Melissa’s post about killing off characters reminded me of another topic that writers sometimes disagree on- the place of the “bad guy” in fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have a history of famous series built around characters who really can’t be called “good.” These genres continue to be filled with an increasing number of anti-heroes- characters who are protagonists, but don’t have many (or any) heroic qualities. Here are a few famous examples:
Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Glen Cook’s Croaker (the Black Company), Stephen King’s Roland, and Roger Zelazny’s Corwin (Amber series).
Anti-heroes cover the whole spectrum of gray, from characters who are just a little too morally conflicted to be called heroes, to those who are just downright evil, but have managed to steal the spotlight. Does this put us in the position of rooting for the bad guy? Maybe. A good author can pull the reader into the story and make them care about what happens to the protagonist. The reader feels the main character’s desires, is happy when they succeed, and disappointed when they fail. But what if that character’s desire is the enslavement of all mankind, or something similarly wicked? Should we be comfortable entering a mind like that?
There are arguments to be made for it, of course. Gray characters feel realistic, and even really evil ones can probably strike a chord with us, if we’re honest. Everybody has a little bit of monster in them. And it’s good escapism. After a bad day, who wouldn’t want to do a little mischief to the source of the aggravation? Most people wouldn’t dream of doing anything of the kind in real life, but dark characters offer a guilt-free way to cause mayhem vicariously.
So, how can we justify writing and reading about dark characters? Or do we even need a justification? Is it enough that, for both reader and writer, letting a little of the evil out is fun?