May 5 2013 10:00am

So Bad They’re Good: Sympathizing with the Bad Guy

Deliciously complex, these characters are bad, sometimes even evil, but by showing us moments of goodness and their humanity we get sucked in to rooting for them. Don’t worry this isn’t a paper on the antihero in contemporary crime literature. It is a list of some of my favorite complicated fictional criminals.

Tony Soprano, The Sopranos

Mob boss Tony Soprano is a classic example of the antihero and as we watch him with his kids we forget that he makes a living through crime. But it’s okay, because he and all his mobster friends follow their own moral code. Again, I got lulled into rooting for him, until later in the series when he started offing other characters we loved because they posed some perceived danger to him—his nephew-in-law Christopher and Christopher’s wife Adriana come to mind. Even in the end, I didn’t want to see Tony gunned down or arrested.

Dexter Morgan, Dexter

Dexter uses his unique perspective to hunt down serial killers. He’s very successful largely because like the criminals he stalks, he is also a serial killer. The people in his life love him. He tries to be a better man, and tries to love them back while attempting to tame his inner serial killer. But at the end of the day, he’s still a killer and a vigilante, albeit with a super useful specialty.

Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans

From one of my new favorite shows, The Americans, we have Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings who are KGB sleeper spies under cover in the United States posing as a cute little family complete with two adorable American children. Phillip and Elizabeth didn’t pick one another as mates and in addition to running their travel agency, they have to undertake crazy missions in which they torture, kidnap, kill, and risk everything most days. A frequent conversation between the husband and wife is what happens to their kids if they get caught. They never actually come up with an answer…it just motivates them to get the mission completed without getting caught. It’s a dramatically exaggerated parallel to what many parents feel as they drive to work every day.

Boyd Crowder, Justified

Boyd Crowder is one of the most complex characters on television. Not only does he rely on multiple forms of crime for a living, he also happens to be a most reliable ‘frenemy’ to the show’s hero, Raylan Givens. Seriously, Boyd has Raylan’s back almost as much as his fellow Marshals do, and Raylan seems to understand that—he even gives Boyd his gun back sometimes after he’s taken it if he needs Boyd to back him up in a firefight. In these situations, Boyd does not let him down.

But Boyd can’t help himself. He is a criminal. He kills people and then hides the bodies. He trades in drugs, plans bank robberies, and now is messing around with the mob.

John Bodine, from Stolen by Daniel Palmer

In this newly released book by Daniel Palmer, the hero steals someone else’s identity so he can get insurance to cover his wife’s cancer treatments. He can’t seem to get insurance coverage any other way, so in his mind, he has few options, but identity theft is a crime. Still it’s easy to sympathize with them big-time, not only because of the cancer but also because the people whose identity they steal come at them with a most sadistic vengeance. I don’t want to tell you any more. You just have to read the book. You can read the Criminal Element Fresh Meat review here.

Sergeant Nicholas Brody, Homeland

After Sergeant Brody was captured and tortured in Afghanistan, he joined forces with Muslim extremists with plans to hurt the United States with acts of terror. I’m not even sure which side Brody is on most of the time, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know either. What I am sure of is that letting the Vice President of the United States die while you watch and do nothing is really bad.  He has been suspected and accused of criminal acts he didn’t commit, and at times I think he is his own worst enemy. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows the real man—even his friends and family call him by his last name.

Max Holman, from Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais

Robert Crais’s protagonist in this book is a masterful longtime bank robber who only gets caught because he stops at a scene to give CPR to a bank customer who is having a heart attack. There is some redemption in that although the customer probably wouldn’t have had the heart attack in the first place if the robbery hadn’t have taken place. The robber serves ten years paying his debt to society, and as he is released he wants nothing more than to reunite with his son who has become a police officer in his absence. But his son was killed the night before and was suspected of being a dirty cop. The former bank robber wants to know why.

One of the most interesting things about most of these characters is that they don’t consider themselves bad (except ironically, Dexter, who’s not supposed to be able to feel remorse). Complicated bad guys do make for excellent fiction.

Who are some of your favorite antiheroes?

Deborah Lacy likes speakeasies, yellow heirloom tomatoes, and crime fiction. She blogs at Mystery Playground. You can find her on Twitter @quippy.

Read all posts by Deborah Lacy for Criminal Element.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Saundra Peck
1. sk1336
Ohhhh Brody, how I wavered in loving and hating him! It was a brilliant story line, and I hope it is not over. I always love a wounded man...
Jody Darden
2. jldarden
I like your list but you left off one of my all time favorites, Vic Mackey from 'The Shield'!
Kim Hammond
3. KimHammond
Oh, doesn't every woman go through a bad boy phase?? Love this post.
Deborah Lacy
4. DeborahLacy
Sk1336 - I know. Not sure where they go from here.

jldarden - thank you for the addition. I must admit I have never watched the Shield. I will put it on my Netflix list.

@KimHammond - we do don't we? Thank you.
5. Chris Hamilton
Stole someone's identity when they died because of his mistake, then used that identity to desert from the Army in Korea. Then schtupped every attractive woman in the tri-state area during two of his three marriages.

Don Draper.
Deborah Lacy
6. DeborahLacy
@christhamilton - you make an excellent point. Don D. should be on this list.
Post a comment