crooks like Erle Stanley Gardner's Lester Leith; Louis Joseph Vance's Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf; Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin; E.W. Hornung's Raffles; and television's Alexander Mundy from "It Takes a Thief." They mightve been nice guys, but they were nonetheless dishonest and therefore anti-heroic types.

    I think it could be argued that Mike Hammer is far from a nice guy type.

  4. My Goddaughter series definitely fits your question, John! I write a heist series featuring a mob goddaughter. She doesn't want to be one - "You don't get to choose your family," she says. But she's always being dragged back in, to bail them out. It's tricky, sustaining a series with such a protagonist. It's certainly something I couldn't have done as a new writer (I've been kicking around since 1989). The other problem I have encountered: my film agent is in discussion with two companies, but the question is whether one will be comfortable filming a comedy about a mob family. You can be serious about the mob (Sopranos.) But satire? Not everyone is comfortable with that.

  5. Thanks, Paul. It was fun trying to remember all these folks, and yes, of course I should've included both Harry and Kersey. As is almost always the case, the first movie in both those "series" was the best, but the popularity of both heroes was such that a lot of sequels was practically guaranteed. As for Kersey, especially, vigilante "justice" always appeals to readers and viewers.

    Larry, you're right, both Raylan and Crowder belong in that group. I heard somewhere that Leonard considered Justified one of the better adaptations of his work. I even liked the (too)-short-lived series Karen Sisco, based on a U.S. Marshal from one of Leonard's short stories and from his movie Out of Sight.

    Barry, good to see you here, old friend! Yep, I loved the Dortmunder novels, and he certainly qualifies. (If I recall, he was portrayed on screen by--among others--George C. Scott and Robert Redford.) Thanks for all your additions to to my list. Mundy was probably the most glamorous and appealing of those you mentioned, and he of course brings to mind another cat burglar, played by Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. I seem to have left out more names than I included!

  6. Good points, Melodie! Yes, your Goddaughter series fits right in, here, and yes, it is hard to walk the fine line between good and evil, in making such characters not only acceptable but likable. I wish you the best, on adapting that series to film--I think it would result in some great movies.

  7. I was going to add Dortmunder. He was also played by Christopher Lambert, Paul Le Mat, and Martin Lawrence. Plus two furriners in European flicks. At the risk of a spoiler, I love the fact that the last time we see Dortmunder, in Westlake's last novel, he is firmly walking AWAY from a woman in distress. Definitely a bad guy, but a lovable one, because everything goes wrong for him.

    I have a novel that is supposed to be out next month. (Things are happening so SLOWLY.) The main character is a very bad guy who discovers that his bad deeds have consequences for the planet. He remains a bad guy, but a somewhat different one...

  8. Dortmunder was one of a kind. I've not yet made my way through all those novels, but I love the ones I've read.

    Good luck with the upcoming novel, Rob--I look forward to seeing it.

  9. I've written a few stories where the guy telling them is a leg-breaker for the Irish mob, New York in the late 1940's, and the advantage is that it's liberating. Mickey Counihan may not be on the side of the angels, but he usually winds up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. And he doesn't have to play by the rules.

    The thing about Parker, at least in Westlake's books, is that he's utterly ruthless. Lee Marvin is closer to the character than Mel Gibson - and he's also been played by Robert Duvall and Jason Statham. Westlake's trick, as John points out, is that the people Parker's up against are even worse. I'm reminded, too, of PRIME CUT, about a mob war in the meat-packing business, where Lee's the big-city enforcer and Gene Hackman the local boss.

  10. David, I agree completely: Lee Marvin makes a better Parker than Gibson does. (He's got that voice going for him, for one thing.) I knew about Statham, but I did NOT remember that Duvall has played that role--I'll have to go back and find that one. And yes, Marvin and Hackman make great baddies in Prime Cut (I remember seeing that movie in the base theatre in my Air Force days--I think admission was fifty cents).

    This might be oversimplifying, but I think we as readers/viewers are fascinated by the occasional presence of goodness in otherwise less-than-good characters. Last night as I was bingewatching Game of Thrones, a vicious killer (a Wildling archer played by Rose Leslie) happens upon a woman and a baby, hiding in a village that the Wildlings are in the process of overrunning. They're killing everyone in sight, right and left, but when this stonehearted murderer discovers the cowering woman and child, she draws her bow, studies them for a long moment, and then shushes them with a finger to her lips and leaves to find others to massacre. That's good writing, and makes for a memorable scene.

  11. I recommend another recent Mel Gibson film also available on NetFlix, Get the Gringo. Robber, killer, prison inmate… he manages to save a mother and son.

    I also recommend two foreign thrillers, Diva, where the protagonist makes bootleg recordings, and my old favorite, The Alzheimer’s Case, centered around a hit man with failing memory.

  12. Leigh, Get the Gringo reminded me a lot of Payback, while I was watching it. Gibson does indeed make a good killer. But again, he serves a higher purpose and there are plenty of folks in the movie more evil than he is.

    I haven't seen either of the other two films you mentioned. Love to get these recommendations.

  13. Pat Marinelli30 May, 2015 13:26

    I've never tried to write a bad characters, but you have me thinking about it now. Some names on your list I never thought of as bad guys. Interesting.

    I do remember a story in Woman's World...years ago. I don't remember who write it, but its about an old couple lost in the words when there car stalls out. Along come a group of teenage boys, one carrying a baseball bat. Obviously, you think the kids are going to rob or hurt the old couple. Turns out the old couple are thieves who robbed a story and one of the kids in the police chief's son or nephew. The kids recognized the car from a police report. That story is still stuck in my mind because it was so good and had such a great twist.

    Oh and Matt Bommer from White Collar is a bad guy you love. You can add him to your list.

  14. Hey Pat--thanks for stopping in. Actually, I fudged a little, on my list--I included some folks that I considered "unlikely" heroes rather than truly evil. The truth is, any protagonist with faults is a better protagonist, right? Perfection and believability don't often go together, despite some of the TV shows we watched in the 50s and 60s.

    I like your summary of that mystery--sounds like a good twist. Surprisingly, several of the first stories I sold to Woman's World, between 1999 and their format change in 2004, not only included bad guys as protagonists, they even had the bad guys coming out on top, which was supposed to be a violation of one of WW's strictest rules. Go figure.

  15. There is also a character by the brilliant writer, Dan Simmons called Joe Kurtz in q trilogy of novels. They are "Hard Case", "Hard Freeze", and the last title escapes me at the moment.

  16. There is also a character by the brilliant writer, Dan Simmons, called Joe Kurtz in a trilogy of novels. They are "Hard Case", "Hard Freeze", and the last title escapes me at the moment.

  17. Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds in Firefly and Serenity. What separated him from typical heroes was that Mal was the type of person who was willing to shoot first and skip the question; oftentimes not even bothering with a fair fight. He was not above petty theft, smuggling, or even killing, but often rationalized such behavior to make it appear more noble or valiant, such as stealing from Slavers. But still we loved him. It broke my heart when they cancelled the show after only one season. Joss Whedon's too.

  18. Good example, Craig. I think the third was Hard as Nails. I also liked The Terror and The Abominable by Simmons, although they're far different from the Kurtz books. And they're HUGE.

    Good to hear from you, Jody! Yes, Reynolds belongs in a list like this. I'm always pleased (and a little surprised) when we wind up getting so attached to characters like him--but we do.

  19. Excellent analysis, John. I enjoy teaching and writing about the "other side" of humans, one some use more liberally than others. I adored the Thomas Crown Affair! And I agree that justice and law are two entirely different things. I'll be sharing some of your comments with my next class I'm sure.

  20. How kind of you, Mahala--many thanks. I saw The Thomas Crown Affair (the first one) while in college, and I bet I've watched it a dozen times in the years since. It's one of those movies with a good plot, great performances, a fantastic soundtrack, and one of the best twist endings ever. The remake was good, but--in my opinion--not as good as the original. Best regards to you and all your students!

  21. Good column, John! I've had fun writing short stories with the bad guy (but in my case, usually bad girl) as the protagonist. But one example of rooting for the bad guy that shouldn't be left out is Thomas Perry's THE BUTCHER'S BOY--the protagonist is an assassin but there I was, rooting for him to get away...a brilliant book, I thought.

  22. Good one, Judy--thanks for the addiction/correction, and thanks for dropping by. Keep writing those stories!

  23. Addition, not addiction. Although both might apply . . .

  24. Let's not forget "Rebecca", where you root for Maxim DeWinter and his wife, despite the fact that he killed his first wife and his second is willing to do anything necessary to cover that fact up... Great article, John!

  25. Thanks, Eve. Good point.

    It occurs to me that the reason we writers sometimes enjoy creating "bad" protagonists is that they can just be more interesting to write about. I've heard actors say the same thing about portraying villains rather than good guys. Maybe there's just something fascinating about the dark side.

  26. Donald Sutherland as Die Nadel...amazing that author Follett and/or Director Marquand and/or Screenplay author Mann can get you root (or half-root) for a Nazi spy/killer...and you can't fob it off on the other characters being worse, because they're not...


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