Being a Better Writer: How to Write a Rogue

Afternoon readers! Welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer! We’ve got a fun topic to discuss today, and I’m looking forward to talking about it, but as usual we’ve got the news to discuss.

First up, updates on my sickness status: The frog in my throat is clinging with the last of his webbed little fingers, but the eviction has gone through. The throat feels more normal with every passing day. Also, once again, it’s not COVID so bullet dodged.

Now more for the news most of you are interested in: Starforge editing proceeds at pace. I’m into the second quarter of the book now, and just barely behind some of the Alpha Readers. There’s definitely a few spots to sand and smooth, but the action and reveals seem pretty riveting so far. There will definitely be a second Alpha Reading to ensure that everything’s been touched up properly, however. I know a few of you were counting on it due to scheduling, and rest assured this wasn’t ever in doubt. Just reaffirming it for those of you that are waiting.

Second bit of news, tied to that, thanks to the Discord we’ve started to see some proliferation of links for places for fans to talk about Colony and the rest of the trilogy as well as recommend them to other people. Which means we’ve got posts like this showing up places! Slowly but surely, people are discovering the series thanks in part to fans talking about it! Which helps everyone involved, from readers to myself.

Oh, one last bit of unrelated news before we dive into today’s BaBW: The submission date for Troubadours and Space Princesses has been extended! Submissions now have an additional month to be worked on, with the new deadline being April 30th, 2022. So if you’ve already written your story, now you’ve got some extra time to put in the polish, and if you’ve haven’t written it, you’ve got more time to do so!

Me? I’ll be submitting The Minstrel and the Marshal once I’ve sent it through a few Alpha Readers.

All right, I think that’s everything worth discussing at the moment, so let’s go ahead and dive into today’s topic! Let’s talk about How to Write a Rogue.

This topic got put on the Topic List due to an IRL conversation I had a few weeks ago with someone who was brainstorming a very clever book idea (and honestly, if they ever write it, you’ll hear about it on this site because dang it’s a fun idea). While I won’t give you the details, I will say that involved some characters who were con artists of a sort, and while discussing their ideas and concepts, the creator said something that went a little like this:

“Of course, they have this requirement that makes them have to be committing the con, that way people know it’s okay.”

I stopped them right there, with a shake of my head and my hands, to point out that no, they didn’t want that. Why? Because they were writing a story about rogues. Loveable, goofy, rogues. And if they had a justifiable reason to be rogues, well they stop being rogues, and when we read con-artist stories, that’s who and what the audience is there for!

What followed was a quick and dirty discussion on roguish characters and their appearances in various mediums, as well as what makes them such “lovable scoundrels.” At which point I realized that this needed to be a topic discussed on Being a Better Writer, spun around, and added it to the list.

So hit the jump, and let’s talk about the character traits that go into crafting our own rogue of a character.

But first, as always, let’s clarify what we mean when we use the term “rogue.” Not rouge (that’s a cosmetic). But rogue. What is a rogue? What’s the definition?

Well, there are two uses that are most applicable to our context. The first (which happens to be, at least in my dictionary, the top result) is “a dishonest or unprincipled man.” Which we’ll extend to “a dishonest or unprincipled individual” since we’re both not limiting this to gender or to species.

Okay, this tells us a little. But there’s a second definition that I believe will be helpful for our purposes here. This is “a person or thing that behaves in an aberrant, faulty, or unpredictable way.”

Right, got it? Those are the two definitions we’ll be working off of today. But only as our starting point. See, as some of you might have noted, the first definition is one that can very easily apply to the antagonist or even villain of our story. This is true, and why you may hear of a collection of villains, like say from the Batman stories, often called a “rogue’s gallery” or similar.

But villains aren’t usually the type of characters one thinks of if asked to think of a “rogue character.” Nor is it the less typical (but still occurring) second definition, where a character goes off the rails and carries the story with them in an unexpected direction. Again, it’s a correct definition, and you’ll hear writers say “My character has gone rogue and taken the story with them” but it’s not what the majority of people think of when they say something to the effect of “Oh, that character is such a rogue and I love it.”

So then, what is a rogue? What are most readers and audience members thinking of? Well, they’re thinking of a character that is a combination of the two definitions, as well as being a protagonist. In other words, a character that we’re supposed to root for who happens to be a bit dishonest or unprincipled while also behaving in a way that’s aberrant or unpredictable to the rest of the setting at large.

For example, a very classic “rogue” character is Jack Sparrow from the film Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s a pirate, operating well outside the law, but at the same time his behavior is, even to the other pirates in the film, completely mad, often following its own bizarre logic and meandering path.

Another classic rogue? Han Solo from Star Wars. A smuggler who works outside the law … though it’s a pretty authoritarian law (and we’ll talk about that later) who again displays unconventional behavior even once he’s sided with the good guys, just as often going against their codes and requirements when he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Or, for a more classic “gentleman thief,” we can look at Michael Caine and Steve Martin’s characters in the classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where again both characters operate well outside the law and, as a consequence of trying to one-up one another, display increasingly wild levels of “aberrant behavior” as they swindle, con, and connive their way through the story.

Even Robin Hood, the famed outlaw, in many of his interpretations, remains a rogue that the audience can side with, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor (certainly aberrant behavior, especially in modern-day America where the opposite is prized by so many).

All of these characters are rogues! And they’re rogues the audience loves, despite their acting outside the law, and despite their aberrant, sometimes even random behavior.

But why does the audience love them? And how can we write characters that are rogues that get the same reaction? For that matter, how can we write rogues at all? Is it just a matter of working off those two definitions above, or is there more to it?

You might have guessed by now, but there’s definitely more to it. It isn’t quite so simple as “act outside the law” and “be unpredictable.” There have been plenty of young writers who have written that character, sadly, and found that simply meeting those two requirements does not a rogue the audience will love make. Those are the “guideposts” that we need to direct our character toward, but there still remains a lot of open space between those two points, only a portion of which results in a rogue the audience will grin along with.

So then what other attributes do those lovable rogues above share? What traits and tropes bind them together in a way that makes them relatable to the audience? Or, to put it another way, what traits should your rogue characters share in order for the audience to latch onto them?

You’re in luck! This is Being a Better Writer, and not only does such a list exist, but we’re going to talk about it and go over each of the major points that these other rogues all share, one by one.

1) A rogue breaks the law, and not for an entirely sympathetic reason. This is one of the most common traits across the gallery of rogues that audiences love, from Han Solo to Jack Sparrow to Robin Hood: They break the law … and they honestly don’t need to.

Han Solo could have gotten a job being a regular cargo pilot. But he was a really good pilot, didn’t like the government, and smuggling just plain paid better and had a relaxed but exciting lifestyle he liked (especially if you follow his original backstory before Disney rebooted it). Jack Sparrow could have just been an ordinary ship captain … but a contract to carry a cargo of slaves set him against one of the massive trade companies, and he discovered that he liked being on the other side of the law.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some elements of sympathy to what the rogues are doing. Jack Sparrow ran up against slavers, for example, and Han Solo didn’t like the Empire, both of which are things that the audience can agree with. Robin Hood was against the corrupt Prince John and his sheriff, parties that the audience agrees are bad and deserve what punishment comes their way.

But at the same time, they’re still choosing to break the law because they prefer it in some way. Han could still get a lawful job. So could Jack or Robin Hood. All have lawful methods by which they could accomplish their desires. The characters from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels absolutely could have made their wealth by being honest and business like. But instead they chose to be the crooks because to them it was a game of sorts. Something fun that they could do.

So it should be with our rogues: They need to be outside the law, and not entirely for sympathetic reasons. Sure, some of the reasons might be sympathetic to the audience—and I would suggest that this is ideal, as it will resonate with the audience, and we’ll talk more on that in a later point—but some of the reasons?

Well, they’re best summed up by Sean Connery’s rogue of a character in The Great Train Robbery, who when asked why he broke so many laws, and went through such lengths to rob the train, simply replies with no amount of shame “I wanted the money.” Simply put, the rogue acts outside the law not just for some good reasons, but because they want to, for one reason or another. They’re either proving something, see it as great fun, or some other reason, but at the end of the day, a rogue could be a lawful citizen … they just choose not to be one.

Which works wonderfully with feature two of the common rogue, which is—

2) A rogue is funny, glib, and charming. It’s part of their whole “loveable” schtick, but if you want folks in-universe (and your audience) to enjoy the company of your rogue, they need to have a quick wit or a keen sense of humor.

I honestly don’t feel that I need to expound on this one too much since there are so many examples most will know from media, as well as instances of this trait being made into a trope or even a mechanic all of its own, whether its in the progression of quick quips during swordplay being turned into a literal battle of insults or a character just always having a joke or a jab to deliver to a villain while they dance rings around them, the humor and wit of a rogue are very much one of their prime attributes that characters remember.

Keep in mind, however, that all these characters display their own types of humor. Jack Sparrow, for example, bribing the port official after arriving standing on the mast of a sinking dinghy and then pickpocketing the official as he saunters past is funny, but it’s also a type of physical humor that reinforces his unusual character. Robin Hood, meanwhile, is usually the “honorable joker” character that outshoots his foes and outskills his rivals with the blade while making humble quips that far understate his capabilities, making the audience laugh at the mocked foe.

So as you think “humor” think about what kind of humor your rogue (or rogues) will display. Are they quick-witted. Clumsy in a way that’s funny but also intentional because it’s distracting?

Or are there types of humor that don’t work as well for a rogue? TV Tropes notes (obvious TV Tropes warning) that for rogues to be “loveable” they can’t be too cynical, and they’re certainly correct. There are styles of humor that don’t lend themselves as readily to catching the audience’s attention and making them laugh, which is why we see plenty of quick-witted con-men fast-talking their way through a screwball situation, but very few nihilistic, sarcastic rogues who steal just because “life is meaningless angst, bro.” The latter is dull and unfunny, while the former is so well-known and beloved that it practically writes itself.

With this trait then, a “subset” trait could be said to be that rogues are hopeful and/or upbeat in some fashion. That doesn’t mean they don’t get sad, or feel the pressure of what they do. But in general, a rogue is a character who’s looking for the “spice of life” (see the whole bit above about “I break the law because I can”) and that generally means being hopeful and optimistic. Even as they sardonically shoot first and then apologize for cleaning up the mess, there’s still an element of upbeat optimism to them.

All of this helps back up the third trait of rogues, which is—

3) A rogue has a code, a set of rules or lose guidelines that give them lines they won’t cross. Maybe it’s a “respectable thief’s code of honor.” Maybe it’s “Pirate Law” or “Smuggler’s Code.” Whatever it is, while the rogue may not follow societal laws and morals, they will follow their own, whatever those might be. One rogue might describe it as “honestly dishonest” while another might simply say “I only steal from those that deserve it.”

The actual “code” varies, but the important bit is that these rogues aren’t quite the loose cannons their definitions might suggest. They’re not the “bad Dungeons and Dragons rogue” stereotype of simply stealing anything they can and stabbing everyone in the back. They have standards. An aim, a goal, a line in the sand as to what makes an appropriate target and what does not. A golden rule that they live by, or at least try really hard to keep up with. Sorta hard, anyway. Maybe not very hard if that other guy really deserves it.

Point being, they’re not amoral, lawless, completely random “for the lulz” characters. They’re people who have decided that they’re going to break some of the current laws for various reasons, but have replaced them with laws or a code of their own. How important to them that law is, well, that’s up to you. As is what those rules are. Or, rather, up to them, really. But rogues have a moral code of some kind, something that gives them lines they will and won’t cross.

All of this combines to bring us to our fourth and final point, one which I said we’d be back to later. A point that all rogues share, and one that makes up one of the most important parts of their audience appeal an interaction. You ready? Here it is:

4) A rogue serves as a sense of wish fulfillment for the audience, acting on things the audience wishes they could do or would love to see happen.

I’m leaving that on its own line because it is a very important part of why audiences love a rogue. We’re no strangers to the amount of injustice in the world and how things can be really unfair, and while we, for the most part, will then stick within the laws and rules ourselves … it’s really satisfying sometimes to read about a character that breaks those rules to stick it to those who have exploited them. Even if they only do that last bit occasionally.

Basically, it’s a bit of a catharsis for ourselves to read about a character who is capable of taking the daring steps we dream about. Or even if we don’t dream about those steps, it’s exciting to see how the character takes them.

In other words, a rogue isn’t just fun because of their sense of humor or their quick quips, but because we all in a way admire a character who has the strength to stand aside from elements of society we might not like. Even if we know they exist for a reason and would never break them ourselves, we like to dream about what might happen or what it would be like. And through rogues in stories, we can enjoy the mental wish fulfillment of what such a moment might be like.

This comes back to the aforementioned comment I made during the bit talking about how rogues aren’t entirely sympathetic, but are a little bit. Like with Han Solo, we can see why his character wouldn’t want to work under the Empire because they’re oppressive and authoritarian. We even imagine that in the same circumstances, we’d be smugglers a bit like Han Solo, free from any similar binding trappings in our own life.

So yes, this is why we make rogues a little sympathetic … but not entirely. If they’re entirely sympathetic, then they’re not rogues, and everything they do is understandable and justified. We want some of what they do to have that angle, but some of it should be simply because the rogue wants to, and we the audience resonate with that same wish for freedom, using the character as an outlet.

All right, now with all this said, there’s still one last thing you should know: Even if you follow all these guidelines, a rogue may still not quite come off the way you hope. A rogue, unlike other character archetypes, is very prone to being “hit or miss” with your audience. Why? Well, humor is subjective, and so is sympathy, as well as the rogues “moral code.” So even if you make sure your rogue fits all the traits above, you might still find that your audience is still lukewarm on them as a character.

But it’s not the end of the world. A good editing team of Alphas can help you figure out where the character just isn’t appealing and start making tweaks to bring the full charm of the rogue out onto display.

Be patient with it. It might take a few tries to get your rogue to hit the right balance, but once you do, your audience will let you know it.

So, let’s recap: A rogue is a character type that fits both the definitions of “dishonest or unprincipled” as well as “aberrant and unpredictable” but with additional caveats and rules that keep them from becoming a truly loose cannon. They break the laws, yes, but for reasons that aren’t entirely unsympathetic. They do it with a sense of wit, charm, or wryness that endears them to those around them. They’re optimistic, and always have their own code or set of rules or guidelines to give them some sort of moral bounds, even if they don’t conform to the laws of society. All these combine to give the audience a bit of wish fulfillment to go along with the humor and adventure, serving as a kind of catharsis or satisfaction for the reader who wishes that they too could follow in the rogue’s footsteps but is content with living through that character.

Last but not least, even with all of these traits, a rogue still might miss the mark for one reason or another. But don’t despair, because that’s what Alpha Readers, feedback, and editing is for. Keep at it, and before long you’ll have a rogue or a scoundrel that audiences love to laugh with.

So good luck. Now get writing!

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