Friday, January 19, 2007

Nice Guy Hero vs. Pugnacious Bastard Hero...

by Sean Chercover

It’s been a very exciting 10 days, since the release of BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. The reviews have been universally great (so far), the book signing events well attended, and I think I may even be getting used to being interviewed, instead of doing the interviewing.

But last week I was doing an interview and the reporter said, “I loved the book, and the writing, but I really didn’t like your protagonist, Ray Dudgeon. He’s not a very nice guy. Couldn’t you have made him more likable?”

Good question.

And one to which I didn’t really have a good answer. Perhaps I could’ve made Ray a nicer guy, but I would’ve been creating a different character, and writing a different book.

Ray’s an idealist living in a corrupt world, and he’s got a lot of anger. He's psychologically damaged, but he’s no sociopath. I don’t approve of all the things he does, and I don’t expect that most readers will, either. But he interests me. He’s not a bad man (most of the time) and he’s trying to become a better man. He’s just not very good at it. There’s a lot of room for him to grow, in future books, and I'm rooting for him.

And I find that many of the series characters I love to read are not necessarily the nicest guys around, either.

Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor (and Burke).
Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder.
Derek Raymond’s nameless Factory detective.
Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (and Fearless Jones).

All of these series heroes can be ornery at the best of times. And at the worst, they can be . . . well, you get the idea. And then there are the classics - guys like Hammer and Spade and Marlowe and Archer. They were loyal and tough and had many redeeming features, but they were often far from likable.

I’m going to resist the temptation to list all my favorite bastard heroes, because I want to hear yours. And while we’re on the subject, feel free to post your favorite likable heroes too.

Which less-than-nice series heroes interest you?
Which series heroes would you like to be buddies with?


Victor Gischler said...

Bruen is great, but I like his Brant bettter than his Taylor. Pick up The White Trilogy when you get a chance.


The Home Office said...

I read Big City, Bad Blood; I didn;t consider Dudgeon to be a bastard at all. A little hard, but his character is called on to do some hard things. There's nothing that will turn me off a character (and book) quicker than a protagonist written to appeal to everyone's warm and fuzzy notions of a nice guy who winds up having to beat, trick, or otherwise coerce information from someone.

Less than nice-guy heroes I like: Lehane's Patrick Kedzie and John Connolly's Charlie Parker (with Louis and Angel in the package) come to mind.

Nice guy protagonists I like: off the top of my head, none. I like my heroes with a little edge to them.

Who I would like to be buddies with: Elvis Cole, Steve Carella (of the 87th Precinct)

Barbara D'Amato said...

I agree with the home office. Dudgeon is not a bastard. Believable guy in a bad situation -- and by the way, in a good book.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Lee Child's Jack Reacher is a total badass.

Yes, he's idealistic and he knows right from wrong, but he's also just... ready to massacre anybody who gets in his way.

Gerald So said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gerald So said...

In hardboiled crime fiction I want to see just how a cynical, gritty world affects the protagonist. Such a world is bound to wear down the most idealistic character. If it doesn't, it's not quite real to me. If external conflict doesn't cause internal conflict, I lose interest.

Then again, series protags who go through hell in every book, constantly conflicted and brooding, don't seem real to me either. The greater the range of emotions a character can show, the better.

Blind Camel said...

Which less-than-nice series heroes interest you?

Dark heroes? I like Dan Simmons' Joe Kurtz, although apparently he's done for. Too bad, 'cause I think the three in the series were stellar.

Spenser and Reacher both are world-weary, more than ready for a dust-up, but sufficiently committed to justice and underdogs to make 'em likeable. Mostly I find myself really digging the lethal sidekicks...Joe Pike (Crais), Win Lockwood (Coben), etc. It's nice to imagine being a good guy with deranged animal riding shotgun. Will be interesting to see how Pike works as a focal point in Crais's upcoming THE WATCHMAN.

Which series heroes would you like to be buddies with?

I like the flawed, heart of gold guys. The guys like Alex McKnight (Steve Hamilton) who are almost certain to eat a punch or two on the road to glory. Same goes for Krueger's Cork O'Connor, Crais's Elvis Cole, and Coben's Myron Bolitar. I'd hang with any of 'em, happily.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Some female protagonists have interesting flaws that keep them from being too perfect, like Libby Hellmann's Ellie Foreman. Most, though are pretty much like good friends whose flaws—if they have any—we don’t really notice.

Two exceptions that come to mind are Allie Kerry, a “no questions asked” courier (Easy Money, by Jenny Siler), and Shay Storey, the damaged daughter of a violent, drug-dealing mother (Never Count Out the Dead by Boston Teran).

Most of my favorite male protagonists aren’t true bad boys either, but possessed of (or by) some weakness or past mistake or indiscretion that makes them outsiders or threatens their success or happiness. David Walker’s Malachy Foley comes to mind, along with Bill Smith (S. J. Rozan), Cork O’Connor (William Kent Krueger) and Hillerman’s Navajo cops.

But John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is a true outsider, possibly a sociopath, as are Lawrence Block’s Hit Man, and Barry Eisler’s John Rain. Steven Mandel’s Linny Nomar (Another Lost Angel) is a fascinating bad cop.

Anonymous said...

My favorite dark hero is Kathy Mallory, in the series by Carol O'Connell. Do I like Mallory?...Not particularly. But I do love her, as much as you can love a socoipath, and I understand her. An amazing charecter in a grade A series. I strongly recommend it.
D.A. Davenport

Sean Chercover said...

Victor - Excellent suggestion. I should have mentioned Brant. My bad. Although I love Taylor better.

Great suggestions, everyone. I agree with most of them, and I picked up a couple of new characters to read. Thanks!

Michael: You said:
"Some female protagonists have interesting flaws that keep them from being too perfect, like Libby Hellmann's Ellie Foreman. Most, though are pretty much like good friends whose flaws—if they have any—we don’t really notice."

This is a very important point, and one that I think has not been explored as much as it should be. Maybe we should be talking about the ramifications of this approach, vis a vis the response of critics, booksellers, bloogers and the rest of the Lit establishment.