Throughout the past couple of centuries (in Britain, mainland Europe and America at least), criminals have been a surprisingly popular choice for heroic characters in stories, movies and TV shows.
In late 19th Century Britain, readers were scandalised and delighted by stories with such rogueish main characters as E. W. Hornung’s “Raffles” (in fact, even the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton” was inspired by “Raffles”, since E. W. Hornung was actually Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law ).
There are too many modern examples of these kinds of characters to list here, but one of the best examples I’ve found recently is an old BBC drama series called “Hustle”, which follows a group of professional con artists in London. It’s funny, it’s ingenious, it’s well-written and it’s probably the most glamourous show that I’ve seen since I watched “Burn Notice”.
But, at the same time, these types of characters are still criminals. They’re still bank robbers, highwaymen, con artists and/or murderers. So, how do you write these kinds of main characters in a way that will make the audience actually like them? Here are a few tips:
1) A moral code: This is the most important thing to remember when you’re writing a main character who is also a criminal. Although a criminal protagonist might break thousands of laws, they almost always have a moral code of their own that they stick to rigidly.
A very old example of this is probably Robin Hood, who although he led a gang of thieves, also had a very strict rule of “steal from the rich and give to the poor”.
A more modern example of this can be seen in Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels (and the TV series based on them), where the main character is actually a serial killer. However, he follows a very strict moral code that his father gave him, which means that he only murders other serious criminals who have not been caught by the police.
So, why is this so important? Although readers might like the romanticised idea of an “outlaw”, most of them would probably recoil in horror at a sympathetic portrayal of a genuinely evil criminal.
Although the popularity of stories with criminal protagonists might imply that most people are amoral sociopaths, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people still have a fairly good idea of right and wrong, regardless of how many crime stories they read.
So, in order to make your criminal protagonist acceptable to the majoirty of your readers, you have to show that your main character is still an essentially “good” person – even if they also happen to be a criminal.
2) Underdog: One of the other reasons why criminal protagonists are so popular is because they are underdogs. They’re a single person (or a small group of people) who constantly manage to outwit, outsmart and stick two fingers up at the forces of law, order and authority.
And, well, many people like to see themsleves as “rebels” at heart. So, stories with criminal protagonists give readers a “safe” way to revel in this and to laugh at those in authority.
So, what does this mean in terms of storytelling? Well, what it means is that your criminal protagonist shouldn’t be someone in authority. Yes, there are plenty of real criminals in positions of authority around the world – but fictional criminals should never be part of the establishment that your readers want them to rebel against.
3) Some crimes are “beyond the pale”: This one should be really obvious, but even if you have the most well-written criminal protagonist in the history of fiction, your readers will still end up absolutely hating him or her if your main character commits certain crimes that are quite rightly seen as “beyond the pale” – even for a fictional character.
4) Intelligence: There’s a reason why heist movies thrill people and online articles about “the world’s dumbest criminals” constantly make people laugh. Criminals only really have any kind of dramatic value in stories – either as protagonists or villains – if they are very intelligent.
Why? Well, intelligence is one of the few “superpowers” that people can realistically have. Not only that, making your protagonists smarter than most people turns what would otherwise be a rather boring story into a thrilling puzzle that your readers are constantly wondering how your main character (or characters) will solve.
For example, a bank heist story where the intelligent main characters have to carefully work out a sneaky way to get past all sorts of high-tech security systems is far more thrilling than a story about a group of slightly stupid criminals who just burst into the bank with sawn-off shotguns and demand all of the money in the vaults.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)