When bad characters go good

Smiling man statue

“I’m just smiling so you don’t know what I’m REALLY up to….” Statue image courtesy of darnok, Morguefile.

In some books, the dividing line is often clear between good and bad. The bad characters commit evil crimes, make the good characters miserable through their deeds and speech, and generally get punished by whatever fate they deserve at the end of the novel. The good characters start out at one place in life and progress toward a better future, combating the evil villain or villains among the way. I’ve found that it makes for an even better story if one of the characters is timid at the start and manages to summon the emotional resources necessary to stand up to the villain. (It makes me want to jump in and cheer them on.)

Sometimes there’s a hint in one book that one of the bad characters may have a nicer side. In Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, character Noel Keeling is a youngish, spoiled yuppie, in contrast to his independent, warmhearted and generous mother Penelope Keeling. But within this Pilcher novel, there are hints of Noel’s basic decency, which is further developed in the novel September.

Author Susan Mallery took this concept a step father. In one set of her books I’ve read recently, the Lone Star Sisters series, she took a bad character and completely redeemed him. Mallery created a set of books about three sisters (Izzy, Skye and Lexi Titan) and their illegitimate brother Garth. In the first three novels, Garth seeks revenge upon their father Jed Titan, who is — let’s face it — never going to get the “Father of the Year” award. Jed is a jerk who has no scruples about forcing people to do whatever he wants for his financial gain, even to the point of blackmail.

Garth looks to strike back at his father by any means possible (he’s got some good reasons), and one of the ways that he does that is by going after his sisters, thinking that what hurts them, hurts Jed. Garth tries to financially ruin the spa owned by one sister, is responsible for food poisoning at an event hosted by another sister and may be responsible for an oil rig accident causing the third sister to temporarily lose her eyesight. (Spoiler alert: Garth didn’t have anything to do with the accident.)

So you’d swear that this character is a nasty guy and way beyond redemption, but Mallery managed Garth’s transformation with amazing deftness, which I have to admire. Garth becomes a better man for three reasons: 1) by his actions, he loses a good friend whose trust he then needs to regain; 2) he discovers that the Titan sisters don’t particularly like their father either and they decide to join him when their father crosses over the line into criminal acts and 3) he falls for local tough girl Dana, a sheriff’s deputy. (And I heard that snicker! Don’t make me come over there.)

It’s not often that you have authors who deviate from the usual bad character/good character patterns, which made this set of novels great fun to read. If I ever turn my hand to fiction, I hope I produce work of the same quality.

Blog readers: Ever read books where the author converted a bad character into a good one? Which book was your favorite?

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20 Comments

Filed under Writing

20 responses to “When bad characters go good

  1. I love that concept of the bad character being redeemed through the story. I will have to put that series on my to read list.

  2. Melanie

    Full disclosure, I only read the books one through four, and didn’t watch much of the series, but I find the Dexter conundrum to be fascinating. He’s equal parts good and bad, though he’s really all bad putting out the illusion of good.

  3. A good technique to capture readers. People often wish others would “see the error of their ways” and change – gives them hope for that in real life.

  4. Long John Silver, in Treasure Island, is one of the best baddies ever, because you can’t help liking him, even though he would kill Jim Hawkins in an instant if it served his purpose. And he gets away in the end. If I could write with the merest touch of Robert Louis Stevenson’s talent, I would be a very, very happy woman.

  5. Jim Butcher’s been doing that for the last few books in his series. I find it a bit jarring when it happens suddenly out of the blue, when the character has been mostly pretty bad and suddenly, is on the other team

  6. This is one of my favorite transformations to read in fiction. It’s hard to pull off in a stand-alone book, but in a series, I think it is absolutely necessary to maintain interest. The best example I have read recently comes from the wildly popular Game of Thrones series in the character of Jaime Lannister. There’s no question he is pretty much pure evil in the first book, but by the fifth, you can’t help but root for the guy, and you kind of hate yourself for it.

  7. limebirdkate

    I haven’t read the examples in your post, but I sure want to now! I do like the idea of bad guys going good, as long as the motivation is clearly supported. I also like characters who appear to be bad or sinister but are truly harmless, like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Seeing Boo through the eyes of a young girl whose imagination gets the best of her helps make him a believable sinister character. So we don’t need anything other than Boo’s kindness at the end to realize that Jem and Scout (and anyone else in the town) had misjudged him.

  8. Interesting idea about baddies going good. I’ll have to give this some thought. I know I’ve read at least a couple of them, where the villain has a charge of heart. Right now I think of Jack Sparrow–or does he count as a good guy?

    • I’d say Jack Sparrow counts as a good guy, but he keeps jumping back and forth so it’s hard to tell sometimes! Will Turner nailed it when he was asked what side Jack Sparrow (excuse me, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow) was on and Will replied, “At the moment?” Jack is a rogue but a good one, methinks.

  9. Jaclyn

    Great post! I just finished listening to the Percy Jackson series on audiobook and noticed this phenomenon. Without spoilers, there are two “bad” characters (a spy, and one of the villains all along) that “go good” at the last moment. This was the only series in which I can recall actually crying when a “bad guy” died – pretty impressive complexity, especially for middle grade fiction.

SPEAK!!!

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