How do authors get readers to cheer for the bad guy?

I was searching the blog archives this morning and found a comment on a post from waaaay back that I never answered. The post is “My Breaking Bad injury, or why good writing is dangerous.” The comment is from loyal blog reader Dana Jean:

Maybe you can answer this for me. I can’t STAND Skyler. I just loathe her, but why? She has every right to be pissed. She has every right to feel betrayed and hurt. But, when she starts with that face she gets and that attitude, I really want to smack her.

Walt is a bad guy. He did wrong things for the right reasons — at first. And even when he continues to do very bad things, I see his reasoning behind it. I supported Dexter too.

How are these authors making me cheer for the bad guy?

How indeed? What tricksy methods to writers use to get viewers, and readers, to cheer for villains and anti-heroes? Here are some reasons why we cheer for the bad guys:

They’re well-rounded. We see the entirety of their lives. And we see their lives from a compassionate perspective. Walter White starts from the most sympathetic position possible. He’s a brilliant, dedicated teacher, whose knowledge and passion for science are ignored by his students. To pay the bills, he has to work a humiliating second job at a car wash. He’s a devoted husband to his pregnant wife and father to his teenage son, who has a disability. And then he learns he has terminal cancer.

They have laudable motivations. Walter White starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone. He knows it’s illegal. It’s not a good thing to do. It puts him in danger. But time is running out, and he’s desperate. And the fact that he does something so dangerous actually makes Walt more sympathetic, at least at first.

They’re powerful. We like to read about (or watch) powerful people. We admire their power. We treat it — and them — with respect. Power helps them get things done. Think of The Godfather. Don Corleone is a mobster, but he can make miracles happen (it seems) for the helpless people who petition him for aid. In Breaking Bad, Walt starts out powerless, and we want him to gain agency, and respect, and independence, and revenge… and, yes, power.

Of course, power doesn’t solve Walt’s problems. By the time he says one of television’s all-time greatest lines to Skyler (“I am the one who knocks”), he’s far down the road to corruption. But we’re along for the ride with him.

The other guys are worse. Skillful writers make their bad guys look good by comparison. Who is Walter White up against? Tuco and Tio Salamanca. The cousins. Uncle Jack and his neo-Nazis. People who are remorseless and disgusting. Walt has to become tough to deal with them. We want to see him stand up and defeat these guys.

By comparison to Walt, Skyler can seem petty. Ungrateful, even. (Isn’t he doing all this for her?) She finds herself powerless, but the way she tries to strike back at Walt and get out from under the situation make us think poorly of her. (For example, at her wits’ end trying to get Walter to move out of the house, she sleeps with her boss, then tells Walt — in the kitchen at home, at dinnertime, as crudely as possible.) And, at heart, Walt is the anti-hero of the story. Skyler becomes an antagonist. She would stop him. And, thanks to the skill of the writers and Bryan Cranston’s brilliant portrayal, we don’t want that to happen.

Sorry it took me three-and-a-half years to answer your question, Dana Jean.

UNSUB reviews: LitHub, Boston Globe, Journal-Sentinel, and more

LitHub headline

UNSUB will be published June 27th. Reviews are coming in, so I want to round some of them up. (YES, read the book!)

In LitHub, Lisa Levy has a wonderful essay about UNSUB and Karen Dionne’s new novel, The Marsh King’s Daughter: The Daughters of Crime Fiction Are Getting Tough on Bad Dads.

“Unsub is a really frightening book, in large part because of Gardiner’s deft use of close third-person narration. It put me in mind—though the subjects could not be further apart—of the work of Henry James.”

I will take that. All day, every day.

More reviews:

“An adrenaline-fueled rush… Shades of “Silence of the Lambs’’ and the Zodiac Killer.” — Boston Globe (Hot for a Summer Read?)

“I love a good serial killer novel, and Gardiner has written one of the most accomplished ones I’ve read in a while. Gardiner has created the perfect balance of vulnerability and violence in her main characters, all of whom are damaged in their own ways. When the killer becomes a “hot knife through the center of (Caitlin’s) head,” “Unsub” will already have a cold grip on your heart.” — Carole Barrowman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Paging Through Mysteries: 5 thrilling choices for summer reading)

“Scary-good… Meg Gardiner knows how to get readers’ hearts pumping, and she brings plenty of thrills with this one. UNSUB is a first-rate crime thriller that’s well-written and carefully plotted. Just when readers think they’ve zeroed in on the killer, Gardiner delivers one devilish twist after another.” — The Real Book Spy

“Bring on the nightmares.” — PureWow (7 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in June)

And the Vallejo Times Herald talked to me about writing the novel: Author of new Zodiac-inspired novel and planned TV series, holds Bay Area events.

And a reminder: You can preorder the novel today!

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

UNSUB book tour: Dallas added

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Here’s the latest on my book tour schedule for UNSUB. I’ve added July 5th in Dallas, where I’ll be talking to the amazing Don Winslow, discussing his hugely anticipated new novel The Force. 

UNSUB Book Tour:

June 26: Book People, Austin, Texas – 7PM
Moderated by Jeff Abbott

June 27: Murder by the Book, Houston – 6:30PM

June 28: Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona – 7PM
In conversation with Spencer Quinn

June 29: Orinda Books, Orinda, California – 11:30AM

June 29: Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco – 7PM

July 5: Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park, Dallas — 6PM
With Don Winslow

July 6: Best of Books, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — 6PM

ThrillerFest XII
July 14-15, 2017
Grand Hyatt New York City

I hope I’ll see you along the way!

Writing writing writing… and UNSUB is coming

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My new thriller, UNSUB, will be published June 27th. This week I’m getting ready — planning my travel for the book tour, writing articles, doing interviews, and honing my ninja skills to a high level. As you do.

I’m also working on the sequel to this novel. So I’ve been editing a fight scene. Which means I asked the Husband to teach me how to take down a knife-wielding home invader, using only a leather belt and some momentum. As you do. Unlike a few years ago, this time I managed to act out the fictional fight without scaring the neighbors or my children. That’s a win.

And after going for my husband with a wrench (standing in for the knife), I feel confident that in real life he would have disarmed me and laid me out flat in less than a second. I’m glad I have him in the house. And I re-confirmed my decision never to take up home burglary.

The fight scene I wrote today will be published in 2018. In the meanwhile, you can preorder UNSUB.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

Book Page picks UNSUB as one of its books of the summer

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Book Page has named its 13 most anticipated books of the summer, and I’m delighted that my upcoming thriller UNSUB is on the list.

Book Page 2017 Summer Reading Preview

“Gardiner shines, as usual, with character development, building her grisly psychological thriller around detective Caitlin Hendrix, whose father failed to catch the killer decades earlier. Suspense fans should grab the opportunity to meet Caitlin on her first outing, since she’ll likely make many return appearances in print and on the small screen (CBS has announced plans to adapt Unsub as a TV series).”

I’m thrilled that my novel joins books by Stephen King, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, David Sedaris, and other amazing writers on the list.

So, yeah. Check it out. Preorder. ‘Scuse me while I run around whooping for a few minutes.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Guest Post on Mystery Fanfare — UNSUB: When Cold Cases Kill

I have a guest post today on Mystery Fanfare, about the writing of my upcoming novel.

(Mystery Fanfare is an online adjunct to Mystery Readers International, whose members vote for the Macavity Awards.)

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UNSUB: When Cold Cases Kill

UNSUB is about a legendary killer and the young cop who hunts him. In my thriller, the UNSUB—an unknown subject in a criminal investigation—starts killing again after twenty years, and Caitlin Hendrix must decipher his coded plan before he drags more innocents to the abyss.

The novel was sparked by the unsolved case that has haunted California for decades, and me since childhood: the Zodiac. That infamous UNSUB shot and stabbed seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Zodiac sent dozens of messages to the police and media, including cryptograms that have never been broken. The terror wrought by the killings still lingers today.

Head on over to read the rest.

And don’t forget — UNSUB is published in June, but you can preorder it now.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon

Read an excerpt from UNSUB

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Over on Medium, my publisher has posted an excerpt from my upcoming novel, UNSUB. The excerpt includes portions of three scenes from the first chapters of the novel. Here’s the opening:

April 1998

The yelling woke her, the rough voice of her father, shouting into the phone.

“Listen to me. We don’t have days. We have hours.”

The black sky poured through the bedroom window. Shadows crawled the ceiling.

“Don’t you understand? It’s in his message — Mercury rises with the sun.”

Caitlin curled into a ball, hugging her bear. She knew what Mercury meant. It meant flashing lights and BREAKING NEWS and everybody so scared. A body bag sliding into the coroner’s black van. KILLER CLAIMS EIGHTH VICTIM. It meant you could never close your eyes or turn your back. Because he could get you anytime, anywhere.

Click to check out the rest. UNSUB: excerpts.

And remember: The book’s out June 27, but you can pre-order today.

Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Book People | Murder by the Book