These groups are sometimes known as the guys who send the protagonist their journey, or providers of an unexpected safe haven from the powers that be, or maybe just fodder for a character showing off his/her new power.

Now, one thing they all have in common is that they don't get the attention and depth they deserve in most worlds. The groups tend to be bit players that only serve a fleeting purpose.

What I am looking for is a way/method/system for creating groups in this category. I need to know what properties should be considered and how to make them deeper than a convenience.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that I'd necessarily put rebels in the same group as the others. While they're all "outlaws", rebels aren't always going to be of the criminal classes. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ @KillingTime I kept them together mainly because they are all opposed to the powers that be (generally speaking) $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ If you like fantasy worlds, The Lies of Locke Lamora could be a good read, as most of the action take place amongst those. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ So... you want to create a wretched hive of scum and villainy? $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 22:23
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ One common source of dangerous outlaws in Roman times (among others): hastily-demobilized soldiers. Ideally you should settle your veterans in outlying areas of your kingdom with 40 acres and a mule-equivalent each, because just stopping payments on 10,000 heavily-armed people creates a problem. $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 17:47

6 Answers 6


If you want a group that lives outside of the law to have depth, you have to provide a motivation for them to live like that.

Living outside the law isn't easy. In general, laws exist because they provide safety and stability. Being a bandit means that you don't have that safety or stability!

So let's take a look at some viable motivations:

  1. Your family is starving: If you don't have enough to eat, you don't feel safe or stable even if the land you are living in is otherwise a utopia. You are going to go to desperate measures to find food. If other people have food and you don't, you're going to try to steal food or something that can be used to obtain food. There is a lot risk in doing this, but if it's literally do or die...
  2. You have been cast out by society: Hundreds of years ago, exile would have been more harsh than a death sentence. You no longer have anyone helping you if you are sick or injured. It would be difficult to get any other village to accept you. Setting up a farm on your own would be very difficult, and because you're an exile it makes it much easier for others to find you and punish you again for whatever caused you to be exiled.
  3. The rule of law is broken: If the law is being ignored or is twisted in favor of those in power, you don't feel the safety and stability the law is supposed to provide. This is where Robin Hood figures and rebel groups fall. These people generally want to follow good laws, and feel that in order for that to be possible they need to cause massive changes to happen.
  4. Peer pressure: If your friends are members of a gang, you'll feel social pressure to be affiliated with that gang. You might actually be press-ganged into joining the gang. This could happen with a bandit group, too, whether they are recruiting or outright kidnapping.

There are, of course, other possible motivations. For a group of bandits, etc. to form, the conditions need to be sufficiently bad for a number of people to be in these situations. Having a grudge against society or the powers that be is a good common ground for people to share, making it plausible that they will tolerate each other even if they are naturally violent people.

You should also think about the origins of a particular group - I don't expect bandit groups to have a great long-term survival rate. A group of starving peasants would be likely to want to work together, but if they're starving the chances are that they're less skilled than average. A group of people exiled for being violent might be able to survive thanks to their skills, but the group is likely to fracture due to their violent natures. A mix of violence and starvation could wind up rather stable - the few violent exiles would naturally seek to take charge, and could provide enough leadership to keep the group alive, while the starving peasants help keep the group cohesive enough to not split apart.

So here's a few key points:

  • Consider the motivations of the individuals, and give each one a reason to risk abandoning the safety and stability the law provides.
  • Have a diverse group. If everyone in the group is a cookie-cutter copy of each other, the group is not likely to be stable enough to be realistic.
  • Think about how the group got started, and who joined when. That will shape the group's goals and the rules by which they live.
  • Consider how risky it is for them to live as they do, and make sure that their motivations are sufficient for them to be taking such risks.


Obviously the key element is to have a Evil Government/Overlord/Big bad worthy of rebellion. One weakness of stories with a rebellion (especially where the protagonist is a rebel) is that the either the "powers that be" are chaotic evil (i.e. evil for evil's sake without any logical justification) or their motives are detailed so poorly that you wonder why anyone would bother with a rebellion at all. Painting the two sides in detail, clearly showing what each side stands for and why they can't peacefully co-exist will help flesh both sides out and make it feel like a genuine struggle.

Thieves, Bandits and Brigands

The biggest failing I've seen with these characters is one of the size of the group. Often the criminal gang is just too large to be supported in the location where the story is set (swords & sorcery fantasies with a thieves guild often fall into this trap). Too often the sheer number of burglars, pickpockets, pirates, robbers and con-men involved make you wonder how the honest people around them aren't all permanently penniless.

So the key is to look at the environment and see what sort of crime(s) it can support. How much money is there in the society as a whole? What is law enforcement like? What's the best way for the criminals to get at that money (theft, drugs, extortion, etc) with the least risk and the greatest reward?


Bandit and Rebel groups appear very differently from inside and out. Any realistic group will account for both viewpoints.

Externally, such groups act parasitically, attacking in areas where the powers at be would like to claim they have control, but in reality they lack it (whether because they cannot observe the bandits in their acts, or if they simply lack the ability to strike at them). They can be thought of as mid level predators. They have to avoid being caught by the powers at be, but prey on those who lack the power to oppose the brigands.

From the inside, the forces of the powers at be should be viewed as forces of nature. They're not really opposable, so brigands do not try. However, they generally do not define themselves solely as "opposing the establishment." Such a subculture is vulnerable to shifts in the powers at be. Instead, the culture should appear as a complete and independent culture living within the limits of the forces at be. They should give the feeling of a tribe living at the foot of a volcano. They don't define themselves as "people who avoid the lava flows." They instead are "a people, just like any other tribe, which happen to proudly dodge lava when needed, and they're good at it."

That inner culture is important for making them feel "real." Groups who define themselves as "opposing X" often have trouble sustaining themselves in times of trouble.

  • $\begingroup$ good point about how the group defines itself. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 20:13

Did I choose the thug life, or did the thug life choose me?

  • If someone has chosen that lifestyle, there must be a reason.
  • There also a reason why he didn't change later.
  • There is also a reason why they don't get all arrested or killed.

Think about the reasons why these things happened or didn't happen, and you'll have a much richer background.

  • $\begingroup$ OT: is "chose" correct? $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ OT: It's probably "choose" $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @KillingTime thx $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 20:26

Two things need to be considered for a realistic "outlaw" group.

First off, is there a way for them to support themselves by outlawry. Pirates, contrary to popular myth, were mostly "government" agents using issued Letters of Marque as a licence to board and plunder "enemy" shipping. The Crown received a share of the proceeds, making this a lucrative business for all concerned (although Spanish or Dutch merchants might disagree...). Even in the "Golden age" of piracy, when more pirates were operating than Letters of Marque would support, the British Crown turned a blind eye to the goings on at Port Charles in Jamaica and other pirate nests since this provided economy of force for the Empire: essentially an entire naval fleet harrying Spanish, French and other shipping without the Crown having to spend a single shilling. Interestingly enough, once the pirates had served their purpose and were now costing British merchants money, the Crown hired Henry Morgan (a former Pirate) to become Governor of Jamaica and clean up the problem once and for all. Which he did (there is no honour among thieves)

This outlines the second issue; if pirates, brigands or outlaws are operating because they can live off the proceeds, then someone else is not "minding the store". Modern day pirates operate off Somalia because there is no actual Somali government to enforce the law, and pirates in Indonesia are essentially beyond the reach of the small and ineffectual Indonesian Navy, coast guard and police (if they don't pay them off first). The Drug gangs in Mexico and South America operate on a similar logic, they control the territory because the local government cannot or will not.

So the two conditions you must have are ungoverned or ungovernable territory, and the territory being close to places where the outlaws can gain wealth (either by plunder or trade [the drug trade or slave trades are examples of this]).


Why are people outlaws? Many it is circumstances that drove them too it. Taxed out of house and home. Maybe unable to hold down a job. Or maybe they think life is 'easier' taking from others.

So why are they bandits?

Next why do they still exist? How can they be 'criminals' and not be arrested or otherwise stopped?

Since they exist, what kind of power-base do they have? Are they a band of merry men prancing through the forest? Are they hardbitten criminals that break legs to encourage 'donations' to help keep the neighborhood 'safe'?

Are their 'guilds' or 'mafia' style organizations where stepping out of line makes you a criminals criminal?

Most organized crime is fictitious and used to make a story more interesting. Gangs exist, and they work together, guilds for thieves and others is a little extreme though it makes for a great piece to use. It also implies some greater organization with the possibility of a person to appeal to.

So Why is someone/group criminals, why are they still criminals and what do they want. seems easy... ;)


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