Vigilantism is one of those aspects that often carries a certain romanticism to it in media. Whether it’s a lone, broody person or a group, there is something poetic about people’s justice and the idea any person is able to take down criminals. As such, vigilantes can often be a very popular type of character to write, fueling our imaginations with exciting imagery of daring trials and the ultimate prevailing of justice. However, vigilantes are also a hard sort of character to write, as it often requires a certain balance between numerous aspects to succeed. Today, I would like to talk about 4 elements to writing a vigilante character that I think are important to achieving that success. While some may be obvious, they are things I do think get overlooked, so hopefully they will be contextualized in a way that gives you food for thought.
Without delay, let’s get into it!
- Vigilantism is not restricted to one personality type
Picture a vigilante in your head. There’s a chance if I said they were broody, complicated, and had a tragic past, I’d be describing whoever you pictured to some degree. This would especially be the case if you pictured Batman, one of the most iconic vigilantes in contemporary media. More often than not, this broody personality is the most common type written for vigilantes, as generally stories that focus on them are trying to be dark and serious. However, I believe one thing you should keep in mind when writing a character who is a vigilante is that it is not restricted to a single personality type. You can have upbeat characters who love rainbows as vigilantes. You can have bookworms who are the shy, quiet types who are vigilantes. You can even have a devoted priest as a vigilante. Vigilantes are not restricted to dark and broody, nor does a different character type suddenly make your story un-serious.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with dark and broody, do not feel the need to restrict yourself to that. If you do it, more likely than not people will notice and the character will feel forced, dry, and dull. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your character’s personality, as you may find some interesting combinations that breathe life into your tale. Remember, it is not the personality that makes the vigilante, but their actions.
- Vigilantism is illegal in most societies
One thing that can often be forgotten for beginners is that vigilantism is not usually legal. In the eyes of the law, a citizen murdering a criminal at random is not justice, but rather just murder (with exceptions for self-defense, obviously). Even minor assault towards a known criminal is still assault at the end of the day. This can often be a difficult concept to keep in mind, as most media with superheroes, which are technically about vigilantes, rarely acknowledge this singular fact. Nevertheless, when writing your vigilante, it’s important to keep in mind vigilantism’s dual place in society.
What do I mean by dual place, though? Now on the one hand, a vigilante may be loved by the people. Few people would say that they feel sorrow at seeing a criminal getting their comeuppance, whatever form that comeuppance may come in. On the opposite side of the coin, those devoted to the system of laws, like police, are more likely to view the vigilante as a dangerous radical. The better you can balance these dual aspects, the more likely it is your vigilante will succeed in seeming grounded and realistic. How you balance them is up to you and often dependent on the tone you wish your story to have. Yet, it is still good to show some semblance of both, as leaning too far in one direction can lead to a break in immersion. Master the balance, though, and these issues of legality can help make for dynamic dilemmas, both externally and internally.
- Vigilantism generally arises from a perceived failure of the justice system
No one just wakes up one day and randomly says, “I’m going to go hunt criminals and defeat them.” Well, okay, maybe in a comedy this would be how it happened. Assuming you’re writing a story with more serious elements however, your vigilante character needs a reason to become a vigilante. Now, at the base, a vigilante’s turn to vigilantism stems from the same thing: a perceived failure of justice. Maybe the police failed to arrest the criminal who murdered their parents, because the police chief buried all the evidence. Maybe the courts found a thief innocent instead of guilty due to a lack of evidence. Maybe the criminal just can’t be found despite the police’s best efforts. Regardless, your character’s background should reflect some element of how they feel they were denied their rightful justice by the system. Even if it’s not the focus of the story, as the author you should still know in what way the character feels the system betrayed them.
However, it is important to keep in mind the word “perceived.” How the character feels does not necessarily need to reflect objective reality. For instance, your vigilante could turn to vigilantism, because the prosecution failed to prosecute someone due to lack of evidence. Only, after the vigilante’s journey, it turns out the prosecution was right and that the accused was indeed innocent. In this case, the justice system objectively didn’t fail, but the vigilante’s perception of its failure still makes sense as a character motivation. All in all, keep in mind what your character thinks may differ from the actual objective state of the justice system, and this is both okay and humanlike.
Before we leave off on this tip, you should also note that the vigilante’s motivation does not need to be self-involved. By this, I mean the character doesn’t need to have murdered parents or be the victim of the denial of justice. Rather, than can be motivated by the grandiose desire to protect people in a world where they feel the justice system is failing them all. The important thing is that the motivation makes sense and that the justice system has some sort of failure (whether real or imagined).
- Vigilantism can be a double-edged sword that leads to abuses of power
As mentioned earlier, vigilantism is illegal in most societies. There are reasons we have things like due process. It is not just to avoid criminals suffering human rights violations, but also there to ensure that the innocent do not get wrongfully treated either. However, vigilantism is a practice that oversteps all these procedures in order to dispense justice. In some cases, this can be portrayed as good, as it avoids the so-called tape that can allow some criminals to walk free. Yet, one should also remember that it can also do harm, as it risks the rights of both the guilty and innocent.
When writing your vigilante character, this is also something you must keep in mind as well. Certainly you can write a beloved character, but remember that their vigilantism can be abused. This can take minor forms, such as them causing property damage they don’t take responsibility for, or take major forms, such as killing innocents for minor crimes that the vigilante feels they should be punished for. The more successful a vigilante is, the more egotistical they usually become and self-assured their justice is the correct justice. There are numerous ways, of course, that you can portray this dangerous side. Perhaps it is not your “good guy” character who even displays most of the negative side, but rather some rival antagonist who is also a vigilante. Nevertheless, this potential abuse of power is not something you should ignore in your writing. Rather, it is something you should embrace for both the potential internal conflicts and the showcase of realism. Vigilante characters walk a dangerous path with their actions, and this is one element that shouldn’t be overlooked when showing the complicated nature of the character. Even if the character is mostly a hero, keeping that idea they might go too far in the reader’s mind is a sure way to create excellent tension and dynamic situations.
No matter what type of vigilante you write, I hope you will keep these four elements in mind. Vigilantes can be some of the most complicated characters to portray, as they are a type who thrives on the gray parts of dealing with life. This also gives them the potential to be the most interesting types however, as their internal and external dilemmas can be impactful and leave the reader asking many questions. My hope is that by compartmentalizing the ideas behind a vigilante like this, the process is made a bit easier though. Please make sure to do your vigilante some justice in their portrayal, as they can lead to fascinating tales when done well. Until next time, happy writing!