Heroes in stories aren’t always purely good or evil. In fact, the best ones usually aren’t. But there seems to be a balancing act to create a likeable character that slants one way or another. You can create a villain who is indeed an asshole that the reader (or viewer) enjoys. The kind of villain that when they’re finally defeated you’re sad to see them go (Tywin Lannister). And you can also create protagonists that color outside the lines of a “good guy”. If it’s done well you get a multifacted character that feels more real. Otherwise, though, they hit the grey area.
The grey area is what I like to call a character who starts becoming too cold, too cruel, or too ruthless to really work as a “good guy” anymore, but doesn’t pull off being a good asshole either.
The Ethical Villain
In the show Scandal, Olivia Pope reads at first like a do-gooder who is very clever, always staying on the ethical side of “do whatever it takes” to help people. She’s likeable, both because of her attitude and her mystery. But later into the show we see more and more corner cutting, moral compromise, and straight up using people and discarding them without remorse from her. She starts to look at lot like the villains she faces. She keeps her employees in the dark about everything and expects blind obedience, often asking them to do terrible things with no explanation of why, shredding personal relationships whenever helpful and dropping them when they are no longer useful for a job.
She swims with sharks every day, but instead of being a beacon of hope amidst the sludge she’s merely a slightly more principled villain. Rather than ruthlessly destroying people for her own power, she ruthlessly destroys them to do her own version of the “right thing”. The right thing in the world she lives in is usually as questionable as her methods.
In the beginning of the show we see that her team consists of those she’s saved in some significant way. They seem to follow her because they believe in the way she fixes problems, like she’s a white knight they follow out of admiration. But as the show progresses I felt more like she preyed on certain manipulable people and saved them so they’d feel beholden to her. She could hold that over their heads when they got frustrated that they never understood what was going on because, “Hey, you owe me.”
The mystery about her that was once interesting became frustrating. The doggedness that was admirable became problematic, and her policy of “We get justice, not revenge” seems very hypocritical starting in season 2 when almost everything she does is personal.
The Tormented Do-Gooder
Shows like Netflix’s Daredevil balance a morally ambivalent character differently. Matt Murdock is a lawyer and generally above board nice guy by day, but a powerful vigilante by night. The whole idea of putting on a mask and beating up drug dealers, rapists, and the city’s other most wanted is morally debatable. In stories, though, the vigilante is often seen as a heroic figure rather than a guy who breaks the law to bring justice.
By the end of season 1, though Murdock struggled to balance both sides of himself, he’s more or less the same guy. Certain people close to him might have become horrified by discovering his secret, but by day he’s still a generally good guy with loyal relationships to those around him. A lot of what he does both legally and otherwise is to protect those very people. He avoided a romance with someone he had a genuine connection with to protect her, rather than because she wasn’t useful. Like Olivia Pope, he’s willing to color outside the lines to help people. But it plays out pretty differently.
When he sees how tattered the line between worlds is becoming it seems to renew his resolve. Contrast this with Pope who seems upset at first about what she’s becoming, but then hardens herself and goes deeper into the dark side to escape her guilt. To me, Murdock still seems like a hero while it gets harder to make excuses for Pope.
The Hopeless in the Spotlight
Being the protagonist doesn’t make them immune to bad writing, though. Sloppy implementation can take a character that could have been entertainingly quirky and instead turn them into Ally McBeal. That was, in my opinion, a decent show that was only good because of a great supporting cast. The protagonist was the weakest character in the show, and after awhile even the best supporting cast can’t pull the sagging weight of a boring main character that we just don’t care about anymore.
Early on Ally seems like a woman with some blemishes doing the best she can in an unforgiving city. She was quirky in a way that was obviously meant to be adorable, and it worked on and off in the first season of the show. But after awhile she just seemed annoyingly hopeless and insecure, acting like a confused child that teetered between clingy and temper tantrums. Maybe that was supposed to be endearing as well, make us feel sorry for her and admin for her. But when she was surrounded by so many characters who were much more interestingly quirky, whose mishaps were funny, she seemed like a parody of herself.
Those quirky side characters usually support a main character with depth, and the reason we see so much more of the protagonist is that depth. The show took the meme of giving the main character flaws to make them more believable and went overboard, making the character too flawed to want to follow. It would be like watching Dr. House if he weren’t a genius, but rather a mediocre doctor who’s just an asshole to everyone around him for whatever reason. That balancing act is subtle, and the more damaged the character is it seems the more gifted or heroic they must be in other areas.
His wit makes him funny even when he’s a jerk, and his ability to solve cases no one else can make everyone around him tolerate or even admire him in spite of his flaws. If he were an average Joe without the case-solving power or wit, he’d just be a petty jerk that we wonder why we’re watching.
A character takes on a different identity when they’re the protagonist. In a well-told story we want this person to succeed, even if they’re an antihero like Riddick. Their being the protagonist changes the context of how we view their actions. Those same set of cold actions would’ve made us despise someone else, but we justify and rationalize on behalf of our protagonist because we’re trying to see the story through his or her perspective. But that carries some expectations with it that work as a double standard for our hero. Some heroes are lovable for seemingly the same reason others are not (that grey area), so we’ll need to dig deeper.
I’ll leave it there for today. I’ll pick up part two next, where we’ll examine what makes us look at heroes differently. Why do we judge them on a separate level, and how does that affect the narrative?