Everyone loves an unscrupulous rogue. Our pop culture features entire space fleets worth of bounty hunters, enough hired guns to fill an armoury and a half, armadas of pirates and assassins everywhere; there are whole creeds of the buggers. It’s an assassination fascination. What exactly draws us to these dangerous and unlawful archetypes? Surely, by all logic, we shouldn’t sympathise or hold such an interest in people—fictional or otherwise—who could and would kill or bundle us off to our enemies if someone paid them to.
Though, as previously discussed, everyone loves a villain, and people deliberately disobeying the laws and moral values we’ve had ingrained in us are fascinating to watch precisely because they’re so removed from the everyday life we lead and the stuff that we ourselves would do. Then again, the fictional mercenary manages to be wrangled into a sympathetic kind of person a good two thirds of the time. It’s amazing how often hired killers or thugs can be turned into the heroes (or at least the enjoyable protagonists) of the stories we love. Maybe, even before we discover a potential tragic bloodstained backstory, we feel an immediate connection with someone on the other side of the law, since it immediately makes them an underdog—especially if The Law is evil and scary, like the Alliance in Firefly, and our rouges-for-hire are imbued with a much better sense of humour and badass coats. It’s pretty easy to start tugging the strings and make us switch our traditional notions of who to root for.
Of course, there are plenty of terrifying and genuinely villainous assassin and hunter characters about, but it’s interesting to note how fond we are of taking this career umbrella—killing, harming and evading the law and everyday morals for money, something most of us audience-folk would find unthinkable—and turning them into lovable good guys. Hell, they’re even the stars of comedies. Think Grosse Point Blank for romance, about a hired gun at his awkward high school reunion. Think Cowboy Bebop for a flatshare comedy: essentially about a group of clashing characters crammed into a small space(ship) and forced to work together with various episodic hijinks along the way. The basis for any dramedy, except that it grabs your attention by promising two out of five of these conflicting roomies to be bounty hunters, con artists and ex-killers (the other two, for reference, are a fluffy-haired hacker and a corgi).
There you go, then, unscrupulous rogues are simply interesting since their lives will be so different from our day at the office, and even the most mundane episode or chapter of their lives will probably involve at least one explosion or gunshot. Also interesting to note with Cowboy Bebop is how it demonstrates the two poles the character type can conjure up story-wise: sometimes wacky comedy when they’re trying to catch space-faring eco-terrorists (or ending up accidentally high on ‘shrooms), sometimes gritty, morbid and soul-searching (and with an ending and major character arc that will punch you right in your laughing mouth). So there’s potential for a wide range of plot points—and a wide range of episodic storylines, if you can keep coming up with people for your crew to kill, hunt down, etc.
After all, being a fictional mercenary is a day job. Which brings all sorts of things into the mix character-wise—are your rogues-for-hire really just good guys who have the skills and need the money? Do they have a moral code behind their actions, choosing their profession as a way to kill off the bad folk in the world like my favourite Mage Killer? Anyone who walks this path will immediately have some Things going on with their moral stance and ambiguity. Do they feel bad about the blood on their hands? Are they going to be forced by their inherent good will to Do The Right Thing at one point? Were they brainwashed into their profession or trained from a young age? Or do they genuinely not care and see shooting or hog-tying people as a way to get food on the table, the targets themselves just collateral damage?
Yes, everyone loves a complex badass. A rogue-for-hire will likely be both complex and badass as a matter of course, so there’s some plain old entertainment value there—anyone succeeding and surviving in this line of work and the shady territory it comes with is going to have some cool tricks up their sleeve, be it real-world or fantastical. Don’t we all wish we had the core strength and gun savviness of Black Widow? Or at least wish we could rock her outfit? Oh well. If we cannot dream, we can watch, and soak it up. It’s the James Bond effect, but with the added bonus of knowing these characters are out for themselves, and not always as neat and tidy with their personalities or means. Which, again, we enjoy from afar.
It gets better when you add a fantastical or sci-fi element, which, as you’ll notice from the fact that two of my first examples were set on spaceships, the rogue-for-hire archetype lends itself nicely to. Just about every fantasy world has its own guild or secret society of hired killers, from Robin Hobb to The Elder Scrolls, and scruffier less organised mercenary types like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Bronn scoffing quietly at all of them. Of course, this all leads nicely into the question of what separates a knight from a mercenary (killing the right people at the right person’s behest??), but that’s a discussion for another day. First we have to go googly-eyed at the endless possibilities presented by magical rogues-for-hire.
There’s unlimited playing room, and quite a bit of creative license available for the taking—fictional hired killers are sprinkled with confetti and glamour a lot more than their real-world counterparts, and the entire business of delicately trained murderers goes back into the misty mess of mythology. For the less delicate, one has to note that fiction pays a lot more attention to swashbuckling pirates of previous eras than the current situation of piracy around the world, making it a pretty romanticised career path. We’ve had a fascination with this type for millennia, and no doubt our bringing them to the forefront and making them our handsome likeable anti-heroes is part of an instinctive effort to make the idea of murder-for-money less horrifying.
What can we say—as an audience and culture we have a detached fascination with bad guys—and it’s not as simple as characters being bad here by nature, it’s that they’ve made a career out of it for better or worse. It’s an outlandish thing for most of us to seriously consider, though there is an element of wish-fulfilment or at least awesomeness-appreciation as we watch characters much sharper, deadlier and probably wittier than us sneak or blast around on screen looking cooler in long coats than we ever could.
It leads to all sorts of creative, philosophical and humorous attempts to bring them into our realm of understanding. Sometimes we make them gallant thieves, sometimes we skip it entirely and make these characters as unscrupulous and murderously awful as possible, sometimes we make them tragic badasses, and either way it feeds our fascination. And either way, someone’s going to do something cool with a knife or gun or acrobatics at some point, and the weapon and all the moral philosophy and cut-throat danger of them will be safely sheathed away when we switch off.