Rooting for the Bad Guys

It’s been a long, rainy winter-turned-spring here in the Pacific Northwest. And I’m sick of it. Every day when I bundle up in my increasingly leaky raincoat to walk the dog, I try to remind myself that rain today means a glorious green summer. Three months from now. (Humph.)

Yeah, I’m cranky. Which might be why I’ve been so delighted to stumble across two books recently with characters who reflect my mood.

It’s not easy to write heroes who are crankpots, murderous villains, or downright unlikeable…but for whom the reader cheers to victory anyway. But Eliza Crewe’s CRACKED and Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS both do it brilliantly.

So rather than wishing the rain away, I decided to get to work figuring out how Crewe and Bardugo conducted the magic of making me care about two of the most black-hearted characters I’ve read about recently.

FC9781908844675Eliza Crewe’s CRACKED opens with the main character, Meda, in a mental hospital. We’re not sure why she’s there, but we have the idea that she could leave whenever she wants. As the chapter continues, we watch as Meda kills a patient and eats his soul.

Gross, right? Not to mention criminal and morally questionable, even after we find out how evil the guy she killed was. Well, the fun is just starting. The book then tosses Meda into the midst of an ancient battle between demons and Knights Templar, and we’re never quite sure whose side she’s on until the climax of the book. A friend who read the book said, “I kept waiting for her to get all soft and mushy at the end. But nope. She pretty much just keeps wanting to kill people. It was awesome.”

But even though Meda is murderous to the end, Crewe does a few things that keep the reader rooting for instead of against her morally squishy protagonist. First, Meda has a dead mother who was good and kind and whom she misses deeply. Whenever she does something questionable, Meda invokes the memory of her mother and condemns herself. It’s a lot easier to forgive her for her murderous thoughts when we know how much they cost her.

Crewe also gives Meda her very first friends – interesting and deeply flawed characters in their own rights. And although Meda doesn’t always treat them well (and thinks about killing them way more often than – I hope! – my friends do) her growing affection for and loyalty to them warms us to Meda, even in the moments where we doubt she can overcome her villainous nature.

FC9781627792127Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy heist novel SIX OF CROWS features a whole team of criminals, all of whom have moments of unlikeability. But the heist crew boss, Kaz Brekker, goes out of his way to discourage readers and everyone else to dislike him. Not only does he not care about being liked, he actively pushes everyone away.

Except Inej. The deft cat-burglar is the one person in the world that Kaz allows himself to almost care about, and his struggles to keep her at arm’s length even as he wants to clutch her to him are so poignant that I kept rooting for him in spite of the fact that if I met him on the street, I’d give him a VERY wide berth.

Add in a horribly tragic backstory of loss, betrayal and unimaginable horror, and even if I was repulsed by most of his behavior, I couldn’t help but hope Kaz would come out of the impossible heist whole. I forgave him almost all of his failings because I understood just how deeply he was wounded, and how desperate he was to protect himself from ever being so wounded again.

Neither Kaz nor Meda were “cured” of their crankiness by their adventures. They both go into their respective sequels as almost as cantankerous as they started. But Crewe and Bardugo made me – cranky and water-logged as I am – care about them and their journeys.

And I think I’ll still like these crankpots even when the sun finally comes out.

4 thoughts on “Rooting for the Bad Guys

  1. Excellent analysis! I just finished Six of Crows and agree with you wholeheartedly. CRACKED just went on my TBR. Understanding unlikeable characters is a bit of an obsession of mine these days!

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