I’m a sucker for a good redemption story, especially one where someone who seems completely irredeemable gets a second chance to get it right. That kind of story poses an interesting question: What does a hero have to do to be a hero? Regardless of background and history, what does it take to be heroic?
In my July book, The Smoky Mountain Mist, the hero, Seth Hammond, was at one time a very bad boy indeed. He came by it naturally, born in poverty to a mean, meth-cooking father and a sad, defeated mother who drank more and more to forget her pain. When he was barely fifteen, his father blew up their home in a meth lab explosion, killing himself and nearly killing Seth and his mother.
He found his calling, he thought, when a childhood friend’s father, Cleve Calhoun, took him under his wing and taught Seth everything he knew about running cons. And Seth became very, very good at it, managing to toe the line between unethical and illegal more often than not. But after a while, Seth realized there was no satisfaction to be found in lying to people for a living. Nor pride and honor, those distant but persistent concepts he’d believed in, once, as a child.
Now Seth’s turning his life around, with the help of an FBI agent who gives him the occasional chance to pull cons for the good guys and pay for his sins. And Seth has rediscovered his childhood fascination with making things work by taking a job as a fleet mechanic at a trucking company.
But when Seth’s pretty new boss at the trucking company becomes the target of a ruthless killer, it may take all of Seth’s old con artist skills to keep her alive.
I’ve often thought of con artists as serial killers of the soul. They can be just as sociopathic in their desire to trick people into handing over loot, even if they don’t kill anybody in a legal sense. So, can a con artist be redeemed?
I’m not sure about in real life. But in fiction, why not? One of my favorite fictional characters from the last few years was James “Sawyer” Ford on the TV show Lost. At first an unrepentant con man, slowly, over time and with much suffering in the meantime, James found his way to a measure of redemption. He was still an anti-hero type, rather than a full-blown hero, but he was rootable enough to be one of the main protagonists over the last few seasons of the show.
What made his redemption story work was that he never really changed his essential self—he was still clever, determined and at times ruthless in pursuit of what he wanted. But his motives changed. He cared about other people in a way he hadn’t before. He took into account the feelings and needs of others. He even put himself on the line to help others, something he didn’t do in the early, unrootable days of the show. He was always proactive, but by the end, he was displaying honor as well.
But as much as I loved Sawyer, he wasn’t my main inspiration for the character of Seth Hammond. No, the man who inspired Seth was another, unredeemed character from another great TV show, Justified. Boyd Crowder flirted with redemption for a brief period early in the show’s run, and I found myself wishing so hard that he could find it. Of course, he was doomed to follow his own wicked path, pushed there in part by the low expectations of others but more profoundly by his low expectations of himself. I kept wondering, though, what might have happened if Boyd had it within him to say, “That’s it. I’m done with crime”? If he’d stood there and taken the slings and arrows of judgment from the people who didn’t believe in him and fought, not for their approval but for his own self-dignity? What kind of man might he have become?
That’s the “what if” I played with in The Smoky Mountain Mist. I hope y’all enjoy Seth Hammond and his rocky road to redemption! And now, I’d like to hear from y’all. Do you have a favorite bad boy character who found redemption or is trying real hard to find it? ‘Fess up! Let’s all embrace our love for the bad boy heroes.