How to Write About Negative Leads

by James Scott Bell

In my writing workshops I talk about three kinds of lead characters: the positive, the negative, and the anti-hero.

The positive lead is the traditional hero. This is someone who operates according to the shared morality of the community. It might be an ordinary man or woman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Tell No One). Or, it could be a hero with skills, like Jonathan Grave or Liam Neeson in Taken.

We root for positive leads because they represent us in the fight against evil and bad guys.

The anti-hero is someone who has been divorced from the community for some reason. They usually live according to their own code. The plot involves them being dragged into some trouble happening within the community. The story question then is: will they be reconciled to the group, or once again assume the role of outcast?

Rick in Casablanca begins the film sticking his “neck out for nobody.” Gradually he is pulled into a Nazi resistance scheme. At the end, he rejoins the community and the war effort. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers comes in from the wilderness and gets involved in finding his niece, who has been taken captive by Comanches. At the end, in one of the most memorable shots in movie history, he once again is consigned to the wilderness again.

Then there is the negative lead. This is someone who is engaged in an enterprise that offends our collective morality. The quintessential example is Ebenezer Scrooge, but also many of the leads in crime and noir fiction, such as Jack in The Vengeful Virgin, a book I wrote about last week. Indeed, some of the most popular fiction out there is about negative leads. Gone Girl anyone?

So what’s the secret to this kind of story? I’ve identified eight motifs in this regard:

  1. The Slow-Motion Car Wreck

You know how people are (including you). You’re on the freeway and there’s a big wreck ahead, even on the other side of the median. Flashing lights and crunched metal. You slow down a bit for a look. It’s human nature.

A book about a negative lead can be like the wreck itself, in slo-mo. I think of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the lead, his brother and a friend discover a crashed plane with a big stash of drug money. Should they report it? Or try to keep it? And when they decide to keep it, will they be able to sustain the secret without bringing disaster upon themselves and their loved ones?

I remember reading the book and actually saying out loud, a couple of times, “Don’t do that … please don’t do that!” And then they do it. I had to turn the pages, watching this wreck, hoping against hope that these guys wouldn’t descend further into the darkness.

  1. The Redemption Hope

Another reason to read about a negative lead is hope for their redemption. This is the way it is with Scrooge as he starts to get his angel visitations. It’s also what happens with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

The key to this kind of story is to show us, early on, that the character has the capacity for moral change. With Scrooge, it begins to happen when he is taken to his boyhood past, his loneliness at school. It brings out deep emotion in Scrooge. There’s a heart in there after all! We read on to see if that heart can be warmed again.

With Scarlett, it’s her moxie, her guts, her strength. Like when she defies polite society by dancing with Rhett while she’s supposed to be in mourning. She uses her spunk selfishly most of the time. If only she can turn it in the right direction before it’s too late! If she does, frankly, we would give a damn. So we read on.

  1. Inner Turmoil

Sometimes, seeing what the wrong choices do to the inside of a character makes us want to find out what happens. Witnessing the emotional turmoil of a character automatically triggers our interest, because we experience it ourselves all the time.

In The Vengeful Virgin, Jack Ruxton is a knot of conflicting emotions once he falls for the alluring Shirley Angela and the two hatch a plot to murder the old man she cares for. Brewer gives us the insides of Jack throughout, as in:

Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy. It comes down over your head, and wraps tentacles around you, and sinks long dirty fingernails into your heart. It has a stink like burning garbage. Doom. I sat up all night with the lights on. Waiting.

Passages like that kept me going, even though what Jack was doing was immoral. There’s a sort of catharsis in seeing massive inner conflict in someone else. We can put our own on hold while we’re reading!

  1. Comeuppance

This idea applies when we read about a real crumb. We want him to get his just desserts. He deserves to go down.

Once again, I turn to The Vengeful Virgin, because there’s a point in the middle of the book where any sympathy we might have for Jack is wiped out. His jilted lover, Grace, keeps hounding him, and getting in the way of his plans with Shirley. Grace is not a bad person, just stupidly in love with the guy.

She surprises him one night outside Shirley’s house. He’s so outraged he hits her. Hard. Staggers her. Then hits her again. Then twists her arm behind her back and shoves her into her car.

This disturbing turn makes us want to see Jack get what he deserves. (**Spoiler alert** … if you plan to read The Vengeful Virgin, skip down to #5.)

In an ending that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, Jim Thompson, Jack Ruxton, guilty of two murders, is shot by a drunken and envious Shirley, who then turns the gun on herself. She dies, but he survives, only to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to the electric chair. The last lines:

Yes, that’s how it was. Grace, she was always burning. Then Shirley and I began burning. And then the money burned. And now there was time to burn.

Then, after there was no more time, they would burn me.


  1. Love Conquers All

With a hat tip to Huey Lewis, there’s just something about the power of love. Especially in noir. In films like Gun Crazy and They Live By Night, doomed lovers grab our hearts even though we know it won’t end well. It can’t. In the moral universe of noir, you pay for your sins.

James M. Cain’s classic The Postman Always Rings Twice bonds us to the murderous couple. Drawn first by lust, by the time the book gets to the end, the two are truly part of each other. There’s poignancy on the last page as Frank Chambers awaits his appointment with the electric chair (Old Sparky is a familiar last stop in these books!):

Here they come. Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.


  1. At least he’s better than the other crumbs

One of the hardest of the hardboiled writers was Richard Stark, pen name of prolific author Donald Westlake. He created Parker—thief, killer, heist man. Not a shred of sentimentality in this guy. So why do we root for him? In the first book, The Hunter, Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead after a heist. He goes after the money he’s owed, taking on “the outfit” (the crime syndicate) to get it back. Not the whole stash, you understand. Just his half of it.

In other words, compared to the other criminals involved, Parker’s cause is “just.” It’s a remarkable feat, which is why no less than seven movies have been made about this character (the two best are Point Blank and Payback}.

  1. Such a charmer

Tom Ripley, the protagonist of several novels by Patricia Highsmith, has been described as “charming, literate, and a monster” (Roger Ebert). Also “a likable psychopath.” Talk about a challenge! Yet Highsmith pulls it off.

  1. Will They Get Away With It?

Finally, we sometimes read or watch a criminal caper story and actually find ourselves hoping, just a little (or maybe even a lot), that the negative leads get away with it.

My favorite film example is The Asphalt Jungle. Directed by John Huston, the film is about a group of thieves coming together to pull off a big heist. There’s a sympathy factor in operation for each of these desperate men, and you find yourself pulling for them even as the cops pull the net tighter and tighter. It’s really one of the great crime films of all time, with a memorable early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Okay! Let’s open this up. What’s your favorite book or movie about a negative lead? What made it work for you?



BTW, if you want to get in on the ground floor of a series with a hero, try ROMEO’S RULES

28 thoughts on “How to Write About Negative Leads

    • I confess I’ve not read that series, but the question to ask is whether his actions are something the community would generally approve or disapprove of.

      From what I can glean from the summaries, Rain is a hired assassin, who doesn’t care about the reasons he’s hired. That’s negative. But as the series goes on he wants to get out of the “killing business” and he is shown to have a conscience. To me, this sounds like a #2 trope, hope for redemption.

      • From the back jacket of Rain Fall: John Rain kills people for a living. His specialty: making it seem like death by natural causes. But he won’t take out just anyone. The job must be an exclusive. The target must be a principal player. And he’ll never murder a woman.”

  1. I loved Bonnie and Clyde (the 1977 movie). It fits nicely into #5 on your list. Who wouldn’t’ root for young Dunnaway & Beatty,?

  2. Great avice, Jim. Two of my favorites have to be Dexter Morgan (DEXTER) and Walter White (BREAKING BAD). Both characters go against the grain of society and yet I always pulled for them.

  3. Jim, would you consider Jack Reacher, the protagonist in Lee Childs’ books, an antihero? Sometimes he follows the rules, sometimes he ignores or breaks them. He’s sort of a “usually a hero-likable sometimes antihero” type.

    • Definitely an anti-hero, Doc. Reacher has no community. He wanders from place to place. But he comes to a town and trouble finds him. Will he ever settle down? Not if the publisher has anything to say about it.

  4. Love the characters created by James M Cain and Jim Thompson (and reading some Gil Brewer atm – thanks JSB) the “no redeeming qualities” displayed make the story what it is. Too many stories have flawless characters in them and the (overdone) one man saves the entire world nonsense, is pure basket case fantasy.
    We know that Jim Thopmson’s real world was full of these characters and it didn’t improve when he went to Hollywood – thanks Stanley Kubrick.
    My fav book about a negative lead would have to be Lou Ford in the Killer Inside Me.

      • And therein lies the attraction. Instead of rooting for our hero to right all the wrongs, save the damsel in distress, prevent a war, uncover corruption at high levels, and find a decent pizza joint (all in under 400 pages) we just want to see the unscrupulous get their comeuppance!

  5. My favorite for a litany of reasons is Eddie Coyle in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Both the movie and the novel by George V. Higgins are great. Eddie is a bad guy and he is one of he most tragic figure outside of Shakespeare. In the movie, the aging and drowsy-eyed Robert Mitchum was perfect in the role of Eddie.
    Higgins gave us novel that can be difficult to read. Eddie is a bad guy, but does he deserve what happens to him. I love he story.

  6. I recently re-read what I consider to be a contemporary noir classic, if a seriously under-appreciated one: THE LONG FALL by Lynn Kostoff (2003). Its main character is Jimmy Coates, a small-time criminal who finds that his older, more successful, law-abiding brother has decided, at long last, to stop bailing Jimmy out his jams — even though the one Jimmy currently faces could end his life. He’s so hurt and disappointed and angry that he decides to rob his brother’s businesses and target his brother’s wife as well — though it turns out that the wife is all too willing to be taken, at least for a while.

    What saves this story from being unbearably nihilistic and downbeat is that a) Jimmy really does love his brother on some level and wants nothing more than his respect; b) he winds up falling in love with the wife, on a level that transcends the coupling’s initial cynicism; and c) Jimmy has a strange habit of doing the right thing, if only in situations where doing so is the last and least attractive option. He’s a grifter and a loser and a weasel, but the better nature he seems to wish wasn’t there keeps popping its head out of the ground at inopportune moments. (Same with the wife, too.)

    Kostoff plays this masterfully, making Jimmy half antihero and half negative lead, never nudging the reader’s sympathies one way or the other. He just creates characters and lets them act according to their needs, and the plot seems to roll out alongside these fully realized characters with a reluctant inevitability. It’s one of those novels that I get something new out of with every read, and I read it at least once a year, or whenever when I feel stuck with my own writing.

  7. Allow me to stir the pot.

    How about Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz? Dorothy is a lost girl who finds herself in a surreal city after she accidentally kills a woman. Then Dorothy allows a beautiful woman named Glinda to convince her to commit a felony and steal the dead woman’s valuable shoes that are made entirely of rubies. After the dead woman’s sister arrives and demands her rightful inheritance, Dorothy joins forces with three needy older men and convinces them to help her kill the the dead woman’s angry sister in order to placate a fraudster who claims he is wizard who will help Dorothy get home to her family. After murdering the sister and stealing her broom for the fraudster, Dorothy says goodbye to her accomplices and agrees to leave town with the fraudster, who agrees to take her home. However, the fraudster leaves town without Dorothy, after which Glinda returns and encourages Dorothy to use the expensive stolen shoes to return home.

    It’s all about POV.

    And now for my serious answer. How about The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith?

    Have a great weekend, everyone. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the posts over the last few weeks, btw.

    • Let’s see, Dorothy as a bad person? Great idea. Wait a minute, didn’t Gregory MacGuire write Wicked and four others in the series? Great books. As usual, Joanne is spot on with a great post. She reminds us of different POVs. Imagine Silence of the Lambs from the hospital director’s POV or the whale’s POV from Moby Dick. Oh, this could be fun.

      • That Dorothy is one tough cookie.

        Btw, I began reading Romeo’s Rules late last night. Love your protagonist. When he went after the guy wielding the knife, I was hooked. Good stuff.

        If anyone wants to see an example of the right way to introduce a protagonist, take a look at how JSB does it in Romeo’s Rules. Also notice the tight writing.

  8. I think the key to all great novels featuring a negative-lead character is to let action and dialogue carry the character, and keep exposition to a minimum. A lot of interior rumination would ruin such novels in two ways: 1) Such characters generally aren’t given to a lot of self-reflection, except when it leaks out unwillingly, and usually an audience is present for that so it can be rendered as a dialogue; and 2) It smacks of authorial intrusion, an attempt to shift our sympathies before the character has a chance to earn them on their own.

    • You’re right, Jim. If the author is caught “trying too hard” to manipulate the feelings, it always hurts the overall objective. In this type of fiction, unsentimental is the way to go. Ever Richard Stark novel is like that.

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