On good guys and bad guys

Stories can’t exist without characters, right?  Well, at least most of them need characters.  Our first stories feature characters that include dogs, caterpillars, cars, power tools with faces, and purple dinosaurs, to name a few.  As we grow our stories become more complex and we get introduced to bad guys, usually trolls or wicked witches.  At some point, if you’re paying attention in high school lit, you will further learn that the main character (usually the good guy) is called the protagonist, and his nemesis (usually the bad guy) is called the antagonist.

You also learn that characters can either be flat (or one-dimensional) or round (or three-dimensional).  Flat characters are like most of the characters in the fairy tales you enjoyed as a child:  Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella – the sweet, innocent girl who got a raw deal out of life and needs someone to save them; Prince Charming – the noble hero with next to no common sense who will gladly risk life and limb to rescue a girl he has never seen in his life whom he will then marry; Evil Witch/Stepmother/Dwarf with funny name – evil…or jealous…or greedy…or evil…wait, I used that already.

And while there’s nothing wrong with innocence, or valour, or even evil, no person is just those things.  That’s why we call the characters flat.  They’re unrealistic.  See, real people are multi-faceted.  Even the most stand-up guy you know has his dark side and the meanest bastard on earth might have a soft spot for kittens (no, I’m not necessarily talking about that guy).  Good characters are like that – you get to know them as complete people and that’s why you empathise with them.

I had never thought that this last bit should also apply to bad guys.  In epic fantasy the bad guy is often evil incarnate (think Sauron), so not much else you can do there.  Sometimes we get to know a bit more of their motives, like Saruman or Tywin Lannister, but even that does little to engender sympathy in readers, as their motives are often entirely selfish.  It is rare in fantasy to find a genuine bad guy who’s also a genuine human.

Therefore I was intrigued when I was taught during a creative writing course last year that the antagonist should be every bit as rounded as the protagonist that the reader must be able to sympathise just as much with the antagonist and even struggle to decide which one to root for.  I have been looking for that type of antagonist, but have not yet found one in the books I’ve been reading.  I have, however, found one on television in one of those rare occasions when visual media seems to outstrip the printed word.

The wife and I have recently started watching Dexter and it is probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.  Remember in the first paragraph where I said the protagonist is usually the good guy?  In Dexter the protagonist is undoubtedly a bad guy.  He’s a sociopath.  He kills people for enjoyment.  Okay, so it’s a compulsion and he only kills bad guys, but still…

(Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t watched the first two seasons of Dexter and are still planning to do so you probably shouldn’t click through to page 2.)

6 thoughts on “On good guys and bad guys

  1. You’re very right. The bad guy should be fleshed out and made human. I do love a good villain. I especially have a soft spot for villains who start out as decent people, but who are misunderstood which then drives them to do horrific things that decent people wouldn’t do. It brings the reader/viewer into conflict because we don’t want to like the guy/girl, but we can see why he/she does these horrible things.

    The Book of Human Skin has a great villain in it and a lot of the book is from his pov. We don’t feel sympathetic towards him at all because he invites scorn from his family by being the creepiest evil kid you’ve ever met and then maturing into an equally creepy/evil adult. But the story is deliciously sinister and quite unique.

    I haven’t watched Dexter. It’s got an interesting premise; it’s just one of those shows I haven’t gotten around to yet. Perhaps I’ll see if it’s on Netflix.

    1. You’ve got me thinking now of Darth Vader, or more accurately, Anakin Skywalker. I’m really not a fan of the prequel trilogy, but I do appreciate how they portrayed Anakin’s decline into the Dark Side, especially that it’s his love for his mother and for Padmé that finally does him in as the Emperor manipulates him. But when he becomes Vader he is still just portrayed as evil in the original trilogy. We don’t see any other side of him until the very end. We might understand his actions, but we never get to like him.

      But Dexter we actually like. And it’s not because we understand how he turned out this way (though that is revealed), but because he’s a really nice guy, aside from murdering someone every once in awhile.

      1. Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t even think about Darth Vader. Like you, I didn’t like the prequels either. I couldn’t believe that that snivelling, whiny boy would grow to be the most (or 2nd most) evil person in the galaxy. I know what you mean though, it was good to see how it came about that he changed.

        ‘…because he’s a really nice guy, aside from murdering someone every once in a while.’ That made me laugh!! 🙂 What’s a little murder between friends?

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this take on the good guy vs. bad guy dilemma. I recently watched a show called “The Fall” with Gillian Anderson (and yes I watched it because I am a huge X-Files fan). I highly recommend it. It is similar in a way to Dexter because the bad guy is portrayed as a well rounded person. He has a family, his kids are cute, his wife is pretty, he seems like you’d have a drink with him. Personally I think these kinds of bad guys are far more interesting because it is in fact the truth. The real life serial killer is rarely the person you’d expect. And that totally scary looking guy often really does like kittens and is nice. Perhaps we don’t see this reflected in our media (print and otherwise) often because in reality it is hard to sort out the good ones and bad ones and that is scary. So that was a long reply! However your great points totally warranted it. Now to go watch more Dexter . . .

    1. Another thing that struck me about Dexter is he doesn’t look scary. In fact, he doesn’t look anything. The actor they cast really has the type of face you would forget if you see him in a crowd.

      I agree that this type of bad guy makes the story much more interesting. I would like to figure out how to do it in fantasy. The genre tends to revolve around the battle between good and evil, and while we often get to see the good guy’s darker side (as he has to conquer it in order to defeat evil), we never see the bad guy’s good side. We get to know the bad guy’s motivation, sure, but we never see him at home with his family (usually because he’s an evil force or possessed by an evil force). George RR Martin comes close, but then it’s near impossible to distinguish good guys from bad in his novels.

      Hey, as long as you talk sense you can write as long a comment as you like 😉 Thanks for taking the time.

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