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Screenwriting - Bad Guys We Love

By Edited Nov 25, 2016 8 28

Bad Guy

Okay maybe love is too strong a word. But how many times have you watched a film and cared about a lead character whose behavior flies in the face of everything you consider moral and just? He’s a bad guy. You wouldn’t want him for your neighbor. You wouldn’t want him for your friend. How do you quell your conscience for hoping to see this guy succeed? And moreover for being willing to spend two hours watching him try? There are plenty of films populated by many bad guys but we’re speaking here specifically about a bad guy who is the star of the film.

Screenwriters know very well that there are certain steps to take when creating a less than stellar main character. Let’s look at a few. Later we’ll see why some of the movie details I’m about to present are so important to how you are impacted by these steps.

Note: There are spoilers in this article but none of these examples involve current films.

The Godfather (1972) is a classic example of bad guys we care about. Don Vito Corleone, and later his sons, Michael and Sonny, were bootleggers and killers. The movie opens at the wedding of Don’s daughter. This pivotal scene is responsible for making the audience like this family. Only after we feel warm and fuzzy about them are we jolted by how ruthless and violent they can be. But they live in a world of violence, where their adversaries are meaner, and not men of their word. What we love about the Corleone clan is that they are loyal to family. The good of the family is their primary concern. We can’t help but see that as an admirable trait. They also have a moral line they won’t cross, although the line kept moving with each subsequent film installment. For Don Vito Corleone, bootlegging and killing was one thing, but he refused to get involved with prostitution. Strong moral fiber indeed!

In the movie The Professional (1994), the lead character Leon, was a professional hit man. Against his better judgment, he gives refuge to a young neighbor girl Mathilda to save her from drug dealers. He tries to protect her because he knows how street people operate and how dangerous they can be. Here’s as dangerous a man as you can find, yet we’re laughing out loud when he dons a silly costume and blinking back tears when he dies.

Bandits (2001) is a buddy film of sorts with two bad guys in the lead. Joe Blake and Terry Collins break out of prison then go on a rampage leaving empty bank vaults in their wake. This comedic duo becomes known as the “Sleepover Bandits”. The last thing they want to do is hurt anyone so they spend the night with the bank managers and their families, then go to the bank in the morning to clean it out with his help. Gotta love’em right?

Some bad guys are really nice guys who make bad decisions. That was the case with Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974). A mild-mannered architect, Kersey becomes a vigilante and goes on a killing spree that spans five films. Those murders were all based on revenge. He wanted to level the playing field because his family had been taken from him in a most violent way, and this was his way of dealing with it.

When bootleggers, murderers, and vigilantes enthrall us, does it mean we are morally bankrupt? Not at all. The reason people view movies is complex. Overall, we go to see how other people solve problems. If your heart goes out to a despicable character along the way, blame a talented screenwriter. Screenwriters take deliberate steps to build characters with particular traits that they introduce at calculated moments in the film. All these calculations add up to a main character you will reflect on long after you have left the theater. Here are six magic tricks filmmakers use to keep you invested in the story when the lead character is… not so nice.


If you put human principals on a scale, how bad is your bad guy? Where does he draw the line? One way to gain audience sympathy for him is to surround him with people who are worse, people who make his infractions seem almost reasonable. In the Godfather Don Vito wants to play by rules, but his enemies are untrustworthy men without character, and Don’s hand is forced to protect his family. The Professional also falls into this category. The drug dealers, backed by a corrupt cop, are more ruthless than Leon could hope to be. Luckily, he's a bit smarter.


Like Paul Kersey, this bad guy didn’t start off that way. He was a law-abiding citizen until someone pushed him to the edge. A main character that experiences a grave injustice, is one the audience will relate to. You will put yourself in their shoes and wonder what you would do under the same circumstances. Hopefully you walk out of the theater knowing you would find a different solution.


Remember the heartwarming wedding in the Godfather? Michael even attended in his military uniform, a soldier fighting for American freedom. Is this a great family or what? The filmmakers pulled out all the stops with this one. Up front, they presented the best traits in these characters and tender moments between them so you would be willling to book a ride on the Corleone journey. Once you're on board, the violence is trotted out. But we’re already “in”. It’s too late to hate them so we somehow find a way to tolerate their transgressions.


And again, Don Vito. In the wedding scene, Don takes time out from the wedding to speak with guests and accept generous gifts on behalf of the newlyweds. It’s clear his admirers respect him. And it’s obvious he tries to repay that admiration with favors. How can you hate a character everyone else respects and adores?


No matter how bad your character, no one can resist someone who is ingenious and wildly inventive. One of the best examples rolled into theaters in 2002 when Frank Abagnale demonstrated his creativity in Catch Me If You Can. This guy was extremely good at slipping into someone else’s I.D. Everyone from pilots, to doctors, to FBI agents. He convinced all around him that he was something he was not. There was an interesting message in this movie because Frank broke a lot of laws, but in the end his cunning became the key factor for winning his freedom from prison when the FBI asked him to help them hunt down similar criminals.


People love to laugh and they love people who make them laugh. Joe Blake and Terry Collins were like an Improve act, two funny guys who provided lots of humor and… just happened to rob banks.

The next time you go to a movie and the lead character is a bad guy, you might have a different experience knowing the screenwriter took deliberate steps to get your sympathy. Hopefully, you can put that aside and still enjoy the film.

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Nov 2, 2010 9:32pm
Some of Clint Eastwood western roles are some of my favorite bad guys I love. I love this article, very well done.
Nov 3, 2010 3:50pm
I agree about Eastwood. Always appreciate your comments!
Nov 3, 2010 8:52am
Remember "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?" They were such charming bad guys! I love this article. It was very thought-provoking, and will certainly make me look a little closer at the next movie bad guy I see! Thanks for another terrific article!
Nov 3, 2010 3:51pm
Butch and Sundance, definitely! And how about Bonnie and Clyde? So many good ones. Thanks for your comment.
Nov 3, 2010 3:36pm
Excellent article. Pulp Fiction also had bad guys you liked.
Nov 3, 2010 3:52pm
Yes. Most were bad AND funny! I appreciate your comment.
Nov 3, 2010 3:55pm
Ahhh, yes, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, some of my favorite actors of all-time. Loved them in the Sting as well. Two bad guys taking down the ultimate bad guy. Got to love that.

I always appreciate your taste in good movies, divaonline. Truly an entertaining and well written article.
Nov 5, 2010 8:54pm
Great article!
I agree with you that if the crook is charming then we will love him, no matter how bad he is. - Your reference to: 'Catch Me If You Can' is a very fine example of this.
Nov 5, 2010 9:03pm
Thank you Askformore. I thought Catch Me If You Can was a great study of the charming bad guy and wished it had done better box office. I thought it deserved more. I hope it's done well on dvd.
Dec 13, 2010 12:16am
I read the book Catch me if you can back in the seventies, long before the movie came out and was amazed at what he was able to get away with. Great front page worthy piece Thumbs up again from me!!!!
Dec 13, 2010 2:05am
Wow--nicely done Diva--I do have one correction if I may--it was actually Michael Corleone who won the uniform and fought for his country--not Sonny. I really enjoy your writing and this article is a wealth of information!
Dec 13, 2010 2:20am
Weianow - Truly appreciate your comments! I stand corrected. It was Michael and not Sonny in uniform. I'm making the change right now.
Dec 13, 2010 11:59am
Congratulations on another fine article getting on the front page!
Dec 14, 2010 1:47pm
Thanks Mommymommymommy!
Dec 13, 2010 1:46pm
I've noticed in the past decade or two a departure from the uniform "good is good, bad is bad." Most of the good guys barely wavered from doing the "good" thing, and bad guys had no redeeming values. Now it's the opposite, good guys struggle with doing the right thing when faced with challenges that would make any of us think twice about charging ahead, while the bad guys are often shown compassionate sides. It makes for a much richer story, in my opinion.

Great article - very worthy of a Feature, congrats!
Dec 14, 2010 1:41pm
Thank you! I agree with your observation. And flawed characters are always much more fun to watch.
Dec 13, 2010 1:59pm
Bravo on a great front page feature, you're a great writer and I like reading your work. That first photo is aiming right at me - eek!! lol
Dec 14, 2010 1:42pm
Thanks Veto! Kudos to you for being so prolific on IB!
Dec 13, 2010 3:35pm
I agree.......awesome piece of work.........:-).
Dec 14, 2010 1:49pm
Thank you!
Dec 13, 2010 4:09pm
congratulations on getting front page with another great article!
Dec 14, 2010 1:45pm
I appreciate the recognition. Thanks! And congrats to you and your dog :) for landing on the front page. Love that article. Have shared it many times with friends.
Dec 13, 2010 5:59pm
Diva! You did it again, and again, and again!! Congratulations on another Featured Article! :o)
Dec 14, 2010 1:46pm
Thank you three times! I'm grateful for all the comments.
Dec 14, 2010 9:23pm
Congrats, how many features does this make? Wow... love this— "One way to gain audience sympathy for him is to surround him with people who are worse, people who make his infractions seem almost reasonable."
Dec 14, 2010 9:34pm
Thanks. Welcome to the all Diva all the time channel. I'm not complaining but it's a little embarrassing.
Jan 9, 2011 10:44pm
I love this article and think that others will enjoy it, too. So, I've decided to Tweet and Stumble it. Thanks for sharing your movie expertise with the rest of us ... who really do love movie bad guys!
Jan 10, 2011 5:33pm
Thanks Debbie!
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