Sympathetic bad guys?

Today’s post is a result of conversations I’ve had with a couple of author friends—and a situation I’ve faced myself. Suppose your plot demands that your protagonist has been charged with a crime. Maybe he’s even been convicted. But you also want to make sure that the protagonist remains a sympathetic character. You don’t want your readers to reject him due to his background. How can you pull this off?

One obvious answer is to make sure the readers know he’s innocent. The poor lamb has been wrongfully accused. This can make a juicy plot driver in itself, but it has also been done a lot (as in The Fugitive), and if not handled well can come of as trite.

I think there’s much more potential when your protagonist is actually guilty. He did the deed. Ah, but why? Maybe he was desperate. Maybe he was young. Maybe he foolishly let himself get pulled in by the wrong crowd. Maybe he had a really rough background and the crime seemed, at the time, his best choice. Not only are all of these realistic and interesting, but they also reflect true life: most criminals aren’t especially different from the rest of us. They just made some bad decisions.

It’s probably easier to rehabilitate your protagonist for some crimes than for others. It’s harder to sympathize with a violent offender, for instance. And some offenses, such as rape and child abuse, are probably just about hopeless. If your guy commits one of those, it’s unlikely you’ll ever endear him to readers. But never say never, I guess. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind.

Whatever crime your guy has committed, you may also face the issue of how to keep him from doing hard time. If it was a relatively minor offense and he didn’t have much of a record, you can probably get away with giving him probation. If someone else committed the crime with him, perhaps your guy will testify against him in exchange for immunity or a plea deal. If his circumstances were really extreme, he might even seek clemency (which in most states can be granted by the governor; the president can grant it for federal crimes). But in real life, clemency is an extremely rare event.



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