Rogue Literature: Villains as Heroes

Johnny Cash wrote rogue literature; the poetry of the criminal. (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Lately I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash songs.  Many of his tunes are about the exploits of criminals like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Cocaine Blues”, “25 Minutes to Go” and “Hardin Wouldn’t Run”.  Cash had an ability to tell the story of a criminal better than anyone (even though he served absolutely zero time), but his lyrics follow a little known genre called rogue literature. 

Rogue literature is defined by the “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory”(Penguin Reference) as: “a genre concerned with the underworld and thus with criminal and quasi-criminal life and activities.”  It was more popular in the 16th and 17th centuries with works like Hye Way to the Spyttel House by Robert Copland (ironic name), Caveat for Common Cursetors by Thomas Harman and Lanthorne and Candle-light by Thomas Dekker.  I would argue that it has found its way into the contemporary world through films such as anything directed by Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty novels and Donald E. Westlake’s novels written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark which featured a protagonist named Parker.  In the first novel of the series entitled The Hunter, Parker embarks on a relentless quest to kill the man who left him for dead during a heist.

Writing a rogue novel seems like an interesting concept, but how far does one go down the dark path as a narrator until we find ourselves cringing at the evil we are capable of creating?  I don’t know if I have the salt to write such a novel and make it seem real.  I guess I’m just not bad enough.  Johnny Cash found inspiration in his own dark nature that he said “only June (his wife) could keep away.” I can create vicious villains that have fatal flaws, villains so wicked that they maliciously become perfect obstacles for the hero.  I use the villain’s traits to shine a spotlight on the characteristics of the hero which then endears readers to that protagonist.  I would find it difficult to write a novel in which the protagonist is cruel, vile and nasty.  It makes for an interesting read, and takes readers down a path they would otherwise not travel, but I’m sure it would be worth attempting sometime.

Possibly you are reading this and you are writing a rogue novel.  My advice to you is that a villainous protagonist will have the same characterization as a typical hero or even an anti-hero, but without all the baggage of needing to save the day or be a “good guy”.  I would argue that the villainous protagonist has different kinds of baggage like: What has made the hero so evil?  What is the motivation for continuing a life of crime?  Is there a moment where the hero might have a choice to do good but does evil and why?  Considerations like this will make for a multi-layered character that will be exciting to read.  A character of this design will keep us guessing, and that is worth the time it takes to follow an evil protagonist down into that blackened cave.

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11 thoughts on “Rogue Literature: Villains as Heroes

  1. I’ve never thought of Johnny Cash’s music that way – you’re right, of course! I have difficulty listening to both country and western music, apart from Zappa’s various dealings to the genre (including to Johnny Cash – Zappa’s ‘Ring of Fire’, from the “Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life” album is hilarious). On a more literature-oriented note, I’d add ‘Watchmen’ to the list. A graphic novel, but it tackles these issues fairly directly. I posted a while back on my blog about it and asked readers who their favourite character was. The consensus – Rorschach, whose story throughout the novel made it very much a part of the rogue genre.

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

  2. I recently finished a book called “Mistakes were Made (but not by Me) about the justification of hurtful acts. If you are writing a villain, you must keep in mind that no villain ever thinks of himself as the villain, but as the hero. Hitler believed that he was saving his people and his country.

    Only when you understand the journey from someone like us to what he became can you understand how he could feel that way. The sad reality is that the difference between Hitler and Captain America is actually very tiny one magnified over time. The portrayal of Magneto and Xavier in the X-men movie franchise. Small choices; no one becomes a villain overnight.

    Once we have begun a trip, we continually justify the investment such that each step is not, by itself, a horrible choice. Only when aggregated do those choices, in retrospect, lead to the final state. Anything which is contrary to our view of ourselves is minimized or ignored.

    A young, idealistic cop can become the corrupt veteran who regularly violates citizen’s rights under the banner of “doing what is needed to get the real criminals off the street” and it could have all began with the choice to plant drugs in the crack house when the raid fails to turn up any.

    Because of this psychological facet, even the most evil of characters can become the focus of a story. They all have a reason for being what they are and how they justify it.

  3. I rememer when I saw the movie Silence of the Lambs written by Thomas Harris. I thought what kind of twisted personality would write this. I think the psycho-thrillers are the most intimidating because they play directly off the person reading (or watching) them. I am not sure I could write these types of books either.

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