Mohamed at Dawn of Thoughts mentioned something a while back that got me thinking. He brought up how serial killers are being shown as protagonists, which can glorify their actions in some ways. Dexter is a big one where the ‘hero’ is a serial killer who kills other serial killers. It brings up the question on what defines a protagonist and can one hold that role with a corrupted moral code. Do characters like this cause some level of social corruption?
I really don’t have an answer to that because I think it depends on the reader and character. Done correctly, these are very complex and tortured characters. For example, Punisher and Wolverine are anti-heroes with a huge body count. That’s only on the surface though. A reader has to delve deep into a serial killer protagonist because that is where you will find the reason for the character. Wolverine has a primal rage that he tries to keep in check. Punisher is fighting grief over the death of his family and has considered suicide many times since his creation. I don’t know much about Dexter, but I have seen a few episodes where he wonders about his future and purpose. It isn’t remorse, which would undo the serial killer part, but a confusion over if they’re really a good guy or a bad guy.
There is a risk with such protagonists. They depend on the reader’s ability to put their own morality aside, analyze a darker morality, and/or distance themselves from part of the character. You have to accept that people will find such a ‘hero’ repugnant because of what they do while ignoring any torture that the character goes through. People see a killer getting glorified and worry that those who see the surface only will try to imitate. It’s a challenge for all fiction writers because an edgy character can be incredibly fun to create and work with. As the author, we enjoy stepping out of our own shells and taking the good and the bad for a drive. We return to our true self with ease and understand that it’s a character. This isn’t always the case with readers.
If you wish to write a character like this then be brave, stand by your convictions, and do your research. Be aware that the character can fall into the abyss before you’re ready, so have a plan of redemption or prepare to end them. Such is the danger of a morally dark and volatile character.
What do people think of such dark protagonists?