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Fiction, Writing Craft

The Allure of Criminal Protagonists.

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.

6 Comments

  1. On US there is a kind of stigma regarding the criminal protagonist. Even with the shattered notion of the American dream. Resorting to crime to solve your problems or as a quick doorway to wealth will lead to the protagonist’s downfall .
    In the American medium anyone getting rich by becoming a criminal is seen as a person of weak will or mind. He/she may have redeemable qualities but by getting rich with crime he/she betrayed the good common folk by going the risky but easy way and forsaking the good old hard work and entrepreneur American spirit (the stark contrast of the underdog who had an original idea that made him rich or the common guy that worked hard but not alone and succeeded later on life)

    Since USA is a wealthy country with the image where everyone has a change if they try hard, the criminal protagonist will be much less romanticized. On poverty stricken countries on the other hand…

    Which brings me too:

    There’s a type of protagonist criminal in my country: The socially excluded victim of the system (South American writers love to explore this subject). Think instead of the Noble Savage we have the Noble Miserable.

    Usually portrayed by a poor (usually black) child born in poverty with no prospects in life but either becoming a career criminal in order to escape misery or just another miserable person in a sea o poverty, invisible to everyone.

    If the character is a man, he will probably turn into a drug dealer. Selling drugs mostly to wealthy college students looking for a buzz (they will be shown as one of the main reasons of why the drug problem is so big while leaving the poor drug user as another victim of the system). He is (usually) differentiated by his need to give a chance to get a better life to his own children through illicit means but condemning how he earns his money as well. Also put in contrast with other drug dealers who are in it just for the prestige and money.
    He can also be a robber (with standards) in a manner he will not kill without a reason and never robbing other poor people (even though it would be easier), focusing on the gullible rich people in a sheltered part of the city (imagine a tiny island of wealth and beauty surrounded in a sea of poverty and filth) . He’ll see himself either as a poor men’s Robbing Hood or someone how has been only taught to be a criminal with no other choice (he isn’t happy with this).
    In some cases after he gets up in the power ladder he will eventually be horrified by a crucial event (rival gang hit, robbery gone bad, police raid – all somehow threatening his family) and will try to quit. But his past will make him either to big to just give up, someone beneath him will kill him before he leaves to usurp his power or he will fail in having a normal life and go back to crime again. He will probably die (not obligatory) and at the same time setting his children free from the same fate as his (optimistic scenario, light hearted works) or die and have his children make the same mistakes as him (Pessimistic, gritty works)

    If it’s a woman. She will be probably forced into prostitution and/or become a mule (slang for female drug smugglers) or a scam/con artist. Usually she gets in the business though “paid rape”, being introduced by a friend who’s already in business and told her this is a way to make a quick buck or because she couldn’t get a job good enough to take care of her expenses and had to resort to it.
    Her main motivation is to take care of her unplanned children whose father is either dead (probably by OD, shot dead by cops or rival gang members), was a rapist or never owned up to the children. She’ll usually try to keep a facade that she is working in an honest job hiding from her relatives and children the nature of her actually job (if she has a sister she probably knows).
    Aborting the children may or may not be suggested but thanks to being against it she will decide to keep the children despise of having no means to support them herself.

    All have one Aesop in common: If society/government doesn’t change or do something about it this cycle will repeat itself.

  2. Grant Barnes

    Non-criminal characters are boring. I am always looking for more illegalist fiction. My favorite authors include Haas and Gibson. Do you recommend others?

    • Well, Elmore Leonard was a master at writing quirky crime novels with interesting protagonists. I’m not sure how much he’s still read these days, but his books were certainly popular in their day.

      • Grant B.

        Thanks. I have not read read Leonard, but he seems to be marketed as light-hearted in his treatments of crime, which is a deal-breaker for me. I also don’t like morality in fiction, and I think many viewers don’t find it in the depictions of Corleone or Montana; they see them as exemplars. This is how I view Columbus in the first Haas novel about him (I have not read the others yet). Do you recommend any amoral depictions of criminal heroes?

        • I’m not sure I agree about morality not being a factor in depictions of characters like Michael Corleone. In fact I think our moral outrage is the key to what makes those successful characters.

          If you’re looking for amoral depictions, you might want to try some of the early detective fiction. Dashiel Hammett’s depiction of Sam Spade in the original “Maltese Falcon” is about as blank as they come. The character is not amoral, but the author’s tone and voice is about as blank and neutral as possible. Some of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe books approach this too but in a slightly different way.

      • Grant B.

        Thanks again. I might check those out after I finish the Silver Bear books and some others on my list. About the Godfather and Scarface movies, I have seen countless tattoos, t-shirts, etc. and heard many personal statements (not to mention all the lyrics by chart-topping rappers) portraying the Corleones and Tony Montana as folk heroes. Moral outrage is absent from such references–the characters are straightforwardly lionized.

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