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.



You’re out: three strikes

Jamie looked resignedly at his public defender. “Fine. Fine. Yeah, I stole that crap from Walmart. Big deal. I’ll plead guilty, the judge’ll give me probation, and I can get on with my life. Right?”

But his lawyer shook her head. “You don’t understand. The DA’s charging this one as burglary. A felony.”

“So? I do a stint in jail.”

“Prison. And more than a stint.”

He frowned at her. “For stealing movies from Walmart?”

“Remember those two convictions you had for assault with a deadly weapon?”

“Those were over twenty years ago! I was a stupid kid. But I did my time, and I haven’t touched a gun or anything since.”

“I know.” The lawyer sighed. “But you have two violent felony convictions. You’re looking at 25 to life.”

Poor Jamie has just found himself on the wrong end of a three-strikes law.

Several jurisdictions have passed these laws; most were enacted in the mid 90s, in the midst of the push to get tough on crime. They’re also known as habitual offender laws—or, more familiarly, the Bitch (as in, poor Jamie just got Bitched). The purpose of these laws was to increase penalties for repeat offenders.

The laws vary across jurisdiction, but they generally increase penalties severely for third offenses. And by severely, we could be talking life sentences. In order to qualify, the offender must have been convicted of his third (or greater) felony. In some cases the first two felonies might need to be for violent offenses, but the third one need not. In California, for instance, someone like Jamie could face life for a fairly minor third felony.

Another interesting facet about three-strikes laws is that in some cases—like California—the first two strikes can be for certain violent offenses that were prosecuted by juvenile courts. That takes a lot of people by  surprise.

Incidentally, there’s no real indication that these laws reduce crime. But they could make an interesting plot point.