The Bad Protagonist

Some of my favorite characters in literature and on television are the protagonists who are detestable in some fundamental way. I like them because their actions make the story more complex, and because I appreciate how difficult it is for writers to make them relatable.

Alex at the milkbar.
Alex at the milkbar.

A few examples. One of my favorite books is A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the protagonist, starts off the story as a fan of “the old ultraviolence.” In spite of his fondness for rape and random beatings, he’s a cool-headed leader to his friends, a lover of fine music (Beethoven), and he approaches life with passion and energy. By the end of the story, he’s been reprogrammed by the government to feel disgust for the things he used to love. Even though the things he did were terrible, we feel bad for him. Why?

Dr. House
Just look at those eyes. How could you not love this man?

And what about Dr. Gregory House, of House M.D.? He’s a curmudgeon, assumes the worst in everyone he meets, and can’t seem to be nice at all, ever. He’s also abusing drugs, alienating the women in his life, and manipulating people like a boss. And yet the show ran for eight seasons. Why?

And finally, there’s Walter White (a.k.a. Heisenberg) of Breaking Bad. He’s a brilliant high school chemistry teacher with virtually no money in the bank. His wife is pregnant and he has a teenage son with a disability. Then he gets lung cancer. He can’t catch a break! To provide for his family after he dies, he starts cooking and selling meth.

Walter White dressed as Heisenberg, still showing a little Walter-White-style panic.
Walter White dressed as Heisenberg, still showing a little Walter-White-style panic.

But by the time the Breaking Bad hits the fifth season, Walter White has become a meth kingpin with pallets of cash stacked in a storage unit. At what point do we stop rooting for the poor chemistry teacher and remember that the drug he’s manufacturing is a highly-addictive, life-destroying chemical?

Why am I so drawn to these kinds of characters? Perhaps it’s because they put me on a moral roller-coaster. Each time this kind of character makes a decision, my heart is conflicted: Do I still love him for his good qualities, even though he’s doing a bad thing? What’s his reason? What’s his ultimate goal? Perhaps it’s also because I simply love how human they seem when making a huge mistake.

It seems like two basic elements make these characters lovable even if they do terrible things: (1) They have some extraordinary qualities or talents and (2) they’re vulnerable in at least one key way.

Alex in A Clockwork Orange lures us in with friendly chatter. He refers to us as “friends” and “brothers” as we’re following his story. And it’s his charm that eventually leads us to his human side—his love for Beethoven. It’s a fervent, almost super-human love, something we can admire him for, and because he loves it so much, it’s also his vulnerability. When the government ruins his ability to enjoy Beethoven, we recall what it’s like to lose someone we love, and we root for Alex.

Gregory House’s vulnerability is visible: his cane. He walks with a limp and pops pills not because he just wants to get high, but because he’s hurting. And honestly, how happy are you when you’re in pain? If House were walking with a smooth and easy gait while making fun of sick patients, we wouldn’t like him at all. But House can figure things out when nobody else can. He’s sarcastic, sure, but he’s also a great doctor. I’d choose him any day of the week. And because he’s suffering and because he’s brilliant, he’s ours to admire.

And then…Heisenberg. He’s an incredibly talented chemist with the skills to make super-pure meth. He’s smarter than anyone in the room and is excellent at figuring out the politics of any given situation and calling bluffs. It’s a skill I wish I had—the politics and bluff-calling, not the meth-making. And, of course, his vulnerability is his family. Take away his family and he has nothing.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, has said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he wanted to create a show in which the good guy gradually becomes the bad guy. I’ve been waiting for the episode that turns me away from Walter White and makes me root for Hank, his DEA Agent brother-in-law who has been on his trail for more than a year. I’ve finished season four, and only in the last scene of the last episode have I felt inclined to turn away from Walter White. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the writers of this show seem to be monitoring how the audience feels about WW at every turn, with impressive results.

I’ve been working on a story for several months now, called “The Fighter” or “Fights,” depending on the draft. It’s about a man who is unceremoniously dumped by his beloved girlfriend. He learns she had been cheating on him. In his grief, he pushes down all his emotions until the only one that ever comes out is anger, and that’s when he starts picking fights with random strangers. It’s been difficult demonstrating how he’s still a good guy even though he’s beating up barflies, but perhaps I haven’t quite succeeded yet because I’ve been a little too short on his extraordinary qualities and a little too vague on his vulnerability. It’s tricky. In real life, as in fiction, people make mistakes or become jerks (or both).

But, oh my brothers, in fiction, it has to make sense.