In my new novel, A History of What Comes Next, ninety-nine generations of mothers and daughters insert themselves into history to nudge us towards the stars. They’re quite strong, incredibly smart, and, when cornered, very deadly. I knew from the start I wanted them to be ruthless at times, but they’re still, undeniably, the heroes of the book, which begged the question: How far can I take this? Can they wipe out a village? Is there such a thing as too bad?
One of the first books to really, really knock my socks off was Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. These people are bad bad. They don’t murder anyone but they lie, they cheat, they destroy each other’s lives and they enjoy every minute of it. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are about as evil as you can imagine, with barely a relatable trait other than, perhaps, the fact that they long for love and approval of people as evil as they are. We like watching them because they’re really good at being bad. Villain protagonists aren’t so frequent but there are still plenty: You, by Caroline Kepnes, the Villains series by V.E. Schwab, Gone Girl, The Joker or any just about movie with Robert De Niro. These characters can do pretty much whatever they want because, well, they’re villains, which, unfortunately, isn’t what I wanted my characters to be.
I knew I had some leeway. There are very few genuinely good characters anymore. Character depth is pretty synonymous with some degree of moral ambiguity and there’d be very little room for a Dr. Quinn-type character on TV nowadays. Dr. House is a complete asshole. Even the Good Doctor ends up hurting the people around him. Some of this isn’t new. Action heroes have always gotten away with a truckload of toxic masculinity. Early James Bond is straight up creepy but I don’t know many people who’d like their daughter to date the new one. Nerd characters were always forgiven a good amount of misogyny. They still are. Fortunately, we’ve found some new and better ways to be bad, and there are things we readily accepted from characters not that long that are super cringy a couple decades later. There’s also been some democratization of badness in the last few years and women get to do bad things too. For one thing, they get to drink a lot. Jessica Jones, Sharp Objects, Girl on the Train, etc. I’d be curious to know how many books, films or TV shows in recent years had a self-loathing alcoholic as a protagonist. All this to say we’re more than fine with our heroes being tortured souls and making questionable choices, we’ve come to expect it. But there are to be limits. Maybe.
Theft is obviously fine. There’s the steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor Robin Hood type hero, sure, but there are also plenty who just like to steal things. Butch Cassidy, Arsène Lupin, Thomas Crown, El Professor. Everyone loves a good thief. I tried to find some common redeeming quality that makes them all likeable but there doesn’t seem to be one. They just have to be good at stealing. It’s very similar to Les Liaisons Dangereuses in this way. We like talent more than we like morality.
But how about murder? That should, at the very least, make us pause. I’ll narrow it down a bit and ignore the entire revenge genre. Leaving a trail of bodies because someone wronged you is evidently fine and makes you hero material in the eyes of most. That’s true in books: The Iliad?, Carrie, True Grit, and especially on screen: Death Wish, Kill Bill, The Crow, Taken, John Wick, the list is as long as the body count. Ironically, most of these still manage to have a “happy” ending. While we’re at it, let’s ignore superheroes as well since pretty much all of them are technically criminals, if not mass murderers.
Can a hero kill someone they don’t know from Adam? That’s probably the wrong question. Cops do that all the time. There are fictional cops with zero arrests in their career because they killed every suspect. Setting aside cops and vigilantes, can the hero commit murder? Many murders?
One of the things that helped me answer that question was Dexter. He’s an interesting case because at first glance he looks like a villain protagonist, but he’s different from, say, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He’s a serial killer, a terrible father, a bad boyfriend, but the audience cares for him, somehow. It helps that he “mostly” kills bad people, but we forgive him for the occasional slip up and we certainly don’t want him to get caught. He has this “code” his father gave him, which helps sell him as a character, but in the end, I think we like Dexter because he chooses to be “good” despite his nature, to be better than what the universe intended him to be. It’s the choice, I think, the effort, that we respond to. I wasn’t writing serial killers, obviously, but I really liked the idea of them being aware of their dark side and making a conscious decision to be stronger than it.
So, can a hero be too bad? Yes, probably. I can’t quite imagine a hero committing sex crimes or beating their children every day but there might some book or movie out there to prove me wrong. I would hope not but I’d be lying if I said it would surprise me. I think either of these things would prevent any reasonable person from connecting with a character, but we, as an audience seem willing to forgive the most horrible deeds under the right conditions. I wonder what those are.
I suppose it helps if there’s a “good” reason for doing the bad thing. We’ve already established that revenge is a good enough motive for a hundred cold-blooded murders. Some version of the Trolley Problem would also do the trick. Kill one person to save a hundred, kill a hundred to save a million. Think of the poor guy behind the closing door of a flooding submarine. And if you’re trying to save everyone, then I suppose everything is fair game. Maybe the character couldn’t help it. It happens. Jean Grey loses it and wipes out a planet. Oops. Power incontinence is a common enough trope in the superhero genre. Trauma can also explain why someone couldn’t control themselves. Childhood trauma, war trauma. Sympathy for what the character went through goes a long way. It will, of course, help if they experience remorse. That’s where the self-loathing comes in. We’ll let the most dreadful things fly if the character feels bad about it. That said, I don’t think any one of these things are necessary. We’ve seen enough “good” people doing really bad things that if we judge the character’s motivations as worthwhile even in the slightest way, and they exhibit an ounce of humanity, we’re willing to forgive just about anything, including, I bet, the unfortunate demise of a very, very small village.