On good guys and bad guys

Dexter title

Having a protagonist who is also clearly evil makes for a very interesting story.  You typically want your readers (or in this case, viewers) to root for your protagonist and from episode one we are on Dexter’s side.  Mostly because in season one there’s someone way worse than him on the loose.  Any reasonable person would react with revulsion to someone like Dexter.  But he becomes the lesser of two evils and so we start to hope that he will win.  We also notice that Dexter has a good side as he helps his girlfriend and his sister, and the people he kills are all murderers, so they had it coming, and so we are drawn in.  Suddenly, we’re ambivalent about the bad guy, even leaning towards liking him, simply because a writer broke with the evil villain stereotype.

But where it really got interesting is in season two.  In the first season Dexter’s antagonist is a killer even worse than he.  In season two, enter FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy.  Lundy is truly a good guy.  From a writing perspective the character is maybe a bit flat, but he reminds one of the old heroes of the Wild West, riding into town to save damsels and put an end to lawlessness.  He’s nice to Dexter’s sister (which after the end of season one is kinda a big deal) and he doesn’t like Doakes (I’ll get to him now).  All of this makes him a character that we cannot help but like.  The problem is, for him to win, Dexter has to be caught, and by now we like Dexter way too much for that to be an option.

Then there’s also Doakes.  Technically we’d call him a good guy, as he’s not a murderer like Dexter (though he has a bit of a dark past that is never fully revealed).  Doakes is also an ass.  He is constantly on Dexter’s case and is the only person whom Dexter cannot charm.  He knows Dexter has a secret and is determined to uncover it.  In response, Dexter set out to frame Doakes for his own murders.  We definitely don’t want Doakes to win, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go down for Dexter’s crimes (nor what eventually happens to him).

All these character dynamics made for a nail-biting second season.  By simply mixing up our traditional ideas of good guys and bad guys this show’s creators have managed to create a series where it’s very hard to predict the plot and where you are never sure which character you want to win.  I can’t wait to see what surprises season three will hold (no spoilers in the comments, please 😉 )

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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