Guest Post: Evil Protagonists (Audrey Driscoll)

Joining us today is Audrey Driscoll, author of one of my recent favourite ebooks, The Friendship of Mortals (which, incidentally, is currently FREE on Smashwords). Take it away, Audrey!

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Evil Protagonists

When it comes to fictional protagonists, how bad is too bad? I’m not talking about villains here, but main characters. Heroes, or more accurately, anti-heroes.

A few of these dubious dudes come readily to mind:  Victor Frankenstein, Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s first two Gormenghast books, Hannibal Lecter (specifically in Thomas Harris’s book Hannibal), Dexter Morgan, and Herbert West (both H.P. Lovecraft’s original and my version).

What about female evil protagonists, you ask? Well, aside from Medea, I can think of only two — the horrible little girl in The Bad Seed by William March, and another one called Willie who is the main character of Daughter of Darkness by J.R. Lowell, a book I found quite fascinating when I was young and less discriminating. Both of these girls are totally evil.

While this is by no means a complete list, it provides scope for analysis.

Some might argue that Steerpike is not a protagonist, but I believe he is, at least of the first book, Titus Groan. It ends with Titus still as an infant. The opening chapters present Mr. Flay, Swelter (who is undoubtedly a villain) and young Steerpike. It’s natural for the reader to identify with him as he escapes from the chaotic kitchen and its grotesque chef and is hustled through endless corridors by Flay. His harrowing climb over the rooftops and fortuitous meeting with Fuchsia in her secret attic make him seem quite heroic. Throughout the book, Steerpike is the doer of deeds and primary plot mover, which is why I consider him a (if not the) protagonist. He begins as a rebel against the mindless, stultifying traditions of Gormenghast, but once he inveigles himself into a position of influence in the gargantuan edifice, he quickly shows himself to be evil.

Hannibal Lecter appears in four books by Thomas Harris. In Red Dragon, he’s a shadowy figure, emerging more prominently in The Silence of the Lambs, where he plays a complex villain opposite Clarice Starling, who is definitely the protagonist. In Hannibal, Harris squashes Starling into something unrecognizable and turns Lecter into the main character.

Why would a writer want to write a book around someone who is evil? First, to explain how the person got that way. Second, to bring about their well-deserved destruction (in which case a “good” protagonist needs to take over); or, third, to bring about their redemption.

Childhood abuse or trauma is often invoked to explain these characters’ murderous deeds. Sometimes this element is introduced after the fact, when the writer has become invested in the evildoer and needs to explain or legitimize his atrocities. In the third Hannibal Lecter book, Harris creates a grotesque backstory for him, fleshing it out further in the “prequel,” Hannibal Rising. Something similar precipitates Dexter Morgan into his career as a serial vigilante, and by the third book, we find out that he harbours a Dark Passenger.

Steerpike’s precipitating event is the fire he starts in the library of Gormenghast. His intention is to create an opportunity for heroism, but it results in death and madness. A subsequent, unintended fire, which breaks out during an act of murder, scars him for life and turns him into a grotesque, unmistakable villain.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West has no precipitating event; he is initially amoral rather than evil, driven by cold rationalism and scientific zeal, like Victor Frankenstein and many another mad scientist. By killing a travelling salesman to create a really fresh specimen for his reanimating process, he becomes a murderer.

Justified or not, the evil protagonist must be redeemed or destroyed. Change or die, as the business gurus say. A writer can, by adding attractive characters and interesting plot elements, turn the evildoer into a series or even a franchise, as with Dexter Morgan, Hannibal Lecter and the Re-Animator movies.

If the anti-hero is irredeemable, the plot revolves around his ultimate destruction, in which case another character emerges as the protagonist. This is what happens to Steerpike in Gormenghast, the second book of Peake’s trilogy. Something like that should happen to Hannibal the Cannibal, in my opinion, but he’s not my character. The things he does in Hannibal are just too repulsive to make him worthy of redemption, no matter what happened to him in childhood. It will be interesting to see what Harris and Hollywood do with him.

I’m not a fan of the Dexter books or TV series; in fact, I was annoyed to discover this character, because by then I had morphed my version of Herbert West into Francis Dexter. Yes, it’s a surname rather than given name, but I thought, “Great, now everyone will think I’m plagiarizing Jeff Lindsay.” In any case, it seems that Dexter Morgan undergoes the beginnings of redemption as the series goes on.

So what about Herbert West? In H.P. Lovecraft’s story, his imperfectly reanimated monsters gang up and rip him to shreds. In my trilogy, he is psychologically shredded and undergoes a transformation. Into what? Read the series and find out. Mwahahaha!

Conclusion: as soon as a character becomes interesting, he or she is worth keeping alive, no matter what evils they have perpetrated. But it’s crucial for the writer to maintain a balance between evil and innocence. Characters who are 100% evil are just as uninteresting as those who are 100% good, because they are inevitably one-dimensional and limited. Pits, flaws and irregularities attract attention. A reader wondering whether a character with a record of evil deeds is going to be redeemed, or whether a pure-hearted one can be broken or turned has a reason to keep reading.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post: Evil Protagonists (Audrey Driscoll)

  1. Love this article because my main villain is currently showing signs of redemption. A meaner baddie has turned up, so I guess the villain I’ve been using for so long is coming off nicer by comparison. That seems to happen at times. A villain becomes a main hero after something worse shows up. Vegeta and Piccolo in Dragonball, various comic villains have gone good, and I can’t think of anything from an actual book. Barbosa from POTC is another great example.

    • What about Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones? Talk about a villain-hero reversal. Okay, he’s not REALLY a hero (who is, in that series?), but he’s definitely a lot more heroic than when he started 🙂

      • True. I’m still not sure where I’m going with this villain now that he’s made this change. Might have to make him go dark again or turn on the bigger meanie. I’ve got 10 more books to figure it out before the end.

  2. “Characters who are 100% evil are just as uninteresting as those who are 100% good, because they are inevitably one-dimensional and limited. ”

    Ain’t that the truth. I’ve seen people lament the “loss” of the true, pure hero and the cackling, my-only-goal-is-to-rule-the-world villain, but they’re still around. I think they’re generally just too boring for anyone to pay attention to them. Complexity is so much more interesting, and as a reader, I need a reason to invest my time and emotions in these characters.

    Great post!

    • You still get a lot of 100% good/evil characters in cartoons and animated movies, but beyond that … yeah, everything’s mostly shades of grey now, isn’t it? Have you seen the new Star Trek yet? The villain (not naming names) is evil, for sure, but he’s got a tragic backstory that makes you question if he’s really as evil as he pretends to be. I was totally on the sympathy bandwagon for him … and then he was like “Psych, I’m evil incarnate, lolololol”. Yay complexity!!!

  3. As a reader, I enjoy well-written anti heroes, because I also enjoy being cleverly manipulated or at least made to question my loyalties.

    As a writer, I dig them because I get to indulge the darkness within. Unleash my inner sociopath, if you will.

    Regarding good literary anti-heroes, check out Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy (one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read), which is told in first-person by a character you become quite attached to before you realize he’s done some very awful things.

    • Hahaha, oh God, unleashing your inner sociopath can’t be a good thing, can it? 😀 One of my favourite anti-heroes has always been Darth Vader (he counts, right?). He basically defines falling from good and then crawling his way back to the light.

  4. I’m all for anti-heroes. It’s fascinating to see what makes them tick, the hows and whys of their nefarious deeds. I think that’s what draws us to them, we want to understand.

    Think about what the TV show Dexter would be like if it didn’t have his internal narration.

    I’ve also been obsessed with Sons of Anarchy and how the writers can make me understand their characters choices even if I don’t agree with them. There’s all kinds of interesting characters with differing levels of morality and ethics in that show.

    • I’m also a fan. I guess the one thing I insist on with my anti-heroes is that they feel remorse for the terrible things they did — not necessarily immediately, but eventually. Attempts to nobly sacrifice themselves to make up for their mistakes are also A-OK in my book 🙂

  5. In my work, I think of James/Catskinner as more amoral than evil. James is basically feral, he’s been on his own since he was a child, and Catskinner isn’t human and can’t empathize with human beings (not even James, really.)

  6. beatniksifu

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Storyteller:.

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