Read Michael Fiegel's exclusive guest post about the “Badass and Child Duo” trope, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his debut thriller, Blackbird!
“Is she your child?” asked someone.
“I guess she is now,” the other cried, defiantly; “she’s mine ’cause I saved her. No man will take her from me…”
—Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Luc Besson's 1994 crime thriller Leon—better known to many as The Professional—is my favorite movie. Telling the story of a professional hitman (Jean Reno) who rescues a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman) from corrupt DEA agents, it was a major influence on my writing. This is most vividly reflected in my novel Blackbird, a thriller that tells a similar story with a twist: rather than the “good guy” rescuing the girl, it explores the consequences of the “bad guy” getting her instead.
Both of these situations are takes on the trope known as the “Badass and Child Duo.” You can read all about it on TVTropes.com, but the way it works is fairly self-evident: a badass (usually but not always a man) and a child (often a girl) team up in some way throughout the story, with the badass predominantly acting as the child's protector. There are at least two variants of the trope, and they're both interesting to take a look at, seeing as they appear across multiple genres.
In the first variant, the badass carries most of the weight in the “Duo,” often literally carrying the child around like a parent but more figuratively handling the bulk (if not all) of the protecting. Sherlock Holmes's first appearance in A Study in Scarlet provides an early example of the trope, with John Ferrier as the badass and Lucy as the child; other literary examples include Jean Valjean and Cosette in Victor Hugo's classic Les Miserables and the father and son duo from Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road.
This version also shows up in film. Jason Statham has played the badass at least twice in two thrillers that fit this trope: 2012's Safe and 2013's Homefront. Shane Black brushes up against the trope in two of his action thrillers as well: 1991's The Last Boy Scout and 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight. Both feature a parent protecting their child from gun-toting bad guys; the latter notably features a woman in the role of the badass, as does 1980's Gloria, the well-known crime thriller by John Cassavetes.
The second variant of the “Badass and Child Duo” is less common but is the sort I wanted to explore in more depth in Blackbird. In this version, the child is not merely a passive observer or an object to be protected. They are a badass in their own right, in many ways the equal of their partner in crime—if not physically then certainly in terms of their “shades of gray” morally.
With Blackbird, I was primarily inspired by what I saw in Leon (especially the International version, which restores over 22 minutes of critical Act 2 footage), wherein Leon himself is not simply a protector but also a mentor. The young Mathilda is not content to simply be looked after; she takes an active role in the partnership, not only learning to shoot a gun but even participating during several of Leon's hits.
Those unfamiliar with Leon are almost certainly aware of a more recent retelling of the trope from George R.R. Martin's dark fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire series and HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation. Therein, the young Arya Stark is rescued by the Hound, a badass among badasses; rather than simply ride beside him, Arya proves quite the capable killer herself and surprises even the Hound with her capacity for murder.
Other examples of badasses paired with quite-capable children include: Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in True Grit (both the 1969 and 2010 film adaptations, as well as Charles Portis's original 1968 novel); Hanna and her father in 2011's action thriller Hanna; Logan and Laura in 2017's superhero thriller Logan; and vigilantes Hit Girl and Big Daddy from the Kick-Ass comic and film universe.
In all these cases, the named duo operates in a world where law and order are flexible concepts, and both are equally active participants in exploring that flexibility. Taking this to an even greater extreme is 2011's black comedy film God Bless America, where middle-aged Frank Murdoch and teenaged Roxy Harmon disregard any sense of being “good guys” and simply team up to gun down everyone they find offensive.
As opposed to the first sort of “Duo,” these latter cases are less about revisiting the familiar parent-child dynamic and more about the jarring concept of a child (often a little girl) who's not only capable of holding their own in a fight but often more of a badass than the badass “protector” they're paired with. They don't simply explore the relationship between a parental figure and their ward but what happens when that child grows up long before their time in the harshest and bloodiest way possible.
This is precisely the dynamic I explore in Blackbird, giving thriller fans the opportunity to look beyond the standard character archetypes of the helpless child and their morally-upright protector. The child in this darker version of the “Badass and Child Duo” is nothing close to a helpless plot device or a victim. On the contrary, it is their own ability and capacity for violence—rather than their weakness—which makes their tale truly thrilling.
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Michael Fiegel is a writer and designer best known as the creator of Ninja Burger, an Internet cult classic that spawned a series of books and games. In addition to his work in the game industry, Fiegel has written and designed for a number of online outlets. Blackbird is Michael Fiegel's first novel. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two cats.