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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