It used to be that writing theory called the central character of the novel the hero. Today terms like ‘protagonist’ or ‘main character’ are more popular, and even ‘antihero.’ What is the difference? I propose it is that the hero practices one or more virtues— habits of choosing the good rather than the bad.
Perhaps it is the secularist writing experts who make it impossible to say ‘hero’ about everyone that is not morally perfect. Christians know that they only perfect Man was Jesus Christ, and His very perfection makes it difficult to use Him as the main character in a work of fiction.
The reason that the Hero was popular is because the reader would rather identify with a somewhat good character than with a nasty sort. The Hero can have flaws just like the Villain can have virtues, but we really don’t like to root for the guy who beats up his three-year-old or who rapes prostitutes for fun.
An example of this is Dexter Morgan. He actually is a somewhat Heroic character, in spite of his bad habit of being a serial killer. The author of the book series has negated the bad effect of this bad habit through several means:
- Dexter is a ‘good’ serial killer who doesn’t prey on victims who excite him, or victims whose deaths will bring him personal profit, like real serial killers. He preys only on other serial killers, and he uses his forensic skills and police connections to make sure his victims are guilt. In other words, he acts as an unofficial supporter of the law, although he is breaking the law. Serial murder is one crime that cries out for the death penalty, both as a matter of justice and because it’s never safe to risk letting a habitual murder out of prison.
- Dexter’s sister and her ‘vicious arm punches.’ Dexter has a very bossy sister, Deb, who often punches Dexter in the arm just to get his attention. Dexter doesn’t respond by pulling out his flensing knife, but he usually does what his sister wants. He even loves his sister, to the extend that he can love people.
- Dexter as a henpecked husband. Dexter’s wife Rita is also bosses Dexter around, though in a gentler way. He appreciates her good cooking. He may claim he can’t love anyone, but he certainly acts like he loves Rita. She is also useful to him, as she expects him to act like a ‘normal’ husband and tells him the things she expects him to do to fit that role.
- Dexter as a protector and friend of children. Dexter particularly loves to kill serial killers who prey on children. And he is good with kids, especially his stepchildren. It’s perhaps because Dexter was traumatized as a child himself.
So you see, Dexter Morgan has enough heroic qualities that we feel good about rooting for him in his hunt for the serial killing villains who take innocent victims. As a serial killer, Dexter may seem to be a villain, not a hero. But in the context of Dexter-world, he is so much more virtuous than the more wicked killers he is chasing, that he IS enough of a hero that readers can identify.
As writers who want our fiction to win over readers, we should make it easy for them. Make our main characters heroes— both by giving them virtues, and by giving the villains vices. If your hero has major moral flaws like Dexter does, give him some virtues, and a villain who has much worse moral flaws. No matter how much a reader might claim he has rejected traditional moral rules, he will still prefer to root for a character that has some good in him.