I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer and lecturer.
We were talking about the increasing tendency in new television series to present protagonists that are not only flawed, but are downright pathological. The chief difference between the protagonist and antagonists here seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dexter, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.
Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like them, in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?
Part of the answer is that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.
Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through her eyes. She is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for her dilemmas and motivation.
Dark protagonists, too, are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient.
Dexter keeps outsmarting his opponents, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business.
Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He is like a quantum particle constantly staying ahead of the observer and surprising him with its unpredictability.
But ultimately, even a dark protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dexter loves his son and sister deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had.
Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to like the main character first before we see him drag himself through the mud.
Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.
But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.
To foster empathy, introduce your dark protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.
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Image: Tilemahos Efthimiadis