Derek Haas’s first story for EQMM, “Snitches Get Stitches,” is coming up in the Black Mask department of our next issue (July/August), on sale June 14. Its central character is an antihero with whom readers will nevertheless sympathize. It’s the challenges of creating this type of character that the author discusses in this post. He’s created another such character, a hit man called Columbus (whom the New York Times has called “devastatingly cool”) for his series of novels, the most recent of which is The Way I Die. The California-based author is also a screenwriter who co-wrote the screenplays for 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, and The Double, and he’s the creator of the TV shows Chicago Fire and FBI: International. —Janet Hutchings
I prefer liars, killers, outcasts, outliers, orphans, and rough souls. I like characters who suffocate federal judges with saran wrap; who step on a mark’s neck until his bones crack; who use bare hands to choke the life out of their unrepentant fathers. I like protagonists who tell the reader again and again “do not trust me, do not like me, I am not to be admired.” I like protagonists who are the antagonists of their own life stories.
I wish they wouldn’t be. I’m glad they are.
I’ve always been drawn to literary bad boys. I loved Crime and Punishment and Eye of the Needle and The Ax and Fight Club and more recently The Force and Billy Summers. I followed Clarice Starling but I cheered for Hannibal. Milton had me rooting for Lucifer. (That’s an amazing trick when you think about it, getting a reader to root for the devil.) I appreciate novelists who treat villains with the same reverence they do their heroes.
I don’t think I’m alone.
In crime fiction, so many of the protagonists—even the anti-heroes—are inherently good guys. They might be flawed—the private investigator with the drinking problem, the cop who is always mixing it up with his sergeant—but when it comes to right and wrong, these detectives and Feds and agents and spies make the moral choice, solve the case, put the murderer away, catch the villain. They get the witty dialogue, they find the obscure clue, they make the logic leap that only a brilliant mind can make.
Yet, there are brilliant minds on the other side of the tracks, too. These hustlers play street chess, not the kind with pawns and rooks, but the kind with pimps and dealers and marks and traitors. They have to plan moves ahead, shuffle pieces around the board, give ground to gain loyalty. Their stakes are different, too: not “Can we crack the case and put the perp away?” but “Can I stay out of jail and… alive?”
The stakes are different for the writer, too. How can I get a reader to pull for a villain? How can I flip her expectation, so she is rooting for the criminal to outsmart the detective? So he is hoping the murderer gets away with it?
There are a few weapons an author employs. One is to write the story in first person. If the reader is inside the head of the narrator, seeing the plot develop from his point of view, then the reader feels an automatic kinship with the protagonist. His problems are my problems. His anxieties are my anxieties. The reader is walking the mile in his shoes, and tries to anticipate the dangers and obstacles lurking in every dark alley, every brush with the authorities. There’s a great line in season one of the show Narcos: “The bad guys need to get lucky every time. The good guys just need to get lucky once.” Villain protagonists have to walk a higher tightrope, and first person can be quite effective at garnering sympathy toward a character quickly. In a way, we need the protagonist to survive so we can find out how the story ends. The plot is an existential threat to the story itself.
If the author chooses to go the third person route, it does not constrain him from getting inside the protagonist’s head. Omniscient narrators know the thoughts of all the key players. The writer can drop a couple of lines of dialogue from an objective point of view, an exchange between a detective and a con man, say, but then push right inside the con man’s head and color our perception of the interview. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the con man might protest aloud. In the next line on the page, the author might write: This bastard has me up against the wall. I’m a dead man if I don’t give him something to chew on. But what . . . what? Immediately, the reader is right there with Jimmy, trying to figure out how to wriggle off the hook. We’re sweating under the fluorescents, just like Jimmy. He may be a bad guy, but he’s our bad guy.
Of course, all humans are shades of gray, darkness and light battling for prominence. Great protagonists —whichever side of the law they occupy—are the same. A thoughtful author will chart that struggle, so we’re pulling for the bad guy because we understand the depth of his conflict. Stephen King does this so well, in so many books. His most recent, Billy Summers, focuses on a hit man who is set up to take a fall. And what does King do, halfway through the book? (Spoiler alert) He gives the hit man an abused young lady to protect, who drops out of the sky (or is literally pushed out of a van) in the middle of Billy’s escape. It would be so much easier for Billy to walk away, duck out of there, get on with his exit strategy, but the reader is pulled to his side because Billy sacrifices his own safety for the protection and rehabilitation of Alice. Putting others above oneself? What’s more heroic than that?
Another author trick is to reveal the principal’s past at a strategic point in the story. The protagonist may be a villain, but how’d he get there? Did he overcome an abusive childhood, did someone hurt him, did he have his heart stepped on, or did someone set him on his fallen path when he was young and vulnerable? The backstory is key to lining up the reader behind the hero. We may not appreciate that he commits crimes in the present, but we understand them. We expect them. And we root for him to overcome the weights holding him down. Television series give writers an even greater sprawling canvas to build up sympathy. Over multiple seasons, we watched Breaking Bad’s Walter White transform from mild-mannered chemistry teacher into full Heisenberg, a ruthless meth-producing kingpin. By the time he was committing heartless murders to control his empire, we were pulling for him because we had witnessed his struggle to take care of himself and his family over hours and hours and years and years on our screens. The writers built up our affection for him from the pilot, and cast him as an underdog, so that by the time he was sitting on the throne, we were all on his side. It’s a lot harder to do in a few pages of a short story, but I do love a challenge.
So here’s to the Tony Sopranos, and the Becky Sharps, and the Richard IIIs, and the Professor Moriartys, and the Anton Chigurhs and the Rodion Romanovichs. They committed unsympathetic acts but we rooted for them all the same. And here’s to you, reader, if you ever attempt to put a villain at the center of your story. You have to live longer inside that dark head than anyone, thinking about things sane people shouldn’t think about.
Still, do it for your fiction, for your readers. Just don’t get caught.
Well argued and fun to read. This is the first time I’ve ever seen television gangsters and the characters of Thackeray, Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Cormac McCarthy, and Dostoyevsky all used to support a thesis. I’m sold.
Great essay! Add Ripley to this list? A fan of almost everything Highsmith, so my mind automatically goes there!