While I’m hard at work on my new zombie novel, I’m always thinking ahead to future projects. At any give time I have a corral of potential ideas all competing with each other in my head to be the “next in line.”

Several of the potential ideas I have involve crime or criminals in some way–either straight-out crime novels, thrillers or something along those lines. I’ve always been fascinated by the world of criminal deception, especially large-scale confidence tricks. To be honest I’ve never really been taken with police procedurals, and I don’t see myself writing a novel with a police officer or other law enforcement type as a protagonist. (A section I wrote for All Giamotti’s Children had a private investigator as a protagonist, but obviously it didn’t make the final cut). Consequently, in at least two of my potential ideas, criminals would be the protagonists and main characters.

That always poses a challenge for a writer. Antiheroes have always been big in fiction, but criminal protagonists walk a fine line. They’ve got to be bad, yes, but you as a reader (or viewer in the case of movies or TV) have to care about them enough to want to spend the balance of a book (or movie) with them. The more heinous their crimes, the tougher the challenge is for the writers who create them.

Think back to the stories you like that involve criminals as protagonists. Why do we like them? What fascinates us about them? In some stories it’s about wanting to see them get caught and pay for their crimes; in other stories there’s a moral inversion, where bad is good and vice-versa, though this is much harder to pull off. Here’s a couple of criminal protagonists I can think of just off the top of my head:

  • Michael Corleone from The Godfather. I speak here of both the novel and the movies. At the beginning of the story we like Michael Corleone because he seems to be the only member of the crime family with any sort of conscience–he wants to go straight and bring his family with him. Watching him descend into the depths of being the worst criminal of all is like watching a car crash in slow motion, but we, the audience, are torn between wanting to see him pay and wanting to see him redeem himself. What’s interesting is if you’ve ever read the original Godfather novel, it is not written from Michael’s point of view, and we never get into his head, so to speak. In fact the final scene (spoiler alert) involves his wife Kay praying for the salvation of his soul. Here was have a classic conflicted character, and the book toys with the audience by splitting their loyalties. This is really masterfully done.
  • Henry Hill in GoodFellas (the movie). Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly the master among film directors who work with criminal subjects, and GoodFellas is his masterpiece. This is a noteworthy piece because it’s based on a true story, and yet in the movie Henry Hill is a fascinating character–one the audience both loves and hates. I note that in the book this was based on, Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Henry Hill was not nearly so sympathetic. Like Godfather, there is a divided audience loyalty. In the movie we literally grow up with Henry and the audience understands his motivations for becoming a gangster. Although he does many horrible things, treats his wife abominably, etc., Henry blanches at some of the more egregious crimes committed in the story–he’s visibly shocked, for instance, when crazy Tommy D (Joe Pesci, in an unforgettable performance) shoots a busboy in a psychotic rage. Yet we, the audience, know he’ll eventually go down, and he does. GoodFellas is an even more interesting case than Godfather because we don’t have any sense of potential redemption. Henry’s bad, and he stays bad. Yet, as an audience, we like him. Why?
  • Walter White in Breaking Bad. I admit I haven’t seen many of the later episodes of this show, but I know a good criminal protagonist when I see one. Walter, the high school science teacher turned vicious drug dealer, is set up from the very beginning with a sympathetic cue: he’s got terminal cancer. I’m always wary of giving a character a terminal disease as a motivation for the audience to like them, but it’s at least successful in this case in terms of story mechanics: it helps explain Walter’s change of attitude. But, as the series goes on and the body count gets higher, eventually the audience is watching (A) to see what horrible things Walter will do next, and (B) to watch him get caught. I think Walter White is less successful than either Corleone or Hill as a character, but there are still instructive lessons here.
  • Tony Montana in Scarface. Both the premise of the film and the appeal of Tony Montana’s character can be summed up in the phrase “pride cometh before the fall.” In this movie, drug dealer Tony Montana is so wild and over the top that the audience waits with baited breath to see him get his–and we don’t care how he gets it, as long as his comeuppance is as explosive and outrageous as Montana’s crimes. You never once feel sorry for Tony Montana. You just want him dead. This is much easier to pull off in a movie than a novel, and if somebody ever tried to do something like Scarface in print form they’d have to be a pretty skilled writer. This illustrates the problem of criminal protagonists.

What are your thoughts on criminal protagonists? Why do you like them? Do you root for them, against them or both? The key to a great story is a great hero (or villain), and how to make such a character is one of the toughest jobs in fiction. If I do decide to go with one of my crime stories as an idea, it’s a problem I’ll have to tackle.