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I'm currently writing a tale with two protagonists. One of them is a dark protagonist - that is, technically evil. The other protagonist is not evil. I'm wondering if this will cause the reader to gravitate toward the good protagonist.

I have a way of dealing with dark protagonists. The trick is to make sure they realize their darkness, and want to be better. That gives the reader something to hope for. While this works adequately when the dark protagonist is alone, I'm wondering if it will be outshone by a normal good protagonist.

With two protagonists, will the reader gravitate towards a 'good' one, and away from the evil-but-trying-to-be-better one? In other words: can the reader like both protagonists equally? This is important because both protagonists are PoV characters. I don't want the reader wanting to get back to one character while he's reading the other (eg Eragon vs. Roran in Eldest). The reason for this question is that while the dark protagonist is trying to be better, he's still evil at the core. He's still a bad guy.

Do note that my two protagonists are on the same side. One is not the antagonist to the other.

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    if you really want to be challenging, your "good" protagonist should be in a position where s/he is being slowly seduced by "evil" in some capacity, so it appears that the two protagonists are headed in opposite directions. Even better if the "evil" protag eventually "saves" the good one in the climax and reminds him/her why s/he was good in the first place. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 28 '17 at 15:37
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    Our enjoyment of characters does not necessarily go hand in hand with their morality. But whether we're rooting for them or not does. Which one are you going for? – sudowoodo Aug 28 '17 at 15:57
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    Also, I'm wondering how a character can be really evil at their core, but desire to be good? Is it a genuine desire, for the right reasons? And is the redemption fulfilled, or do they ultimately fail to become better? I lean towards liking dark protagonists better, by the way (some people find regular good characters a little dull), but it really depends just how evil he is, and just how genuinely he seeks to be better. – sudowoodo Aug 28 '17 at 16:10
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    It's TV not novels, but I immediately thought of Londo Mollari in Babylon 5. He's power-hungry, which is how he's able to be seduced by the Shadows and become thoroughly hated by the other main characters. And yet he's an engaging character alongside them as we see his struggle. – Monica Cellio Aug 28 '17 at 16:24
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    This has little to do with goodness vs (redeemed) badness. Take Elsa and Anna from Frozen. Can you tell who's people's favorite and who's not? – Alexander Aug 28 '17 at 17:09
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Each reader probably won't like the protagonists equally. Readers are not a monolithic group. Some will be drawn to the virtue of the good character, while others will eat up the struggles of the dark character. It doesn't even necessarily have to do with their morality, and it's hard to say what character traits will resonate with a particular reader the best.

The only thing you can do is make both characters likeable, and equally fleshed-out. They don't even have to be likeable as people to be likeable as characters. If the character's justifications make sense, and if you explore how they got to be the way they are, even an evil character can be a good character. This is why characters such as Voldemort feel shallow to me (even though Rowling tried to give him some backstory exposition), while I liked Snape as a character. Harkening back to my earlier point, I know that other people have the opposite positions on the characters.

Remember that no one is the villain in their own mind, and only the cartooniest Disney or Superhero villains are evil for its own sake. Only a true psychopath would commit such acts for their own pleasure. All others have motivations for it, feeling that the ends justify the means. That sounds like I have strayed from the question of 'can I make them equally likeable' into the territory of 'how do I make a likeable dark character', but I am really just stressing the importance of letting the reader in on the characters' motivations and justifications equally.

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    Yas! Thank you, this was pretty much the point I was trying to make in my answer and clarified in a comment. It is hard to make 2 people equally likable to the same extent. But you can have both be generally likable. He might even find that some/most might end up siding with his dark character instead. – ggiaquin16 Aug 28 '17 at 17:15
  • Ah I see that now - sorry, I didn't mean to steal your thunder, but I thought there were a few points that should be touched on more specifically. – Michael Aug 28 '17 at 18:05
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    no no not at all! I am glad you provided this as I feel like you explained what I struggled to say! I don't care so much bout the lime light. We are all here to help as a team to provide good answers for anyone who views this site. – ggiaquin16 Aug 28 '17 at 18:06
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    That is true - I can only strive to be helpful. At least in answers. Comments are a toss-up. ;) – Michael Aug 28 '17 at 18:17
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    A single reader could like one more than the other, and then change his/her preference as s/he matures -- possibly even as a result of how the characters are expressed in the story and after weighing the characters over time. – user117529 Aug 29 '17 at 5:08
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Evil is cool. Virtue is dorky.

The pure hero really only exists in hagiographies and tracts -- works that hold up somebody's idea of political or moral virtue for admiration. Works of these kind exist to draw lines between good and evil, not to examine the human condition.

And consider the basic shape of story. The climax of a conventional story is essentially moral, a choice of values. Is the hero willing to pay the price to achieve their goal? For the pure hero, the answer is obviously yes, and we all know it is going to be yes, so unless our sole interest in the story is to have our political or moral opinions validated, it is a boring story: nothing is actually at stake.

The hero who chooses the sacrifice must be at least venal enough for their choosing it to be in doubt. But, and this is key, the more sinful the hero is, the more profound and moving the moment becomes in which they make the sacrificial choice.

Equally moving, by the way, is the saintly hero who stumbles at the moment of crisis, as Frodo does at the top of Mount Doom. Frodo had been so good, so self sacrificing, so tolerant (even of Gollum), that if he were to stride up to the edge of the volcano, whip the ring off his finger and toss it into the flames, it would be a bit of a let down. But the saint stumbles. In the great moment of crisis, he chooses selfishly.

It is both an ancient trope and human truth that the outwardly virtuous man may have feet of clay, while the outward rogue may have a heart of gold and a spine of steel. The rogue, in a sense, sees through all the mannered pieties of the self-consciously virtuous and rejects them (not without selfishness or culpability, to be sure) but when the stakes are raised, their deeper moral nature is engaged and they prove to have more real courage than the paper saint.

  • Well, not to be anal–retentive, but methinks it is probably better to say that villainy is cool. ‘Evil’ could be, well, like sexually molesting an infant while forcing the parents to watch. People are fascinated with perversion and horror and depravity, but for different reasons altogether. – can-ned_food Aug 29 '17 at 6:11
  • You can have a non-obvious moral decision even for a saint, just throw in a Trolley problem. – André Paramés Aug 29 '17 at 14:14
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    I feel like I'd find the first line in Spaceballs if I watched it again. – T.E.D. Aug 29 '17 at 14:59
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This is typically done in Anime quite frequently. Usually anime has a whole slew of main characters that each have their own tropes... and usually 1 of them are dark/were dark/converted/converting. I don't see it being off putting. It's more so the trick of making the audience empathetic to their plight.

Are they running away from their past to realize that everything they knew was a lie? Is their actions of "evil" (dark arts and being evil are in my opinion 2 separate things though they are usually taken as the same EX: See professor Snape from Harry Potter) due to their past and they do it out of fear/hate for the other?

Often in anime, you will see a child of an evil lord who ran away from their dimension and hide on Earth. This person would typically be viewed as technically dark/evil and do things in their way because they don't know any other way. Then you have the other Main protagonist enter the scene and show them the truth and the light of the world and slowly this person converts/builds the bonds they were searching for and act in open rebellion against their parent's ways and usually give some cliche speech about friends and that not everyone is trying to hurt them.

So Yes, it is very possible to have a protagonist be dark, live a dark current/past life and have them be liked by the audience. It is just a matter of how you portray them.

  • However, the question is whether the reader will like both a dark protagonist and a light protagonist equally. I know I can create a likable dark protagonist. That isn't the question. I'll edit the OP to make it clearer. – Thomas Myron Aug 28 '17 at 16:14
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    @ThomasMyron, I don't recall if any MC are liked equally. People always tend to favor ones that attribute qualities they like best in their ideal self. All power rangers were of equality. All were "good" but I can't say I liked them equally at all. That doesn't mean I didn't like them all, but I was more fond of the ones I admired more so. Same with ninja turtles. I appreciated all the main characters, but I preferred 1 or 2 over the others. Point being, it would be hard to create a likable equality even among 2 "good" protagonists. – ggiaquin16 Aug 28 '17 at 16:17
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    @ThomasMyron Also to clarify, I am not saying they attack each other or that they are against each other. Sorry if it sounds that way but that is also not what I was intending. I was saying they both can be liked and they both are on the same side. It just depends on how you do the "dark" one's past and their person going forward. – ggiaquin16 Aug 28 '17 at 16:24
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Take a look at "Transformers: Beast Wars" for a good example of this, with specific focus on the characters of Rattrap and Dinobot. The former is a life long soldier for the Maximal cause and is quite possibly the most vocal supporter of fighting for the heroic side. Meanwhile, Dinobot is a devotee to Predicon idealology and warrior culture but betrayed the other Predicons because he felt they were barely paying lip service to these ideals. Notable here is, until very late in his story arc, does Dinobot have any regrets for anything he did while working with the Predicons. This causes conflict between the two as Rattrap believes Dinobot thinks like he does... that there is nothing Dinobot will do as long as its for the cause... and believes Dinobot is truly loyal to the Predicons. Dinobot doesn't trust Rattrap because Rattrap's mentality of "The Ends Justifies the Means" was the whole reason he left the Predicons in the first place. The dynamic is interesting, and while the pair are fan favorites, but Dinobot is considered the highlight of the entire series. Without giving away much as to why, nearly 10 years after the show wrapped up, when the Transformers franchise created a hall of fame for its various important charcters, inductees entered in a rule of 2 Autobots, 2 Decepticons, and one fan voted character. Dinobot pulled a surprising upset victory in the very first Fan Voting and became one of the first five inductees into the Hall of Fame, and the only one in his class to be from a series that wasn't the original cartoon.

Rattrap has yet to recive such an honor.

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I think the question is a bit opinion based; and it depends on how evil the evil guy is. Is he just shoplifting once in a while, or getting into bar fights and breaking a finger or nose for the fun of it, or is he still in the business of kidnapping children and selling their transplantable organs? (but trying to quit.)

An Anti-Hero can be likable and even enjoyed MORE than a relentlessly good protagonist: But you have to ensure that the reader sees that, on balance, the good they do is far outweighing any evil they do and that trend should seem permanent and reliable.

For an old example, see Dirty Harry; a more modern version is perhaps Dexter.

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I think it's often less important whether a character's personality is likeable than whether their goal is relatable. An evil character who wants to be a better person but doesn't quite know how to go about it might actually be more relatable than a good character who knows exactly what the right thing to do is and just goes and does it.

Most of us know what it feels like to want to be better, or not know what the right thing to do is. As much as we might like the idea, very few of us automatically know right from wrong and just go ahead and do good. Those who believe they are doing this are often the most dangerous people of all, since when they do something wrong they do so with absolute conviction.

So it seems to me that (fundamentally) you have four possible stories here:

  • (1) Character G (for good) becomes even wiser and better, while character E (for evil) becomes good (perhaps even as good as character G) by the end (perhaps hinting that the person character G is at the end of the story is somebody that character E could also become, with enough work).

  • (2) Character G is so sure of their goodness that they never question their actions and end up becoming evil, while character E is so determined to become less evil that they actually end up becoming good.

  • (3) Character G's belief in their own innate goodness becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and makes them even better, while character E's recognition of their own evil ultimately drives them to frustration and/or despair and causes them to become even more evil (or become good for a while and then tragically revert to their former ways).

  • (4) Character G becomes evil (for the reasons described in (2)), while character E becomes even more evil (or temporarily good and then reverts to evil) as in (3). In this case, the story may be a cautionary tale that both extremes have their dangers.

Whichever one of these you ultimately go for, I believe the contrast between the two stories will only serve to make each of them more interesting, and that your premise is a good one. People will get behind both of your characters if they are able to sympathise with their situation and their goals, even if they recognise that the characters are - as people - deeply flawed.

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