Serial Killer Protagonists

Dexter

Dexter

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?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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38 Responses to Serial Killer Protagonists

  1. Jae says:

    I think how Jeff Lindsay tends to redeem Dexter is how Dexter seems to be a protector of children, even if indirectly. Some of the killers he takes out have done horrible things to kids and part of you doesn’t mind Dexter is out there. Plus Dexter often displays pictures of the victims the killer has taken out as though executing justice. I don’t know how the show is now, but up through most of the 4th season the question was always something like, if I knew for sure a guy would only go after serial killers, would I mind that he’s out there? It’s an interesting moral dilemma.

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    • Interesting twist. I’ve heard that a lot of the ‘hardened’ criminals have a soft spot for children, so those who hurt them (or worse) don’t last very long in prison. A character like Dexter really does bring into question the morality of the viewer or reader. It forces you to see that things aren’t black & white. There’s that line from True Lies that someone reminded me of last week when Arnie is asked if he killed anyone: “Yes, but they were all bad’.

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  2. I think the key with a dark protagonist is that they still have to be sympathetic. If you don’t care about the protagonist, then … well, it’s just not a very interesting story, is it? I think a really great example of a dark protagonist (the quality of the movies aside) is Anakin Skywalker. Heaven help me, I love that character, despite the whole ‘slaughtering children’ thing. I don’t think you necessarily have to glorify a killer … you just have to give him some quality that makes the reader want to follow his/her story, and makes the reader yearn for their redemption … regardless of whether or not that redemption ever actually happens.

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    • I really didn’t like Anakin Skywalker and his slaughters always struck me as the writers saying ‘you must start to hate him!’. To me, the actions made me feel more like he was trying too hard to please the Emperor. A Sith version of begging for attention and praise. If he had killed Jar Jar, I might have been better with him.

      I wonder about the redemption thing. There’s the idea that people instinctual indulge in that dark side of humanity. Think of the old gladiator fights and current sports where fighting is at the core. It has an odd appeal without the idea that we want to see someone be redeemed. Almost like we see a dark character as an intriguing creature that goes against all we believe. So, we watch to see how that ‘thing’ operates and compare ourselves to him or her. Might be leaping around there. Probably a different reason for everyone on these characters.

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      • Well, the problem when talking about Star Wars is that there is actually a Dark Side — as in, when you “fall” to the Dark Side, you’re actually taken over by a dark, evil power that influences your actions and makes you do things you normally wouldn’t. So in that sense I think it’s actually easier to forgive a fallen Jedi for their evil actions than, say, a normal human, just because there’s magic (of a sort) going on. Magic always changes the rules. Even in Lord of the Rings … yes, Boromir shouldn’t have tried to take Frodo’s ring, but Sauron was using his evil magic to influence his mind, blah blah blah … magic doesn’t play fair 🙂

        And you’re right … redemption isn’t always necessary, is it? With the gladiator fights, it was all about bloodshed and talent — who would rise, who would fall, etc. And we definitely do compare ourselves to evil characters … and sometimes even imagine what we would do if we *were* that evil character. But … I think to be the *protagonist* of a story, you have to be at least slightly sympathetic. That connection has to be there, otherwise you’re just reading about a mass murderer going around killing people, getting more and more furious as the bodies stack up.

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      • Boromir is an interesting case since the Ring tried to corrupt him from a far. If you think about it, he managed to break its control over him at the last minute. I’m a big Boromir fan and actually liked him more than Aragorn. Staying with LOTR, the Ring corrupted everyone that touched it except Sam. Frodo didn’t even make it.

        I guess I’m wondering if the fascination with the opposite of our personal morality can be used to connect with someone. The suspense of waiting for them to go too far and become the villain. Though for a series, you do need a level of redemption and positive aspect to keep it going.

        Actually, Deathnote is a series where the protagonist is a villain. I had trouble getting into it because of how quickly it progressed, but Light was basically a magical serial killer who fell within a few episodes. I’m not sure what kept everyone interested, but a few fans have said they read to see how far Light would fall and would he ever get what was coming to him.

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      • I haven’t seen all of Deathnote — first 20 episodes, maybe? — but I know the big fascination for me with Light was that I actually kind of admired him. Yes, killing people is wrong, but … he started off genuinely trying to make the world a better place, and that’s something I can respect. Obviously he quickly goes off the deep end and all that, but … I guess I just really love characters who start with good intentions and then go horribly awry.

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      • I made it until episode 6 or 7. Whenever he dealt with the policeman’s wife or whoever she was. My issue with Light was that he jumped to cop killing to protect himself so quickly that I wasn’t going to be surprised by his fall. In my mind, he was already there. That and he was outwitting everyone with such ease that I wondered if it was an alternate world where the average IQ was 30. I guess I need to feel like my protagonist has a risk of being overcome and outwitted.

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  3. I have never seen the show, but based on its huge popularity, I would say that there are significant number of people that find the concept very compelling. Personally, I think it is a very interesting take on the protagonist. Although he himself is a serial killer, the fact that his victims are serial killers as well somewhat nullifies his “evil” side. It is an fascinating twist that I think is both fresh and unique. Great question.

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  4. LindaGHill says:

    A protagonist can be as dark as an author wants him to be, but as long as there is something the view/reader can relate to about the character, he’s going to be likable. In the case of Dexter, of which I’ve watched every episode, he’s really just a regular guy with this overly … I’m going to say dramatic, but that’s not what I’m looking for exactly … dark side. And even THAT is relatable. He is what most of us wish we could be when faced with someone who has hurt us or our loved ones. He is our hero because he does what each of us would want to do to the person who killed our family. He is, on a much larger scale, what we feel whenever we get stressed out enough to want to kill.

    Relatable. That’s the key.

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    • I got the sense that was a sociopath and was using his mental issues for good, but I’ve never seen it. These conversations are starting to make me wonder about a future ‘hero’ that I have planned for my vampire series. He’s rather monstrous, but I guess his loyalty to friends would be the relatable piece of him. So with Dexter, he does what we wish we could do to those that prey on the innocent?

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      • LindaGHill says:

        Exactly. He is revenge, personified, when he’s in killer mode. When he’s not, he’s running his kid to the babysitter, doing his best to give advice to his sister, and working for a living.

        Lestat is another one. He’s a downright dastardly vampire, but we relate to his conscience, to his ability to love humans. There has to be something of base human nature not only in them, but in their monstrous acts..

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      • I did catch an episode where he went up against John Lithgow who seemed to win at the end. Never mess with Lithgow.

        Vampires seem to be big on having a touch of humanity that we connect too. Even Dracula had a bit, which was that he loved a woman. At least I saw that. I’m talking non-sparkly vampires of course.

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      • LindaGHill says:

        I think there’s a fine line for vampires. Nobody was really routing for Dracula, at least not in the book. Some of the movies made him into a bit of a wuss though.
        In regards to your protagonist vampire, are his friends monsters? Loyalty I think will only go so far if they are all as bad as one another. There has to be a sympathetic human side, the key word being human.

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      • I’ve never really thought of Dracula as a badass anyway. He’s powerful, but more suave and charming than physically forceful. At least that’s the version I like.

        The series is all vampires with no humans beyond those that get eaten. It involves the civil war between the nightwalkers and the daywalkers.

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      • LindaGHill says:

        Good luck. 🙂

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      • LindaGHill says:

        You should watch Dexter. It’s very very well written.

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      • I’m considering it. The hard part is that I’ve gotten so much work done since I gave up a lot of television. It’s surprisingly hard to go back.

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      • LindaGHill says:

        I watched it on Netflix here and there. I don’t do television either – Dexter was what I did after a full day of writing. It took two years to watch the entire thing.

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      • I don’t do Netflix, but I have all the premium channels (not the adult ones). I tried to convince the others in the house about Netflix with no luck. It’s strange how some people watch so much television without a target show. They simply wander and stop when something seems mildly entertaining.

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      • LindaGHill says:

        If you just google Dexter free online you’ll find it, I’m sure.

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  5. Dark characters scare me. I try not to think of them. Ever. Especially on television, I prefer to read about my dark characters because atleast then it only goes as far as my Pollyanna mind can go.

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  6. sknicholls says:

    I don’t watch a lot of TV but I have seen all of the episodes of Criminal Minds and some of Dexter. I tend to sympathize with the serials killers who do have some sense of remorse or are afflicted with mental illness out of control. It is the sociopath or psychopath personality that appalls me, even though I know that it is a form of mental illness and they are often powerless to change. The lack of any social conscience is what results in my inability to feel any empathy. Even in reading of the atrocities of wartime, when men take lives with honor…I am less sympathetic if they do so without a conscience.

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    • I’ve wondered about those people. With humans being creatures of multiple grades of morality, I’m not that surprised when remorseless people emerge. You see selfless, good people a lot, so it makes an odd sense that the opposite exists. Very much about balance, which goes for fiction and reality.

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  7. I suspect the complexity of their characters is part of the attraction. Wonder if they’ll become cliched at some point?

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  8. Jack Flacco says:

    Interesting post, Charles! I think bad guys as protagonists are great. Have a look at The Avengers. Loki’s an evil son of a gun, but he makes his character so lovable that you can’t hate the guy–even if he’s on the other side of good. Then there’s Heath Ledger’s Joker. Gosh, if anyone should hate a character it would be the Joker. But watching him flip from a coherent, civil and totally logical guy to a demented insanity case is another joy to watch. I’m telling you, Joker made The Dark Knight what it is today. Then, of course, who can forget Darth Vader? In the Return of the Jedi everyone should hate him–once the reveal takes place we see what’s happened to his character to twist him and we take pity on the guy.

    So, yeah, I can go on and on with bad guys are main protagonists (can I mention The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly???)–Tuco’s amazing as the Ugly, but lovable nonetheless! Anyway, great post!

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    • Joker definitely made The Dark Knight. I still put Mark Hamill’s Joker above the others, but they’re two different kinds. The ‘beloved’ villain is a real testament to the creator though. Comic books have a lot of those. Literature has some epic ones like Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and the Queen of Hearts.

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  9. Pingback: The Serial Killer Hero: Does It Work? | Legends of Windemere

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