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Nasty, Menacing, Murderous: Protagonists We Love…and Why

Flickr Creative Commons: Sam Leighton

I wonder what literary historians will make of the fiction of our times?

Dark times often produce light stories.  After World War I, for instance, British crime fiction took a cozy turn.  In contrast, economic prosperity can bring us tales grimly pessimistic.  The year 1949 produced the novel 1984.  The year 2008 gave us The Hunger Games.  The economy crashed that year, true, but the novel must have been written earlier when high-risk mortgages and credit default swaps were like candy.

Currently, our economy has been on a path of tepid, unequal recovery for ten years—nothing to brag about but not wholly bad either—so you might expect that such a time would produce a literature of mild discontent.  Nope.  Our era has produced more unabashedly dark fiction than probably any other era in literary history.

Why now?  I’ll leave the question to academics to answer, but dark fiction generally involves an element both puzzling and important for writers to understand: dark protagonists.  Nasty, menacing and murderous protagonists are wildly popular.  Go figure.  Is it exciting for readers to vicariously enjoy being amoral?

Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night (2006) is the story of Edward Glyver, a Victorian booklover, scholar and murderer.  His first killing is of a randomly chosen stranger, a murder for which feels no remorse—but for which he has a reason:

Now I knew that I could do it; but it gave me no pleasure.  The poor fellow had done me no harm.  Luck had simply been against him—together with the colour of his hair, which, I now say, had been his fatal distinction.  His way that night, inauspiciously coinciding with mine in Threadneedle-street, had made him the unwitting object of my irrevocable intention to kill someone; but had it not been him, it must have been someone else. 

Until the very moment in which the blow had been struck, I had not known definitively that I was capable of such a terrible act, and it was absolutely necessary to put the matter beyond all doubt.  For the dispatching of the red-haired man was in the nature of a trial, or experiment, to prove to myself that I could indeed take another human life, and escape the consequences.  When I next raised my hand in anger, it must be with the same swift and sure determination; but this time it would be directed, not at a stranger, but at the man I call my enemy. 

And I must not fail.

Let’s think about that confessional passage.  Glyver claims no remorse, and yet he describes the murder as “a terrible act”.  He has no pleasure in it, sounding almost indifferent, and yet he calls his victim “the poor fellow”.  Do you get the feeling that Glyver’s sentiments and words are at odds with what he’s done?  They are.

Thus, we can discern the most fundamental trick of putting over a really terrible person: The dark protagonist who purports to have no conscience actually has one.  Furthermore a “bad” protagonist, if palatable, is necessarily and somehow and in some way, to some degree, good.

Fantasy fiction has recently spawned a new sub-genre which doesn’t yet have a label, that I know of, but which we might call Foul-Mouthed Fantasy.  It involves a band of burned-out, possibly old, certainly cynical warriors or mercenaries of legendary stature who are called again—wearily and unwillingly—to action.

One such novel is Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld (2017), the story of ex-mercenary Clay Cooper, whose scattered former bandmates have grown old or fat or drunk or all three.  Naturally enough, one returns to beg for Cooper’s help.  As the novel opens, Cooper’s credentials are established in a tavern scene and he then wanders into the night:

He remembered how small the night sky used to make him feel.  How insignificant.  And so he’d gone and made a big deal of himself, figuring someday he might look up at the vast sprawl of stars and feel undaunted by its splendor.  It hadn’t worked.  After a while Clay tore his eyes from the darkening sky and struck out down the road toward home.

He exchanged pleasantries with the Watchmen at the west gate.  Had he heard about the centaur spotted over by the Tassel’s farm? they wondered.  How about the battle out west, and those poor bastards holed up in Castia?  Rotten, rotten business.

Clay followed the track, careful to keep from turning an ankle in a rut.  Crickets were chirping in the tall grass to either side, the wind in the trees above him sighing like the ocean surf.  He stopped by the roadside shrine to the Summer Lord and threw a dull copper at the statue’s feet.  After a few steps and a moment’s hesitation he went back and tossed another.  Away from town it was darker still, and Clay resisted the urge to look up again.

Best keep your eyes on the ground, he told himself, and leave the past where it belongs.  You’ve got what you’ve got, Cooper, and it’s just what you wanted, right?  A kid, a wife, a simple life.  It was an honest living.  It was comfortable.

Not such a bad guy, that Clay Cooper.  Admires the stars in the night sky.  Is humble or superstitious enough to toss coins at a god’s statue.  Got a wife and a kid.  Just a regular dude.  Well, of course he’s not.  He’s a warrior, however much he may be in denial at the moment, but before we meet the rowdy leader that he truly is, Nicholas Eames makes sure that we know that Clay Cooper is a decent bloke at heart.

Another Foul-Mouthed Fantasy is Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards (2015), about a half-orc, boar-riding war band.  Their leader, Claymaster, is up to something.  His company is never orderly.  The fighting is bloody and the magic weird.  The crew themselves are not exactly mannerly.  Early on they mix it up in a brothel with human soldiers, whose captain insults them and tries to order them about:

“You will keep a civil tongue,” Cavalero Garcia told him.  “Speak with such impudence again and I shall have you horsewhipped in the name of the king.”

Jackal looked directly at Bermudo and found nervousness infecting his face.  But there was also a look of creeping satisfaction.

“King?” Jackal said, sucking the last film of blood from his teeth.  “Oats?   Do you know the name of the king?”

“Such-and-Such the First,” Oats replied.

Jackal shook his head.  “No, he died.  It’s So-and-So the Fat.”

Oats gave him a dubious squint.  “That don’t sound right.”

“Wretched soot-skins!” Garcia exclaimed.

Jackal ignored him, throwing his arms wide in a mock flummox.  “The name escapes us.  Anyway, he’s some inbred, overstuffed sack of shit that weds his cousins, fucks his sisters, and has small boys attach leeches to his tiny, tiny prick.”

How can you not love Jackal?  He’s earthy and crude but at least more honest than the stuffed-shirt captain.  Wretched soot-skins?  I mean, who talks like that?  Dicks, that’s who.  Jackal is in no position to provoke him, but he does and we’re rooting for him all the way.  His low wit is lovable.  Thus, we can see another main principle underlying lousy protagonists: They are clearly better than the stinking, stuffy, stuck-up hypocrites around them.

The dark protagonist of Caroline Kepnes’s You (2014) is not only a creepy stalker but gleeful in his narcissistic judgment of others.  He works in a bookstore.  One day a smart and pretty graduate writing student enters and becomes his obsession.  She wanders into the fiction aisle marked F—K (get it?) and his delight knows no bounds.  Nevertheless, he still has customers to deal with and his contempt is dripping:

F—K yes, I found her.

Calm down, Joe.  They don’t like it when a guy comes on too strong, I remind myself.  Thank God for a customer and it’s hard to scan his predictable Salinger—then again, it’s always hard to do that.  This guy is, what, thirty-six and he’s only now reading Franny and Zooey?  And let’s get real.  He’s not reading it.  It’s just a front for the Dan Browns in the bottom of his basket.  Work in a bookstore and learn that most people in this world feel guilty about being who they are.  I bag the Dan Brown like its kiddie porn and tell him Franny and Zooey is the shit and he nods and you’re still in F—K because I can see your beige sweater through the stacks, barely.  If you reach any higher, I’ll see your belly.  But you won’t.  You grab a book and sit down in the aisle like the Natalie Portman movie Where the Heart Is, adapted faithlessly from the Billie Letts book—above par for that kind of crud—and I’ll find you in the middle of the night.  Only you won’t be pregnant and I won’t be the meek man in the movie.  I’ll lean over and say, “Excuse me, miss, but we’re closed” and you’ll look up and smile.  “Well, I’m not closed.”  A breath.  “I’m wide open, Buddy.”

Gross.  Me.  Out.  And yet we enjoy Joe Goldberg.  He is unashamedly judgmental, not least about pretentious readers and literary trash.  Heh-heh.  What vicarious fun!  As Joe infiltrates Guinevere Becks’s life, eventually becoming her boyfriend, we almost hope he will ultimately succeed and be happy.  In a way, we hope he will change, or at least that his fortunes will.

It is not to be, of course.  Joe cannot change nor does Beck, as she’s known, prove finally to live up to his fantasies.  Is she worse than him?  Does she deserve her fate?  Kepnes’s novel is a cautionary tale so, no, not really nor is Joe ultimately redeemed.  That said, we spend an entire novel glued to his POV, in equal parts entertained, horrified—and, let’s be honest—liking him more than we should.

What about dark protagonists who are cryptic or secretive?  Suppose that your narrative strategy is not to reveal too much about your protagonist, or at least not right away, as with Jack Reacher or Nicholas Easter, who is the mysterious juror in John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury?

The gunslinger protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower (1982-2004) series, Roland, is at first introduced with a certain narrative distance.  As we meet him walking across a desert trailing the “man in black”, King tells us more about who Roland is not than who he is:

He passed the miles stolidly, not hurrying, not loafing.  A hide waterbag was slung around his middle like a bloated sausage.  It was almost full.  He had progressed through the khef over many years, and had reached perhaps the fifth level.  Had he been a Manni holy man, he might not have even been thirsty; he could have watched his own body dehydrate with clinical, detached attention, watering its crevices and dark inner hollows only when his logic told him it must be done.  He was not a Manni, however, nor a follower of the Man Jesus, and considered himself in no way holy.  He was just an ordinary pilgrim, in other words, and all he could say with real certainty was that he was thirsty.

King’s intention is to create a sense of mystery around Roland, a certain menace.  How many dangerous gunslingers, though, have been followers of some mystic discipline?  Do you get the feeling that King’s gunslinger is not only strong and hardy but also thoughtful?  King may seem to be telling us little, overtly, but his hints let us know that his protagonist is more than just dangerous, he’s a man to reckon with on many levels.

When they work, dark protagonists are, if not good, then at least adherents to a code.  They are reflective, observant, level, frank and upfront.  They might seem to sink below the rest of us, but in spirit they rise above.  They may not always tell us everything—becoming “unreliable”—but they nevertheless speak truth.  They are candid about themselves.  Bad they may be, but they are at least better than the shallow, corrupt humanity around them.

The darkness of dark protagonists is deceptive.  Loathsome behavior masks an underlying heart.  Dark protagonists may appear vile but we quickly clue in that they are actually clear-eyed, forthright and honest…which is more than can be said about some of the public figures in our real world who are supposed to be our heroes, wouldn’t you say?

Is your MC a dark protagonist?  What not-so-hidden good do you show even as you paint this protagonist as bad?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].