Writing Gangs

We got a few questions about gangs versus organized crime, and what the difference is. So, I figured we’d do a follow up post about gangs. (The Wiki article about gangs rolls organized crime in with them which is… not accurate, they’re organized, yes, but different beasts.)

The main difference between gangs and organized crime is time. If the street gang survives, it grows up to become organized crime. They’re the Lost Boys in the interim stages before they grow up to become the Pirates. The gang is the proto phase of organized crime, the beginnings of the group before it’s become entrenched. Most Mafia/Mobs do find their original roots in street gangs before they grew up into professional enterprises. The main difference between the Mob and the Gang is the Mob has had time grow, develop, and learn from previous experiences.

The way to think about “organized crime” like the Triad, the American Mafias, the Yakuza, and others like is that they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re a business, and this is where Russian organized crime meets up with the Mafias. The heads of these organizations are like CEOs, and they function almost exactly like any other corporation except their working outside the law in human trafficking, drugs, etc. This includes stealing fashion designs and using sweatshop labor to sell cheap knock offs as an industry, which is something the Triad does. “Organized crime” is money moving to the tune of billions as international business versus the most enterprising of the street gangs which may own, maybe, a city.

Easy difference, the Black Mafia family sells drugs. The Cartels produce drugs, and sell them, and they sometimes contract out to street/motorcycle gangs. This is the pharmaceutical company versus your local pharmacy versus a single location Mom & Pop shop. The street gang is Mom & Pop. The older well-established gangs that’ve been around for forty to fifty years are the Rite-Aids. The Triad are Bayer. Given time, and assuming they survive to adulthood, the gang can hit the big time and own some place like Las Vegas before moving on to bigger and better. That takes time though, and they’ve got to grow up first. There are quite a few gangs moving toward, if they haven’t already become, organized criminal enterprises. The Bloods and the Crips are close, the Black Mafia, and MS13 is aggressively pursuing its transition into criminal enterprise. It might be tempting to lean toward the cartels or mafias for the sense of legitimacy they bring to the narrative, not to mention the romantic relationship some groups have with fiction.

The Gang is rougher, but much more suited to any narrative involving teens and about growing up. Let’s face it, the gang is the angry teenage phase of organized crime. They’re the dark side of found families, they’re messier, and they will stress characters with themes of brotherhood/sisterhood, respect, loyalty, co-dependency, and the meaning of family in ways you won’t get from an organized businesses because they weed that shit out. They don’t have time for your angst. The Gang, though? They thrive on emotional narratives about brutality, trauma, broken bonds, and shattered friendships. They’re about getting in over your head from the word go; before you ever learned how to swim and long before you’re ever given the chance.

The Lost Boys

Gangs form in marginalized communities that are not protected by the bureaucracy of the ruling government. Their purpose, their beginning purpose, is to protect. Their originating goal is to provide security and safety to their communities, to protect them from outsiders, and they recruit on that honorable ideal. Any community which is treated as “Other” runs the risk of creating not one gang but multiples. The behavior and culture of the gang is dependent on the culture of its participants, before the gang develops a culture of its own, their ideals, their beliefs, their views come fractured through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. They combine with a teenager’s volatile emotions and impulsivity.

The main draw of the gangs is sense of family they offer, the brotherhood. They primarily exert influence on young, disaffected, lonely neglected youth with absentee parents. In plain terms, they hunt up Latch Keys. These can be impoverished children from single-parent households whose older family members work so hard to put food on the table they can’t be there, the ones from white-collar households in a similar boat, those whose parents genuinely don’t care, those from abusive homes, and came out of a similar life. The key theme is the offer of stability, purpose, guidance, and open to influence by the gang. The gang offers the child or teen the love, attention, and guidance they crave, but at a price.

You know all those tell-tale warnings you got about peer-pressure? This is peer-pressure reworked into targeted social engineering.

A character’s initiation into a gang is an act of violence. Sometimes, it’s a beating. Sometimes, it’s a murder. Sometimes, the initiated murderer is thirteen years old. And, yes, the street gang is where you’ll find that sixteen year old hitman who was recruited out of elementary school and started running drugs at nine or ten years old. They’re not “professional” in the conventional sense, but they go out to perform hits and the resulting collateral damage is often very messy.

There’s more emotional depth here than “just business”. Leaving the gang is a betrayal of the brotherhood, betrayal of the family. Killing can be seen as retribution, to claim turf, get respect, exert authority, or protect from invaders.

A major theme for gang characters is exerting their identity through violence, establishing themselves as adults, and lashing out at cultures/societies/institutions that they feel have rejected/failed them.

They’ve turned to the only figures in their lives they feel understand them, the older members of their gang. The relationship between gang members is elder sibling and younger sibling rather than the patron-client, mentor/student, parent/child relationships you’d find in gangs with organized crime.

If you want to learn more about child recruitment and culture in gangs, I highly recommend reading Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.

The Lord of the Flies

The sort of “send a message” brutality you get out gangs, the behavior, the emotion, and the thematic resonance they have with coming of age stories is, I think, what most of our followers are really asking for whenever they ask about the Mob. It’s worth exploring the romantic aspects of the gang, what they offer, and why they so easily lure young people in.

This is a writing advice blog. I’m going to take this last part to talk about how you can use gangs in your narratives. First…

To write crime, you must understand crime.

Understanding crime requires understanding the culture which spawns the crimes, the society, and the laws of the world your character exists in. You can’t break a rule if you don’t understand the rules. Right? If your reader doesn’t understand the rules of your setting, they won’t understand the impact of your character breaking with them.

Spend as much time on your lawfuls as your chaotics, if not more.

To write the gang, you must understand the necessity and purpose of the gang.

You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The pressures of their world, the loneliness of it, and the desire to have someone, anyone, who understands them. The intoxicating effect of fear, how inflicting fear makes you feel powerful, and the need to exert control in an overwhelming world where your environment is wildly spinning out of your grasp.

If you want to write a character who exists in the criminal underworld, and never spent any time looking at the criminals in question then you will come up short. I understand that it’s not a comfortable subject to research.

Romanticization station…

“The Gang” as a narrative trope lacks the prestige and legitimacy brought by more established organizations such as “The Mafia”. With youth, however, comes flexibility. Rogues living outside the system, renegades struggling to make it in a world overwhelmingly weighted against them, Band of Brothers, Rebel Without A Cause, Protect the Family, Paint the Town Red, and all your James Dean tropes can be applied to and claimed by gang members.

For your narrative, it’s always worth looking at the romanticized aspects of gang life because those tropes are often embraced and used as justifications by the gang members themselves. They’re also good recruiting tools.

With youth comes opportunity…

Where the greater adult world won’t take an underage character seriously, the gang will. Where a group like the American Mafia will turn up their nose at a sixteen year old hitman because they’ve already got a kid who acted as a courier, parked their cars, and went into the military to get the skills they needed, the gang will give the sixteen year old the chance to prove themselves and couch the hit as an opportunity for advancement.

They also see murder as a means of binding the gang member to the gang, even incarceration is a means of binding them tighter into the family. They care a little less about the character getting pinched. They might expect it. After all, everyone mucks things up that first time and most gang members have felt the weight of the juvenile justice system. Better to make the big mistakes while you’re still young so you can do better next time. Well, you can do better if you survive on the inside.

I got harder, I got smarter in the nick of time…

Take a hard look at your character, their motivations, their experiences, and how those resulted in the actions they’ve taken. They’re in a situation rife with manipulation and betrayal, where they’ll be pressured to take actions they may not feel comfortable with. Caught in an inevitable cycle of escalation where the violence they commit in the name of their brotherhood/sisterhood becomes more and more brutal, where they need to do more and more to prove themselves, are motivated to do so by advancing up the chain of command. Breaking this cycle is difficult.

In conclusion:

I’ve gone on long enough, and this post got longer than I intended. Gangs are a subject you can write whole books on and not even scratch the surface of. We’re probably not done with this subject, but if you want a teen criminal then the likelihood is that they’re in or have been involved in or, at least, aware of their local gangs to varying degrees. Your narrative should always have more than one, some run by kids, some run by older teens, some run by adults, and so on. You want to research the history of gangs, the current famous gangs that exist, and so on. The answers won’t always be easy or easily digestible. They’re not quick.

So, food for thought.

-Michi

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