I've changed a secondary character into a murderer, and it changes everything. This change also opposes my core philosophies, that life and art should strive to reach something higher - not something more base. I don't want gratuitous anything.

I made the change, because it can be undone and I think there is value in exploring a bunch of different possible paths. And - Now - I recognize that this change 'works.' It hypes up the scene, pulls into past scenes, plays into future scenes.

And now, I wonder philosophically what it means to represent something reprehensible (like cavalier murder) in fiction. Can a good character be a murderer? What does it say about humanity if we want to read 'that kind of struggle?' A character stewing over the people he killed years ago? Are we all murderers at heart?

My (secondary) character is remorseful and lives an exemplary life. But come on - if my neighbor killed two politicians years ago, I don't care that he is a good guy now. He broke the freakin law. Report him! Haul him off! In other words, real life and literature are quite different beasts.

Surely the reasons for the disparity between fiction and life are understood? Can you give me peace about writing a sympathetic murderer?

Question: Why do bad characters sell, and does this ultimately serve base instincts or higher instincts?

A good answer will draw from either respected works, or will reflect considered thought about why so much of popular writing is driven by the darker side of humanity.

  • 2
    "I shot the sheriff, but I swear it was in self-defense"
    – Alexander
    Apr 13, 2018 at 22:23
  • 2
    You say "no opinions," but this is an opinion-based question, and you have posted your own opinion as the first answer.
    – user30522
    Apr 14, 2018 at 1:53
  • 1
    DTP, I changed the title of your question. I thought you were asking why badly written books sell...
    – user29032
    Apr 14, 2018 at 6:45
  • 1
    @Cloudchaser I agree it's a good question. I just think "no opinions" is an unhelpful phrasing. "Please back up your opinions with supporting arguments" would be better, although that should be assumed as part of a good answer anyway.
    – user30522
    Apr 14, 2018 at 14:31
  • 2
    In your "neighbour killing politicians" scenario, most people will certainly demand the strongest punishment possible. But as any news publisher can tell you, most people will also want to hear or read every little detail about that murder.
    – celtschk
    Apr 16, 2018 at 5:52

9 Answers 9


I can see three reasons for a murdering protagonist to be appealing:

1. the ethical struggle between law and what they perceive as right

Presumably, your protagonist killed the politicians for a reason. Maybe they felt that for some reason killing them was their moral obligation. Maybe it's a revenge story. The reader might not agree with the murder, but they might still understand the reason.

If your protagonist is aware that killing in general is ethically wrong, the resulting internal struggle can be fascinating. Add the consequences of having to hide their crime and being on the run, and the story becomes even richer in conflict.

2. the arc of redemption

Whether your protagonist murdered for "noble" reasons or for some other motive, if they feel guilt and doubt later-on, that allows for an interesting arc of character progression.

They might decide to make amends by helping others, or struggle between the urge to turn themselves in (maybe to prevent an innocent being punished) and the practical need to stay out of prison, e.g. to support their family.

As a reader, I can sympathise with someone with a dark backstory trying to turn their life around. Regretting one's past mistakes is human, and even dealing with the consequences of a (literally) life-altering action as having murdered someone can resonate in your readers' own experiences as an exaggeration of their own regrets.

3. getting a taste of a life unlike our own

In fiction we often follow characters along story lines completely unlike our own life. We can visit other planets, encounter strange creatures and, yes, make decisions we normally wouldn't.

In role-playing games, the player often can choose between the good and evil path. Some players choose to follow their own moral code, others will deliberately choose the most evil option to see where it will take them and experience the feeling of being evil. Having both paths adds replay value to a game because it allows the player to try either whenever they feel like.

It's similar with books and movies. Depending how I feel, I might pick a story featuring a heroic character or an evil protagonist. When following the hero, I want to know whether they'll manage to save the world and how they overcome the obstacles on their way. Conversely, with the murderer, I want to see whether (and how) they'll get away with it.

And of course, there's always room for a combination of these options. You could have a protagonist who, after a long internal struggle, decides to commit the act of murder despite it being both against the law and their own morals, and then spends the rest of their life dealing with this crime: always afraid of being found out and yet wishing to share their burden with someone. They might wish to turn their life around but find themselves being unable to do so because that too would have consequences. They might even end up killing more and more people to cover up their previous murders and try to justify it to themselves as having no other choice.

  • 1
    Your answer pretty much sums up what mine would have been. A lot depends on why the character killed the two politicians. Were these politicians blackmailing him? Were they so corrupt that they hurt society? Or did he just not like them? It doesn't bother me that its against the law, but rather that murder is normally morally wrong. The other half of the equation is what is the character going to do now. Will he change? Will he confess?
    – NomadMaker
    Apr 14, 2018 at 11:22
  • Indeed, the 2ndry char was always a murderer on a redemptive arc, but I never called it out like I did yesterday, in a line of dialog, as a bald faced admission. Adding it to the scene in question changes the relationship between this 2ndry character and the MC, which impacts his moral dilemma. should he join with this murderer who committed acts similar to those that took his own family member, b/c they share moral purpose - or do revenge emotions take over? OTOH, the reveal feels not quite correctly placed. I think it belongs in the climax, but then the change to the relationship is lost.
    – SFWriter
    Apr 14, 2018 at 15:34
  • 1
    I've been looking back through books I've enjoyed that actually open with murder (or something equally heinous). I didn't even realize it at the time. I was surprised how man of my favoritee books begin that way. But I think what I enjoy was the moral/etc dilemmas these events raise. The bad event happens, and the book explores what might happen. I think reading such books is either me looking to understand what I think on thorny issues, or me looking for validation of beliefs in art. Bad actions in fiction give me the chance to figure out what I think about, say, justice.
    – SFWriter
    Apr 16, 2018 at 14:59

The virtuous transgressor is one of the oldest and most popular figures in literature. We find them everywhere from Robin Hood to Dirty Harry.

How can a transgressor be virtuous? We all have basically the same attitude towards the law: it should constrain me as little as possible and other people as much as possible, or at least as much as is required to make sure they don't interfere with me and what I want to do.

Naturally, no one set of laws is going provide that for everyone, so the law is a set of compromises. I accept a set of constraints imposed by my neighbours in exchange for them accepting a set of constraints imposed by me. This does not prevent me from campaigning to have the balance of constraints shifted in my favor, which is why politics is eternal. If there were one perfect balance of constraints that all could accept, we would have found it by now. Instead, we have a constant shifting of constraints as people continually work for their own advantage. This process was very much on display this week in the Mark Zuckerberg hearings on Capitol Hill. At stake are the appropriate constraints on the collection and use of personal data. One set of constraints would ruin the Facebook business model. Another could undermine democracy. The struggle continues.

The business of defining constraints falls to the elites. Most elections are contest between two sets of elites. (A good thing, since elites are made up of people who are good at stuff. The odd time a true peoples party gets into power the result is inevitably blood and ruin.) This means that most ordinary people live under a constraint regime that favors the elites. (The calculation of the elites is to make the laws favor them, but not so much that the resentment of the governed flairs into open revolt.)

So where does this leave Joe Q Public? Living under a regime of constraints which he to some extent finds irksome and in which he sees that the rich get richer and, often, get away with murder (both literally and figuratively). Personally, he lacks the courage to rebel or resist. He has too much to lose (the elites have made sure he lives well enough to have something to lose by rebellion). But who is his hero? The virtuous transgressor -- the hero who breaks the laws he, Joe Q, thinks unjust but dare not break.

But his admiration for the virtuous transgressor is not confined to the altruistic transgressor. The virtuous transgressor does not have to be Robin Hood. Indeed, convince yourself of the injustice of the laws (and even just laws seem unjust when they constrain our desires), and transgression itself becomes a virtuous act, regardless of its consequences. We are, after all, selfish creatures at heart, we would like to take what we want without consequences. As the Great Big Sea song says, "I want to be consequence free" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGp9bnDm0n0)

Follow this to its ending and merely the act of successfully living outside the law becomes attractive. Thus Jesse James became a folk hero to people living outside the range in which he robbed amd murdered. I want to be consequence free. Failing that, I want to read about people who do live that way.


Yes, we are all murderers at heart. We are all killers at heart, for food.

Some evolutionary scientists believe we would not have evolved brains without eating meat on a regular basis; regardless we are particularly well suited to long distance running which is probably how our earliest ancestors in Africa hunted: Running all frikkin' day, chasing animals. Because with our sweat glands and light body hair, we can do that, and they cannot: They die of heat stroke in a matter of hours if it is hot; we do not. Our sweat cools us off; a deer can only pant. (Like a dog, dozens of young dogs in the USA die of heat stroke every year because their human owners run with them for five miles in warm humid weather, and their obedient dog has a stroke and dies).

It is in our nature to kill large animals for food, and it is also in our nature to fight and kill our rivals. There are no "base" instincts and "higher" instincts. There are instincts, and they are all equally valuable, and equally weaknesses or strengths.

In that sense, the rule "an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, a life for a life" is just restating a part of our basic instinct, but even such a simple law, while defining fair retribution, falls short by failing to define the circumstances in which it should be invoked: Specifically, a selfishly taken "eye, hand, or life". Most agree if a man takes a life in self-defense, that might be fair even though his life was not taken. But perhaps not fair if he had an easy alternative to avoid attack, or was taunting his attacker, or was raping his attacker's daughter when he was attacked, etc. So our sense of fairness is not super simple, and so difficult to define precisely it almost always falls short -- Which is unfair! Laws should never be taken as gospel in determining whether a treatment of a person is "Fair." If I drive at ninety miles an hour on city streets I am breaking the law, if I run red lights and refuse to stop when chased by cops I am breaking the law, but most juries will exonerate me if my brother is bleeding to death in the front seat and I am trying to get to the Emergency Room. That is "Fair" because of the exonerating circumstances.

There is a biological reason the average male is 25% larger than the average female, and more prone to muscularity, height and speed: The male body is designed to FIGHT, particularly each other for the right to mate. The same is true in the super-majority of other species; males are specially adapted to fight other males for mates, and females are not. Throughout the animal kingdom, the majority of males have no offspring at all, while the majority of females all have offspring. This is due to the minimal amount of time and energy it takes for a male to father a child, and the maximal amount of time and energy it takes for a female to bear that same child; in humans that can literally be a few minutes versus nine months of increased calorie requirement and about five months of increasing disability, a 200,000 to 1 disparity, not to mention two years of continuing care for the infant!

This disparity in efforts for reproduction has led evolution to produce not just physical differences, but psychological differences that are gender-linked, and those in turn create cultural differences across the world in how women are treated, protected / enslaved, pursued, and mate (whether by choice or coercion).

The evidence for this is on the ground, the vast majority of murderers, worldwide, are men. The vast majority of rapists, worldwide, are men. The vast majority of sexual slaves, worldwide, are women, owned by men. (However you wish to define it, I define it as any woman repeatedly forced by the same individual to have sex she doesn't want to have.)

There are cross-overs, both in sexual preference and murderering, rape and slavery, but we should not expect anything in biology to wind up 100% iron-clad, even physical gender can be mixed, it should not surprise us if psychological attributes that are highly correlated to one gender are sometimes found in the opposite gender.

We are murderers at heart. There are few emotions that did not serve us at some time or another in our rise to humans. Anger and rage and violence serve a purpose still. Murder worked positively to stop predation on people by other humans long before we had any laws. Murder of rivals, kidnapping and rape of women, violent competition for women and resources (including all out war) all worked negatively in pursuit of the only thing that ultimately drives evolution, reproduction. A man's competition cannot threaten him or out-reproduce him if the competition is dead. (Of course then, the winner's male offspring may inherit his physicality and psychology and have to compete against each other...)

Violence and killing come naturally to women, as well, defending themselves and their own offspring, hunting for food (they need meat to fuel their brains as much as men do), and so on. I am not suggesting here that women are incapable of violence, but statistically speaking, worldwide, they just do not murder as many rivals as men do, and nearly never forcibly rape anybody.

It is not in our nature to respect "the rule of law," otherwise we'd never overthrow a despotic king. More generally, how would we ever know to make a law against something, what in our nature makes us say "that should be against the law?"

What humans (and chimps, dolphins, elephants, corvids and perhaps other species) are born with is a not-too-simple but not-too-sophisticated sense of FAIRNESS. It is that sense upon which "law" resides, and it is that sense that tells us when a law is unfair, or something is happening that is unfair and we should make a law against it. The words "justice" and "just" and "unjust" all derive from the Latin "Justus" which meant "Righteous, Equitable". Equal. The law is a poor and often vague implementation of the fairness most of us have an instinct to demand, and take when the law fails us. It is why are Lady Justice holds a scale, which is fundamentally the metaphor of determining whether things are unequal or unfair.

So yes, we readers understand when a character kills somebody else, whether for their own selfish reasons (the killer deserves punishment!) or altruistic reasons (the killed deserved punishment, and equivalently this prevents the killed from doing additional future harm).

Both scenarios are in our blood. The first is there because "selfish" is quite literally what we are doing to reproduce our self! The second is there out of our inherent sense of fairness: If we believe somebody is doing great harm and will continue to do so, especially if they have the power, resources or contacts to circumvent punishment by the law, then we feel it is still "fair" if they receive punishment, and we don't really care what the law may be: Fairness comes above law.

Rage may seem destructive, but it serves an evolutionary purpose, in some circumstances completely ignoring consequences and trying to commit murder really is the only way to have a chance at spreading genes or protecting the genes you have already spread (children). It may fail, but it may succeed where surrender, submission or refusing to risk death or refusing to murder is guaranteed to fail. Similar arguments apply to other emotions, like jealousy, hatred, vindictiveness, etc. Due to biological imprecision (and not growing up in anything like natural setting or social environments) these are frequently misused, but they have perfectly valid evolutionary justification for existing, they have contributed heavily to our development and intelligence.

If you want to write about the human condition, it is possible but difficult to do while skipping the most important part of it. There will always exist some psychopaths in our midst, perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 percent of people are born with flawed feedback nerves in their brain that prevent them from feeling guilt or empathy. That is also part of our nature, having to deal with such people, and they are the enemy of mankind driving most of our law since the modern human brain emerged in force about 50,000 years ago (and the first woman with it may have existed 100,000 years before that).

Killing people to prevent their future action is a part of us, and is one of the easiest things we can identify with. It is only "murder" when done for selfish gain or pleasure; we tend to disagree with the label "murderer" when we speak of soldiers killing the enemy, or a girl being raped shooting and killing her attacker. We don't even think the soldier or girl should suffer regrets, and if they do, we feel sorry for them being traumatized by having killed.

On the other hand we are appalled when a murderer feels no regret, then we revile them and think they're defective ... and deserve to be killed to prevent their future actions! Because gain (in property, money or pleasure) by murder is fundamentally unfair no matter what the "law" says, and if the law does not agree, then it is the law that is flawed, not the instinct.

Why do bad characters sell, and does this ultimately serve base instincts or higher instincts?

Bad characters sell because the vast majority of us possess the instinct for fairness and we want to see the bad people get their fair due, that is entertainment for us. This serves instinct in general, I reject the division of "base" and "higher" because I think both are critical for a healthy mental life, and understanding what drives both helps us navigate life being fair to others: Which sometimes necessitates punishing them.

I believe a valid distinction that can serve is "selfish" and "altruistic" instincts; but killing is a tool and not automatically one or the other: If Joe killed a man in order to protect a woman, he is altruistic. If Joe secretly killed a man loved by a woman to get that man out of the way, Joe is selfish.

So it depends on why your character killed a politician whether the reader will consider it a murder or a justifiable killing.

  • Without attributions, this is purely opinion-based.
    – NomadMaker
    Apr 14, 2018 at 14:11
  • @NomadMaker Yep. Feel free to ignore it. Attributions also, eventually, arrive at something that is purely opinion-based; somebody thunk it up first! I will note all of the above is scientifically supported, I am a professional full time scientist, but in casual conversation I seldom drop "references." If you want a good one, check out Roy Baumeister (a professor) and his non-fiction book "Is There Anything Good About Men" explaining much of this, replete with MANY references. After you have read that, and perhaps finished a gender-focused sociology course, let's have an informed chat!
    – Amadeus
    Apr 14, 2018 at 14:22
  • 2
    @NomadMaker No, without attributions you cannot tell how much of it is purely opinion based and how much is based on research. The absence of presence of attributions does nothing to change that balance. There is, however, a huge value in pointing out the consequences of things that are widely known and accepted without the need to attribute every assertion. Amadeus is not proposing new knowledge here that needs to be rigorously defended. He is proposing publicly available and widely publicised theories to answer a specific question about human tastes. Elaborate attributions are not needed.
    – user16226
    Apr 14, 2018 at 15:09
  • 5
    @NomadMaker Speaking as a PhD academic with several peer reviewed publications that spent over a dozen years in college, I'll take the opposite side. Citations are an "Appeal to Authority," a logical fallacy, and a huge swath of "authoritative" publications are crap: Poorly reasoned, poorly defended, using the wrong statistical distributions and math, or have seriously flawed reasoning. (Google "Replication Crisis" for a taste). If I say something you don't believe, look it up or prove me wrong. For a critical reader citations are no more believable than the assertions they intend to support.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 15, 2018 at 13:57
  • 3
    +1 Attributions are about tracability, not authority. Not every form of discourse requires tracability, and in the age of Google, tracability is of much less consequence than it once was as you can Google any assertion you don't trust.
    – user16226
    Apr 15, 2018 at 14:34

I'm throwing out a possible answer to my own question. Mostly because I am trying to think through this.

I do believe that stories and storytelling are evolutionarily written into our being as a means of teaching and succeeding evolutionarily. All animals teach their offspring. We have language. We can teach through story.

It may even be enjoyable for us.

Perhaps, a thousand years ago, for most people, the story of a murderer would be metaphorical. In those days perhaps few people had any knowledge of actual murderers - any more than ... the people in my neighborhood are not actually murderers. My tribe is 'normal.' We don't kill one another.

So, the desire to read about murder as a metaphor for a wrenching change, was divorced from any traumatic realism of murder. A thousand years ago. (= nothing in evolutionary time.)

But now, with our global community, we can feel connected on any day to murders, real ones. On any day!

Answer: We understand murder as a metaphor. It's written into us. A thousand years ago, for most people, murder was a metaphor for 'the thing (anything) that changes you irrevocably.' Which we all experience. Breakups. Childbirth. Divorce and death. Financial ruin. Addiction.

The problem is now, we see murder in our daily dialog...


It can serve both base and higher instincts.

On one level people appreciate a character whose response to provocation is more dynamic than the response they think they would have themselves. This seems to work best when supported by a compelling back story (Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan), though there's always an addictive glee in the classic moustache-twirling pantomime villain (oh no there isn't...).

On a higher level, people like to see consequences. Even if the murderer continues to get away with the crime, the struggle to remain undetected (or, like Raskolnikov, to reconcile their actions with the sort of person they think they are) appeals to a sense of karmic justice.

A story about someone who always did the right thing would soon start to read like a sermon. On the other hand, illustrating why people might not - and what happens when they don't - is a classic piece of show-not-tell.


tl;dr: Due to the long nature of this answer, you can skip to below the line below. If you want the explanation, you will have to read the whole answer.

Some of these answers have suggested that we secretly enjoy reading about murderers. I find this preposterous, and I will present an example to show you why.

In Eoin Colfer's popular series, Artemis Fowl, the MC, is a criminal. He's no murderer, but he does steal purely for power and money, and has even gone so far as to kidnap an innocent, all within just the first book.

Knowing only that, can you honestly say you would like to read about this character? There might be some passing interest and tension in the heist (if Colfer focused on it, which he does not), and a reader could be interested in the clash of wits during the kidnapping, but all that interest is passing. In the end, you are reading about a character who cares only for himself and those he knows, and doesn't care who he hurts or steals from to get more power and money.

The authors of certain answers can try to explain how all readers secretly want to read about such a character. I do not, and I find it hard to believe that I am alone. We want to read about characters which we seek to emulate. That's the simple truth of character development.

Mark Baker suggested that we all want to read about the character who rebels against the rules we see as unjust, and maybe that's true. But a criminal is more than a rebel. He's someone who hurts others, purely for personal gain, without a shred of remorse. Is it being suggested that we all want to read about someone like that, as well? Even to emulate them? I certainly do not.

Artemis Fowl is in fact a very successful series, and to me it is obvious why. No novel can last with a MC no one wants to read about, so clearly Eoin Colfer knows how to handle such a dark protagonist. Assuming we all do not secretly wish to hurt others for personal gain, what is his trick?

Artemis is a thief, and cares only for the family fortune. No way around it. Neither does he show any desire to turn from his dark path. He does, however, have a mother. His mother is ill in her mind, confined to her bed, seeing and hearing things which aren't there. Sometimes she recognizes her son, sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes she thinks he's much younger than he is. Sometimes she thinks her husband - missing for years now - is with her.

This by itself might create some sympathy with Artemis - simply because we see him as the victim - but that sympathy will vanish when he turns back into the predator he is. Colfer knows Artemis needs something more, and he delivers it in one line. Artemis has just returned from another criminal enterprise, and visits his mother.

"Artemis, darling. Where have you been?"

Artemis sighed. She recognized him. That was a good sign.

"School trip, Mother. Skiing in Austria."

"Ah, skiing," crooned Angeline. "How I miss it. Maybe when your father returns."

Artemis felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic.

In that final line, the reader suddenly sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Artemis is not all dark, no matter how much he thinks he is, or even wants to be. That one line gives the reader hope. And throughout the series, Colfer continues to reinforce that hope. Artemis continues his criminal underlife, but we stick with him because we now know he is more than just a criminal. Even when Colfer introduces the 'police', we stick with Artemis. Not because the 'police' are evil. Simply because we already can see that Artemis is a better person than he would like to admit, and are cheering for him to win out over his own darkness.

So, why do readers enjoy reading about bad or evil characters? They don't. The only way to make these Dark Protagonists work is to give the reader a glimpse, a shred of evidence, that the character is not as dark as they seem.

A murderer can feel remorse over what he's done, even if he continues to do it. A thief can feel guilt over what he's stolen and the people he's helped, even if he steals night after night. In Artemis' case, a criminal can even want to be cold-blooded and dark, but if you show that they aren't, at least not entirely, the reader has hope.

The same holds true for every criminal. Without that light at the end of the tunnel, the reader would quickly grow to dislike the character, and discard the book.

You of course have already done this in your book, as your murderer is remorseful. That's all you need. The reader will sense that there is hope for this person, that he is more than just a cold-blooded killer. Recognize that hope. Bolster it to the reader. Even if the character remains a killer for the whole novel, keep that hope alive. Do that, and you keep the reader.

  • 1
    I didn't say "rebel". I said "transgressor". I wasn't just being fancy. A rebel takes a political position against the law. A transgressor merely breaks it. Transgression is fascinating. Children regularly transgress for no reason other than find out what happens if they do. Reading about transgression is vicarious transgression, and appealing for that reason. Could I get away with murder? What would it feel like to bludgeon that neighbor with the barking dog? People routinely commit war crimes vicariously in video games. Our appetite for transgression is clearly enormous.
    – user16226
    Apr 14, 2018 at 17:05

We all want to do evil.

We have all imagined with pleasure how we would hit someone who irritated us. How we would simply take what we wanted. Some of us find relief in imagining that we kill someone from whose behavior we have been suffering from a long time. We don't do any of this, because we understand the consequences, both to us individually and to our society as a whole (What if everyone just took what they wanted?) and because most of use have an inhibition to hit, hurt, steal, and kill. (Soldiers have to learn to overcome this inhibition in a long learning process.)

But literature (and other media) allow us an outlet for our suppressed desires. In a book (or a first-person shooter game) we can "kill" whoever we like with no consequences in the real world.


I don't have any references other than the other thorough answers here, But I'd like to add another perspective.

No remotely "normal" person is either all good or all evil. There are many competing aspects to any real personality.

Aside from someone who might be biologically psychopathic (I don't know if that's a real thing or not), most serious negative acts fall into one of two categories (and, perhaps, a spectrum between the two). They are impulsive (with links to a person's development) or they are premeditated.

A crime of passion occurs when something triggers a deep response which may be largely unconscious. It happens in the moment, often without much thought at all. These may appear evil, but they are more of a gut reaction than a conscious decision. Because of this, courts often consider leniency in such cases - even though they cannot and (usually should not) condone the act.

A premeditated crime may be thoroughly thought out and planned. For this to occur, most people need "good" reasons for doing so. They don't usually do things just because they "feel like it". These reasons may or may not have anything to do with external reality (as defined by society, etc.) The point is that the person either knows they are "right" or convinces themselves that their actions are justified.

This whole psychological, societal, (and, perhaps, spiritual) landscape is what the reader must assemble (with the writer's assistance!) to determine how they feel about these actions and the character themselves.

As in real life, there are huge gray areas in these landscapes. These are a major part of what makes stories and real events interesting or even captivating.

We long for meaning and want or even demand to know why things happen (especially in fiction!)

Because we are neither all good or all evil, this ambiguity makes a character believable and one we can identify with to some extent. If we don't care about the character, they might as well not be there unless they fill a very small specific function. A doorman may be an important character or not much different than a doorbell.

Villains that we care about invariably have a back story. "If that happened to me, maybe I'd be more like them." Then, we get into all the feelings of what it is like to be them. How their actions are possible - or even considered? We want to know. We want to understand.

Contrast the arc of the main villain in a story who we deeply care about (either positively, negatively, or both) and all of his soldiers that get mowed down by the hero with not the slightest thought by the hero (or by us!) that almost all of them have families and other people who care about them and that each death is a tragedy.


There's a very simply answer to this and it is that it just opens up a path for a story I haven't experienced a thousand times before.

Having the protagonist be aligned towards "good" or even just "neutral" inherently limits his choices thus making him predictable.

Stories always present their characters with situations someone else experienced already and if the character is good his choices to respond to these situations is fairly limited, since they all share a goal of goodness.

For example:

"Our protagonist and Bob found something immensely valuable. Bob harbors thoughts of trying to keep it for himself."

This is something that a thousand stories did before. It can play out in various ways. All of which have been explored multiple times before.

Except for the evil path. "Our protagonist immediately kills Bob, keeps the treasure for himself and now plots an elaborate scheme to avoid being held responsible for killing Bob."

The evil path is more interesting, not only because it is something that I haven't seen a thousand times before, but also because it opens up all kinds of paths that are not completely explored in other works already.

It is a breath of fresh air.

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.