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What Makes a Good Badass?

Assassin by shenfeicEveryone loves a good badass, and, let’s admit it, our genre is full of them! But what makes a successful badass and how do they fit into our stories?

Well, first off, it’s worth noting that this is going to be an extremely subjective article, as what works for one reader will never work for all. But there are certain kinds of badass characters that do seem to connect instantly with readers, and others that spark almost universal hatred.

What is a Badass?

Let’s start by asking what it means to be a badass. As with many other labels (grimdark, epic fantasy, Mary Sue, etc.), it’s not easy to pin it down exactly (and it wouldn’t be very badass if it were that easy to pin down, would it?). Badass is about actions and skill but also about feeling and attitude – a character who does what it takes, whatever it takes, who doesn’t accept defeat, who is calm and unshakeable in the face of danger, focussed and usually highly skilled, who follows their own rules. The badass is that character who shows up and you know that now you’re gonna see some results.

A Badass Plays on Difficulty Level: Extreme

However, it’s not all about succeeding. I think it’s actually very important for a badass to have visible limits, and for them to understand those limits themselves. There are badasses who swan in and effortlessly mow down their enemies, and there are the kind who are too arrogant or stupid to see their own weaknesses, but I would argue that this does not make the best kind of badass. There has to be danger, a genuine chance of losing, to show a character’s bravery, focus and determination.

Warrior for LotFP by RhinevilleInstead, those characters who know that they might fail, or even that they will fail, but refuse to give up anyway, who stoically plan how to best make the situation work for them – now that’s a badass. The characters who will take on the bully who no-one else is willing to stand up to, not because they are tougher than the bully or because they know they will win, but because they know it’s the right thing to do…badass.

But…simply facing the danger may not be enough. I believe that an important element of badassery is extremity. A badass tends not to do things by halves. They will face any danger if they have to and keep fighting even if they have no chance of winning, but they will always do it with style. The badass way is usually the extreme way – the way that the rest of the characters may never have contemplated or even dreamed of taking.

Perhaps my favourite example of this kind of badass is the witch Agnes Nutter from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. Agnes’s help curing the village’s illnesses attracts the attention of the Witchfinders. When the mob arrives, Agnes is calmly waiting for them. She is led to the stake and burned alive, a fate that she knows she cannot escape. Little do her executioners realise that she has concealed 80 pounds of gunpowder and 40 pounds of roofing nails in her petticoats.

Equal Opportunity Badassery

Lambholt Elder by Matthew StewartBadasses in the fantasy genre tend to do a lot of fighting, it’s true. Often the fate of the world, or at least of the city, or at the very least of a large bag of gold, is at stake. But being a badass certainly doesn’t have to be about fighting. A badass lawyer will think outside the box as she strikes with devastating arguments. The badass baker will try unexpected and daring flavour combinations to win the bake-off.

Badassery is not confined to any gender or race or situation in life. It’s not confined to any subgenre or type of story. It’s not even restricted by career choice – there are badass doctors, archaeologists, milliners, woodcutters, knitters, anything. Often the best badasses are the unexpected ones. The beekeeper who wins the beekeeping competition may be badass, but the beekeeper who uses her beekeeping skills to thwart the evil warlord when no-one else can or dares…she’s a badass I’ll never forget.

Badass, not a Bully

A Sword without a Sheath by ArtgermBadasses can turn unlikeable very easily. The do-what-it-takes attitude and a certain disregard for authority – typical hallmarks of the badass – can make for a fun and exciting character, but when exaggerated can lead to an arrogant, unlikeable kind of badass who treats everyone poorly and leaves destruction in his or her wake. This might still make for an interesting character, of course, but if the other characters in the book insist on treating him or her like a great hero who can do no wrong, then it’s quickly going to get unrealistic and frustrating for the reader. A badass doesn’t need to be a nice person – successful badasses can be likeable or unlikeable, but it’s important that we are shown enough evidence either way. Simply being a badass is not enough to ensure the reader, and especially the other characters, will love them.

A badass does not have to be mean; they are not bullies. In fact, I tend to think the better badasses are the ones who put others or even the whole world ahead of themselves. But badasses don’t have to be shiny good paladins of justice either. They can breaks rules and endanger people, and they can have unappealing and off-putting traits. The most important thing is that they stay true to themselves. A badass who doesn’t care about other people will sacrifice anyone in the pursuit of their goals. A badass who doesn’t believe in killing will stop at nothing to win the day while saving as many lives as possible.

Old Fashioned Beat-Down by KaiCarpenter

Badasses Are All About the Showing, Not the Telling

Remember that golden writing rule, “Show, Don’t Tell”? This is vital when it comes to badassery. If the author tells us someone is badass but doesn’t show it, then it’s just not going to work. Similarly, there’s only so much boasting the badasses themselves can get away with. Confidence and cockiness is fine, but there is a fine line. Trying too hard is definitely not badass.

Soulfire Grand Master by algenpflegerBut this leads me to a point that is probably going to be more controversial. General good writing advice does not always apply to the badass. A fully rounded character, while normally a vital element of a story, may actually impact on his or her badassness (shush, it’s a word). The more that we know their thoughts, fears, grumbles, prejudices, hopes and opinions, the more real they become, and so the less they feel like an icon, or a phenomenon or force. There is a reason that badasses are often the enigmatic, silent type. In this case, badasses often work best as side characters or villain’s henchmen. They also work well as mysterious characters who become fleshed out and develop into real people later in a series.

However, I do think the fully formed badass can and does work, though it is much harder to write. This kind of badass will tend not to be the silent mysterious type, though this can sometimes be achieved by providing a companion character who gives the reader insight into his taciturn friend. Instead, they display their fears and inner feelings for the reader to see and criticise, but push through and achieve awesomeness anyway. No doubt this is a very subjective point – is a certain amount of shallowness/mystery needed for a badass to retain the essential elusive element of badassery? Can you still consider a character a true badass once you have been inside their head?

That ‘Oh Yes!’ Moment

Dragon Age - Dwarf by Jason ChanI believe that when it comes to the badass, it helps to limit the amount of badassery on show. When there are fewer badasses in the story, and a limited number of truly badass moments, then each one counts more and is more impressive. Too much badassery can become diluted badassery.

What we are looking for is that “Oh yes!” moment. The badass makes whatever they do, however they do it, seem like the most amazing, awesome moment in the story, whether it is a fight, a cooking contest, a debate, delivering a baby, painting or driving. It’s that triumphant moment, for heroes or for villains, a moment of utter disbelief or air-punch satisfaction.

And now, I feel like I’ve typed the word ‘badass’ so many times that it’s lost all meaning, so I’m going to turn it over to you. What does badass mean to you? Are there any specific characters that you think are badasses, and what works or doesn’t work about them? Do you have a favourite badass? Tell us in the comments!

Title image by Jason Chan.



  1. Avatar Joanne Hall says:

    I’m currently very taken with the bad-assery of Jen Williams Wydrin (The Copper Promise)

  2. Avatar Ben says:

    While reading this article I was trying to think of the characters that I have thought of as being “Badass” and the usuals came to mind; Logan Ninefingers,J org Ancarath. But then the realization came to me that they are supposed to be written that way. Then I started thinking of other characters and the ones I came up with are Cracknut Whirren from The Heroes and Nothing from Half a King are two that jumped out in my mind. This made me recognize that in my opinion the “Badass” characters have to have a touch of insanity. Not full blow crazy, but just enough to keep people on their toes.

  3. I usually don’t rate anything as a 10, as people just throw it out at anything they somewhat agree with, which in turn means you don’t have rating left to give to truly outstanding things when you need it. Like this one.

    All these points pretty much match exactly with the things I’ve indentified as what makes a great Sword & Sorcery hero. Which is all about badasstitude. Badassery really comes down to a character doing the improbable in a highly dramatic fashion. A badass isn’t blind to danger or the limitations of his abilities. He know when he is gambling very high and his chances for success are marginal at best. But instead of ceding defeat and trying again another time, a true badass goes through with it anyway.
    It doesn’t even have to work as planned to be sucessful Just the act of trying should be enough to intimidate the enemies. Someone who is risking his life to do the ludicrous is not someone who can be defeated or chased off by any normal means. Usually you expect an enemy who has been beaten to to be defeated, but a badass just keeps on trying anyway.

    And I also agree that a true badass probably doesn’t work if you read what’s going on inside his mind. When he shares what’s going through his head, the reader knows that he is either actually hyper compenent or just outright delusional. The ambiguity of that slight degree of crazy in his actions is what makes the badassness so awesome.

  4. Avatar Matteo Bortolotti says:

    To me, badassery is mostly about willpower, being ready to proceed in your task no matter how difficult, just by not being scared by the odds and stay down when it looks too hard, like Batman punching Superman just to show that there are people who dare and Toph developing techniques good enough to curb-stomp sveral grown opponents despite her own blindness and young age.

  5. I think the fully rounded badass works when they actually don’t show how bad ass they are until that critical moment. Or the “recovering bad ass” – someone trying to walk a different path.

    Logen Ninefingers was mentioned earlier and he’s a perfect example of both. In the Blade Itself, he shows that he’s a mostly capable fighter but he seems like kind of a nice guy. I’m sitting there wondering, “why is everyone so terrified of this dude?” Then when that question is answered it is so awesome, it imprints the character in your brain for all time. Abercrombie delivered so well on the promise of that character, every now and then I’ll open that book just to read that one scene.

    Other end of the spectrum would be Soulcatcher from the Black Company series. She and her sister gave me nightmares once upon a time. Also, let’s not keep it to just humans. How about Mouse? Furriest and best bad ass since Chewbacca.

  6. Avatar Greg says:

    A Badass to me is someone willing to just get completely destroyed by the world and then keep on walking. Someone who encapsulates that ideal is Guts from Berserk (manga). I mean it’s in the name.

  7. Avatar Hamza says:

    A true badass hero is one who does the impossible in confident manner while possessing a believable personality. example would be karsa from house of chains and yedan from the crippled God

  8. Avatar Ronel says:

    The best badass that comes to mind for me of late is Juliette from the Wool series by Hugh Howey. I’ve read many stories since with badasses in, particularly the Song of Ice and Fire series, but it seems that too many badasses makes for diluted badassery since I’ve read about so many yet not one name comes to mind now. Except for Juliette, her actions still stand out for me and is one of the fewer occasions that I read one of her badass moments and just felt that ‘Oh, yes!’ moment. Reading this with Juliette in mind checked so many boxes for me.

  9. Avatar Declan says:

    Old Mrs Hempstock from The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably my favourite badass.

  10. Avatar Zen DiPietro says:

    I love this post and the comments! I agree with just about everything. My favorite badasses of the top of my head are Devi Morris from Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, Leeloo from The Fifth Element, and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. All very different kinds of badasses, but I love all three.

  11. Avatar Louise says:

    For me badass heroines are a major attraction in a story. I love kickass female leads, perhaps because they reflect traits I’d like to have and feel I lack. I can think of a few potential candidates for the position of my favourite badass character but currently Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine has the greatest presence. Danny is the main character and is reasonably well rounded, but because of how Saintcrow allows us to witness the more ‘vulnerable’ and more badass aspects of her personality (and some of the reasons behind them), her presence and ‘badassness’ remains uncompromised. I don’t feel that this balance was maintained to full effect throughout the whole Dante Valentine Series, which is a shame as it did impact on how I felt about her in later books, but she was always redeemed by continuing regardless of how much she might have wallowed in non-badass thoughts. In the end, even if you decided that her apparent badass nature at the start of the series only ran so deep, she had become a true badass by the end. That said, I wasn’t actually happy with the conclusion of the series. I felt it was a little lacking, but that was more to do with plot content than character. Danny sticks in my mind because she is competent, determined, passionate and not afraid to be a little ruthless when required, without becoming one of those ‘too cool’ too amazing, and often less than compassionate characters, that I am really not too keen on. You always knew that she was going to kick some serious ass, even if it would mess her up majorly in the process. She might take a serious beating, enough to kill, but then she’d always end up coming back for more, weather she really wanted to do it or not. From this, I have to agree with all those who have said a true badass always stays true to what they believe about what/how things have to be done, and they just get on and do it.

  12. Avatar Maikel says:

    In my opinion a good badass is someone who is not predictable and do whatever he/she wants for his own purposes


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