By Mike Knowles
This summer I embarked on a pilgrimage. It was nothing new and nothing spiritual (at least to no one but me). For the last few years, I have celebrated every summer and every Christmas with 100 Bullets. It has nothing to do with shooting, I set everything I am reading aside on the first day of my vacation and begin reading Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s masterpiece cover to cover. Reading 100 Bullets is my It’s a Wonderful Life but instead of angels saving businessmen, I get Minutemen and the Trust killing one another off in a violent race to be the last one standing. This summer was the best pilgrimage yet because the series ended a few months back and I finally got to read the whole run from beginning to end. I was able to find things I had missed and fell in love all over again. Finishing the series as a whole for the first time got me thinking. There are no white hats in the books. None. Everyone is mean, violent, and unapologetic. 100 Bullets also got me thinking about all of the other characters I have loved in books. Almost every single one was bad man, not steal your lunch money bad, but rather steal your lunch money and leave you in a shallow grave in Mexico bad. Parker was bad, Mike Hammer was on the right side of the law but clearly a sociopath, Joe Kurtz was bad, John Rain was bad, etc.
These books are huge sellers, so it can’t just be me who is into the bad guy. What is it about the bad guy that people love so much?
I know I write about criminals because I find them inherently more interesting and complex than any other type of character. A reader has few ways to anticipate a characters next move if they use a different moral compass, or no moral compass at all. A situation as normal as drinks in a bar can turn into something insane when a maniac is at the wheel. Think of the movie Casino. Whenever I think of that movie, I think of Nicky (Joe Pesci) repeatedly stabbing the guy at the bar over an argument about a pen. The scene was terrifying the first time I saw it because I never saw it coming. DeNiro’s character, Sam, watches the scene frozen and explains his friend to the audience.
“While I was trying to figure out why the guy was saying what he was saying, Nicky just hit him. No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him because he'll be coming back and back until one of you is dead."
Nicky was an animal, but I never hated him in the movie. It seemed like it was his nature to be a violent sociopath. It fit him like it fits a tiger to be a killer. There is something predatory about villains and there is something supremely cool about watching a predator hunt and survive. I think people watch animal documentaries for the same reason they read crime fiction. People enjoy being along for the hunt. Watching animals take what they want to survive at the expense of others. There is something primal and interesting about something that lives by its own rules and thrives because of it. And I think that is what draws readers by the millions to the bad guy.
In real life people hate bad guys. Bernie Madoff is not on a poster in some kids room, no one rocks a Hitler stache, but for some reason if you put a character in a book who breaks the law I will read it and probably root for the black hat the whole time.
In case you never saw Casino. (If that is why you click this you have homework this weekend).
What do people love so much about the bad guy? Impulse control. Precisely, the lack thereof. A lot of people have the fleeting urge when cut off in traffic and flipped off, to drag that asshole out of of the drivers seat and kick the shit out of him. Maybe it's not even an identifiable thought, just a ripple of irritation that could blossom into rage if fed. Guys like Nicky always have that motor running, and have no sense of proportion. Small irritations escalate into life-threatening incidents. And a lot of people who are not at all violent, and who lead exemplary lives, relish the idea that maybe, just one time, they could act on an irrational impulse and get it out of their system without having to let them build up day after day.
Reading through this post I kept thinking of the scene with Charles Bronson and the boys in the Magnificant Seven. The kids were in awe of his character, but Bronson said "It's your fathers who are the brave ones. It takes more courage to stick around and raise a family." Probably not exactly, but we never see the heroic in the everyday living, it's not sexy enough for a story. And maybe that's why we love the bad boys - they do the things we would never in a million years do.
And they do the thing that moves the story along. Conflict. We love conflict, especially when it's far away from us but we can still see it.
I agree that we love to see the impulsive act. That's a great start. I wouldn't want to read a story that was just about a dude who got mad in traffic and whacked someone with a Louisville Slugger. What happens next? How does it tie in to that stuff he said three pages ago about watching that bug climb the wall. I want to see it all brought together. I want the bad guy as part of the story, the instigator, the Woody Woodpecker. Then I want to see him get punched in the face. Often.
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