I'm completely new to this forum (or whatever it's called) so don't hesitate to point out anything done wrong. Also, please excuse the bad English, it's not my mother tongue.

I'm planning (yeah, it's kinda blurry) on writing a story with someone and we'd both have a character to put in the story and both would be some sort of main character.

Here is my problem : What I want to explore for my protagonist would be questionable morals. By that, I mean someone not minding killing (though not some kind of psychopath) or abandoning others if he can benefit from it.

As an example, I wanted my protagonist to kill a few innocent people (leading to a major conflict happening later) without immediately being too much troubled about it. Does this sound too much ?

Basically, this idea comes from me being fed up with 'too kind' or 'morally irreproachable' protagonists (sparing enemies, giving big inspirational speeches, etc).

Do you think this is a viable concept ? Is it compatible with a female protagonist ?
Should the other main character compensate for this trait ?

Thanks in advance for your answers.

  • 4
    I think you are reading the wrong books. There are countless examples of book, movies, and TV shows about characters with questionable morals.
    – user16226
    Aug 23, 2016 at 11:57
  • 1
    While there are countless movies and books about characters with questionable morals, not all of them get away with it. Find a successful book or movie about one such character, and you're on to something. I would personally recommend the Artemis Fowl series, by Eoin Colfer. Aug 23, 2016 at 19:17
  • One line that has me worried is the idea about the other main character compensating for the first. That would be disastrous. It is possible to write a novel with two protagonists (I wouldn't recommend it for a beginning author, and even most intermediate ones though). It is extremely difficult to do though, because unless both authors know exactly what they are doing, the reader will like one character more than the other. This will lead him to skim the chapters with one character, as he is eager to get back to the one he likes more. The characters need to be equally likable. Aug 24, 2016 at 15:03

4 Answers 4


What you are talking about is called a Dark Protagonist.

Short Answer:

Yes. This is possible, if handled correctly. If handled incorrectly, your main character will fail and take the book with her.

Long Answer:

The trick with any protagonist (and indeed any part of writing) is to consider what you want for the reader. The main thing that you want is for the reader to keep reading, all the way through your book. A protagonist that he doesn't sympathize with (or worse, doesn't like) is going to seriously detract from his experience, and possibly cause him to stop reading. Creating dark protagonists is tricky, especially for new writers. However, it can be done.

If you're a new writer, my first answer would be to not write a dark protagonist. Seriously consider if your protagonist can be observing these qualities in someone else. That will really help.

However, being a writer myself, I know these ideas have a way of sticking with us, so if you want to write a dark protagonist, there is a very particular way you need to go about it.

No one wants to read about a purely evil person. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is. If your protagonist is a murderer or even something as simple as a thief, you're in trouble. In order to fix this problem, you have to think about what a reader does want to read.

In terms of characters, readers want to read about heroes. You might be tired of heroes from reading about too many poorly developed protagonists, but hear me out. A reader wants to read about someone that they can look up to. They want to see the qualities that they themselves wish they had. They want to read about people who are willing to do the things or say the words that they would never dare, but would nonetheless applaud. A character that is this way is called larger than life.

So how does this apply to dark protagonists? There really isn't much difference. The dark protagonist still needs something - some quality or mentality - that makes her heroic in some way. And when it comes to dark protagonists, this usually comes out as a sign that the protagonist is not entirely dark.

@Stephen used Jason Bourne as an example, so I'll use him too. Bourne kills ruthlessly, and appears to do so with no emotion whatsoever. How on earth are we behind him? As Stephen pointed out, it's the reasoning behind what he does. We empathize with his mission (which come from a different part of character development), and so sympathize with him and whatever it takes to complete that mission. And we discover that he has emotions, cares for people, and only kills when necessary (think about it: he never kills unless it's a trained assassin that actually poses a threat to him).

Another good example is Artemis Fowl. I don't know if you've read the Artemis Fowl books, but they are about a young boy who is a criminal mastermind, stealing simply to increase his own wealth. Worse, he keeps his ill mother in the dark about what he's doing, and kidnaps a certain 'gifted' individual simply to learn her powers. How does the novel work? Artemis is not dark. Not entirely, anyway. He's devious and evil, certainly, but he cannot suppress the feelings within him. He cares for his mother. He sympathizes with his prisoner. While he feels a thrill during a robbery, he even feels sorry for that afterwards.


So how do you create a workable dark protagonist? Show that she is not entirely dark. Give the reader a hint, a glimmer of hope, something that they can cheer for whenever it wins over the protagonist's darkness. I doubt your story is about how the actions of your protagonist are right. Give her doubts. She can suppress them all she wants; they'll still be there. As long as they are, and as long as they refuse to go away, resurfacing at every opportunity, the reader has hope. Keep that hope alive, and your protagonist will succeed.

Good luck in your writing!

  • Well thanks for that very complete answer. This would indeed be my first serious piece of writing but as you said, the idea of a dark protagonist is kinda stuck in my head... About the characters you were talking about, I do know them (Bourne, Fowl or Hancock as @Joel_Brown mentioned him). My character would be morally closer to Raymond Reddington of the Blacklist series (if you know it).
    – z3r0
    Aug 24, 2016 at 7:16
  • I personally have not seen the The Blacklist, but I have heard it praised quite a lot, so there's clearly something going on with Reddington. Unless the main character is more Liz than he. If Reddington is indeed a full blown protagonist though, then I'd say you have a good base for your protagonist. Aug 24, 2016 at 14:54

Of course it can be done. Jason Bourne is a great example of a hero who will do whatever it takes to survive himself and complete his mission.

In the Star Trek films the phrase "the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, or the one" has been used on a few occasions. While it has been used in this case as a person sacrificing themselves for the good of the hundreds on board ship, it could easily be reversed to killing a few people to save lots more later on.

The sex of your protagonist is irrelevant here. The sidekick (or whatever they are) could perhaps be a moral compass but your hero has to feel justified in their actions or they shouldn't be doing it and nothing the sidekick should say or do should get in the way of this.

  • If I get this right, you're saying it is possible but the protagonist's actions need to be justified.
    – z3r0
    Aug 23, 2016 at 12:06
  • That is exactly what I'm saying. You can't have anyone doing anything without good reason.
    – Stephen
    Aug 23, 2016 at 13:11

This could be done pretty easily, especially if the story goes on to show some moral redemption for the protagonist. Strictly for research purposes, I suggest you view My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

The redemption doesn't even have to be for the protagonist. Consider the film Hancock, in which the redemption is mainly for the character played by Jason Bateman.

There are also lots of other stories where the protagonist is an anti-hero.


As others have stated, the actions that your character takes should be put into a context that makes the reader understand, if not approve of, the action.

I look at the main character in the TV show Dexter. He's a serial killer. But the people he kills are "bad" people. If your character needs to kill innocent bystanders, there needs to be a reason that the reader can attribute to why.

Note that the character only has to believe that it is justified. And believe it in a way that can convince the reader. It may end up that the characters assumptions are incorrect, but that wasn't known when he took his actions.

The dark protagonist is a difficult line to walk, so be very careful, and get feedback from beta readers as to whether you are portraying your character like you want.

Good luck!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.