Last week, we talked about what an antagonist doesn’t have to be. This week, we’re going to talk about the one thing your protagonist doesn’t have to be, a good guy.
Modern story telling has given us all sorts of examples of main characters who are not good people.
The bad guy with good intentions.
Example, Magnito. And yes he does count, because he’s the main character of his own comic recently. Magnito does really, really bad things. But it works for him, because he’s often the one doing the bad things that need to be done, allowing the heroes to keep their hands clean. This is a fascinating character, for any number of reasons, but the biggest one is that he’s deep. He’s also cathartic. It’s never going to be Scott Summers who decks the bigoted moron yelling racial obscenities. It’ll be Erik, or Logan, or even Emma Frost. We all hope to be the good example like Scott and Jean Grey, but we also know it wold feel better to be Erik and Emma.
The good guy with bad habits or dark past.
Then there are all the characters who are awesome now, but have a really dark past they’re trying to make up for. The sweet librarian who killed her husband. The wonderful doctor who used to work with the Nazis. My personal real life favorite example is Wernher von Braun. The man was a Nazis, which no one decent is ready to defend. Then he came here to America and helped found NASA, for crying out loud.
It doesn’t need to be just that. It can be a stand up guy who’s a little to quick to call his wife a dumb bitch, (like oh so very many of Steven King’s main characters.) It can be the iconic Iron Man, with the drinking problem. And the taking too many women to bed problem.
The bad guy with no good intentions at all, but who habitually does good things anyway.
Like House. He is not a good person, not even a little bit. He’s a drug addict who habitually uses the people around him for his own selfish needs. He must be tricked into saving people’s lives, because if someone’s just dying, it’s not interesting.
This is a great character because we want him to win, but not really. We want him to get better, but that would make it boring. We want, more than anything, to know what happens next.
The bad guy who is doing bad things, but we’re rooting for him anyway, for some reason.
This has been a popular character recently. Bad guys, just plain old bad guys, as the main character. Dexter, Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad. They are not trying to redeem themselves, they are not trying to make anything better, they are not good people. They are bad, just bad people.
But they are endearing because they are people. We care about Dexter when we see him trying to get along with his girlfriend. We want to see Ray connect with his kids. Because even though they are doing bad things for bad reasons, they are genuine people, and their stories are endearing.
Here’s the thing you’ve got to remember when you’re writing for grown ups. There is no need for morals. We are not writing to teach someone how to behave or be a stand up person. We are writing to tell a great story. And sometimes, the best characters are really, really bad people. That makes them the best protagonists