The Protagonist as Hero: Dexter Morgan

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.

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Dexter and the limitations of first-person viewpoint

darklydreamingdexterLet’s talk about Dexter! The book Dexter, not the television series which is quite different. The Dexter series by author Jeff Lindsay is written from the first-person viewpoint. That is, Dexter himself is telling the story, referring to himself as ‘I’. Some books are written from the first-person viewpoint— The Hunger Games is another example— and some are from the third-person viewpoint— that is, ALL of the characters are called ‘he’ or ‘she’.

In the Dexter series, the first-person viewpoint works— in part because Dexter is a very original character and has a distinct voice. Plain-vanilla characters don’t work as first-person narrators. But there are some drawbacks.

Our narrator Dexter is different from the other characters in the story in profound ways. He is a serial killer who enjoys killing and dismembering his victims. He believes he is a sociopath, though I believe a case can be made that he has Asperger’s Syndrome and in addition has another disorder, rooted in his childhood trauma, that gave him the urge to kill. Dexter is inhabited by a secularized demon called a Dark Passenger— though he despises anyone who believes in God, non-secularized demons or any form of the supernatural other than his own Dark Passenger.

I presume that series author Jeff Lindsay is NOT a serial killer and does NOT believe serial killing is OK so long as you restrict yourself to guilty victims. But using first-person narration, he can’t let us know that. When Dexter says something that non-serial-killers would strongly disagree with, Lindsay can’t really give us a reality check using a more moral character in the story, because everything in the story is filtered through Dexter’s mind.

If a character in a Dexter novel were to cleverly refute one of Dexter’s anti-social ideas, we might never know, because with Dexter’s personality, he would be dismissive and sarcastic to even the most logical and irrefutable criticism of his warped world-view. If Lindsay had put in such passages frequently out of concern that morally uneducated readers might adopt Dexter’s anti-social ideas, he would also have had to put in Dexter’s sarcastic dismissal of them— which would make those vulnerable readers ignore them as Dexter does.

Now, I do believe a writer with a different worldview from Lindsay’s— say a devout Catholic who is very well informed on the moral teachings of the faith, and on how to present these ideas to a secularist world— could provide these reality checks in a Dexter-like series.

Such a Catholic author would have the belief that a Dexter-like character, in his secret heart, knew the natural moral law that contradicted his anti-social worldview. Such a character, when hearing sound moral reasoning, would be less likely to be confidently dismissive. And the author, with such a worldview, might simply have his Dexter-like character react to sound moral reasoning with silent rejection rather than a clever sarcastic phrase that vulnerable readers might actually believe in. (Authors who are Evangelical, LDS, or devout Jewish can also do such things.)

This is the limitation of the first person viewpoint. The author— and later the reader— is trapped in the head of the first-person narrator. Not only can you go only where the first-person narrator goes, you are restricted by that characters worldview. Whether that character is a serial killer or a saintly and devout person, this is a restriction that an author must deal with. For the inexperienced writer, using the first-person viewpoint is almost always a bad idea, likely to lead an otherwise good story-idea into a dead end.

Homework: Read the first chapter of a first-person-viewpoint novel. Take notes on how the author tells the story in this viewpoint. Then read the first chapter of a third-person-viewpoint novel. Take notes here on how the author tells the story. What things are different in the two viewpoints? What things are the same?

Artful and the Rejection of Oliver Twist as an Interesting Character

OliverTRecently, having run out of new books to read and lacking the funds to obtain more, I downloaded some e-book samples from Amazon.com. One of them was a sample of Artful: A Novel by Peter David. Since I spend all of seventh grade reading and rereading Oliver Twist [since if I declared myself finished I’d have had to write a book report on it], I thought it might be a good read.

Sadly, like all too many e-book samples, the sample of Artful was brief— too brief to get to the real beginning of the story. It was mostly the narrator showing bits of evidence of vampires in Oliver Twist (such as the fact that Fagin’s name could be rearranged to spell ‘I Fang’). And a lot of stuff about Oliver Twist was too passive and whiny, and it was amazing Charles Dickens didn’t have the wit to center the story on the Artful Dodger instead. (One retort that sprang instantly to mind was that if Dickens HAD, Peter David would have nothing to write about.)

I believe the criticisms of Oliver Twist are a sad sign of the tastes of our age. Because it wasn’t that Oliver Twist was passive— if he had been, he’d have died in the workhouse, unremarked. And it wasn’t that he was ‘whiny’. Yes, Oliver cried when other characters would have expressed anger, cynicism or just gone off and picked a pocket. But that was because Oliver was still possessed of that once cherished childhood quality of moral innocence, and the contrasting characters, having been already corrupted by an evil world, had lost that quality long ago.

Innocence was once a beautiful and attractive quality in fictional characters, much sought after by readers. Think of young Jane Eyre, or of Lucy and Mina from Dracula. We could see the evils afoot in the world more clearly when we saw characters like that, who had at least a touch of purity and light in them.

But what does the reader of today want? Dexter Morgan— the serial killer from Jeff Lindsey’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter and series. Here we have a serial killer as the first person narrator, and we see all of Dexter’s world from  his corrupted point-of-view. The ‘good guys’ of the series such as Dexter’s late adoptive father Harry and his sister Deb are corrupted by their acceptance of Dexter’s serial killings, which are deemed OK since the victims are (mostly) uncaught murderers.

But I think the hunger for the innocent character is still there. Think of the anti-war novel series ‘The Hunger Games.’ Katniss Everdeen may be a minor-league rebel from the beginning with her illegal hunting and listening to Gale’s treason-talk. But she is innocent enough that when she decides the world is too awful to bring children into it, her method is to decide never to marry. Heck, today’s fifth graders are less innocent than that when the government-mandated sex education classes get through with them!

Don’t get me wrong— I like the Artful Dodger. And I’d love to read ‘Artful’ and see him in new adventures. But it is the pure and innocent characters of the world like Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre that really touch my heart.  And it would be sad to see them wholly replaced by the cynical and the violent.

Artful: A Novel, by Peter David

ArtfulRandom thought: maybe part of the appeal of Dexter Morgan is that though as a serial killer he is the ultimate in being a corrupted person, he also has a curious degree of innocence about social interactions— he doesn’t ‘get’ stuff that even a grade school kid gets about human relationships. To the point that often I felt Dexter seemed more like a person with Asperger Syndrome than a pure sociopath as the author probably intended.