So you think that bad guys can only be Antagonists? Think again. They’re just as multi-faceted as the good guys these days. One day, when you least expect it, you’ll realize the script idea rolling around in that brain of yours is crying out to have a bad guy protagonist at the heart of the story. But how do you put someone like that at the center of your script and expect the audience to go along for the ride? Audiences like to cheer for the good guys, right? Actually, what they really like to cheer for is a character with whom they identify. On some level – any level – if the audience can catch a glimpse of themselves inside the character, then you’re golden.
The most effective way to successfully establish a traditional Bad Guy as the Protagonist of your script is to establish a set of rules for them to follow. They may not involve a traditional moral code, but your Protagonist still needs to have a set of laws, even self-established ones, that they adhere to if the audience is going to care about them.
Gangsters are a great example of this. Think about Don Corleone in The Godfather. He’s the head of a mafia family. He kills people (or has people killed) and does all other kinds of other unsavory things. But the audience likes him. Why? Because he’s shown early on to be one of the “good” gangsters when he refuses to take part in the drug trade.
And that’s the key to establishing a bad guy as your Protagonist; they need a personal set of rules. Something that makes it okay for the audience to like them. Something that lets the audience feel that it’s okay to identify with them. There are a lot of examples out there, but let’s start by taking a look at the most literal version of this kind of Protagonist: Miami’s most loveable serial killer.
Let’s take a look at…
Bad Guy Protagonists and ‘Dexter’
Dexter Morgan is a killer. A serial killer, actually. But season after season, audiences tune in not only to watch him, but to actively cheer him on. Why is that? It’s because Dexter has a code of ethics. A set of rules that excuses some of his more extreme behavior. Every bad guy has one, and in Dexter’s case it’s a literal set of rules handed down by his step-father.
Here’s an exchange between Harry and a young Dexter from the pilot episode.
So, I'm going be like this forever?
Yes, and nothing can change that --
but you can channel it. Control it.
We can use it for good.
I'm going to teach you how to choose
what and who you kill. Teach you how
not to get caught.
This will be our secret. Just between
you and me? No one else can ever
Are you sure?
I'm absolutely sure and Dexter -- I
want you to, because there are plenty
of people who deserve it.
So you're not mad at me?
No, son. I love you.
This Code of Harry, as it’s called in the show, is a set of rules that Dexter was taught and lives by. It allows him to feed his “dark passenger” while not completely becoming a monster. You see, Dexter only kills other bad guys. People that the law either can’t or won’t make pay for their sins.
“Killing must serve a purpose, otherwise it’s just plain murder.” That’s rule number one of the Code of Harry, and what it does is allow the audience to find a way in. They might not be able to identify with a serial killer who struggles to control his need to kill, but they can start to see some of themselves in a man who feels a responsibility to right the wrongs that he sees in the world.
And that’s what you have to do as a writer if the story you want to tell has a bad person at the heart of it. Give them a set of rules. Something that separates them from your standard villain - in the way that Dexter’s Code separates him from every other serial killer - and allows them to become the hero of your story.
So wrap up your tarp, put away your knives, and get to writing.
- Ask the Expert: Create the Perfect Villain
- X-Ray Specs: Act II - Arguing for a Narrative Question with a Positive Purpose
- Specs & The City: Antagonists and 'What About Bob'
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