There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.
The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, 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 the flawed protagonist 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 lies in the notion 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 his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.
Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient.
Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, 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 nifty 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 succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity.
But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and 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.
Making the flawed protagonist likable
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 grow to like the protagonist 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 flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.