Suppose I have a story about a person who does bad things for "good" reasons. He fights evil people but, rather than inviting them to surrender, he kills them. And has no second thoughts doing it.
Is this something readers would tend to accept or would people be put off by the darkness of it?
Take a look at the TV show Dexter. The main character is a serial killer but he's actually likeable. Personally I like the character immensely because he's just so methodic he rarely makes mistakes. And he is the perfect predator. His facial expressions are priceless as well as terrifying.
[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited September 25, 2011).]
There's a series of book by Dan Wells, starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. Take a look at those. Also, there's an interview with Dan Wells on this site about how to make such characters sympathetic.
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If he does bad things for "good" reasons, it depends on his good reasons. Whether I would be put off by it or not, I can't say. I know it can be done extremely well - a few examples leap immediately to my mind:
-Dexter (already mentioned) This character is driven by a mental illness to kill, but rather than become a serial killer like Jack the Ripper, he focuses his less-than-pure instincts to those people who deserve it for committing some other crime. Thus, he placates his own conscious by not killing "innocent" people, even though society would condemn him with the death penalty because he is operating outside of the established justice system.
-Terry Goodkind - Lots of people don't like his books because they think he preaches from them... guess what? He does. He holds his beliefs and writes books that illustrate his beliefs in action. His main character will be absolutely ruthless in punishing evil and granting them no quarter, but the way he writes them you are cheering for it because he made the other so darn evil you can't help but condone harsh action. This makes for very satisfying endings, to me at least. (Except for his second book. Not much a fan of how that one turned out...)
-Dr. Who - All time best Sci Fi show ever, by the way. Dr. Who (since the 2005 BBC remakes... can't speak much about the older stuff) is a character who gives opponents a chance to go straight, and if they refuse (usually because they are too proud to think he has any power to change their actions) he mercilessly wipes them out. He justifies this because he gave them a chance.
In all of these, I think the convincing power of the protag's actions comes from the fact that they hold their own sense of justice, and they act strictly according to their own beliefs. Remember, what is right is not always what is legal. These characters operate on a higher plane of morality than a mere legal structure, and thus their actions seem bold. However, what really makes it interesting is turmoil about whether the moral code they hold themselves to is actually moral (ie, to the reader).
In your story, you mentioned that the protag won't give them a chance to surrender and instead punishes them outright. (By the way, is he deceiving them? DO they think they are surrendering and then he beheads them? If so, you have a character who believes in the ends justify the means, rather than something being intrinsically right regardless of the consequences.) What is his reason for this? Has he seen guilty people go free under a flawed legal system? Does he believe the legal punishment is too lenient for their crimes?
Lots of directions you can take this. Try looking up the following and see if they shed light on your character's motives:
I am currently overcoming a stumbling block in my own story by identifying the utilitarian motives of the antag with the deontology of the protag. Both think they are acting moral, both think the other is impeding their way (and thus immoral) and a wonderful conflict is arising. I was stuck on this, but merely applying labels to what they were already doing gave me context to structure their struggle and I have been able to make it much better...
Terean -- kudos for bringing up ethics, because this is quite relevant to the question.
Most people take a mixed, ad hoc approach to ethics, and the tension between different approaches makes a story with morally ambiguous actions interesting. Looked at from a utilitarin standpoint an act that is repulsive on deontological or virtue ethics terms might be justifiable, but it still repells us.
The important thing is that if you are going the morally ambiguous route is not to chicken out and put the authorial thumb on the scale of justice. Embrace the ambiguity, and let the readers argue. As an author, it's too easy to contrive matters so that the ethical conflict doesn't happen; to have the protagonist commit the unthinkable (say, genocide) and then live happily ever after as if what he did was not in the least horrifying. It's just not cathartic. On the other hand, having a character who believes the ends justifies the means brutally disillusioned is very satisfying. The reason, I think, is if we readers are going to slog through the actions of your protagonist, we want those actions to have consequences, not to be inconsequential.
As to readers liking dark characters. Yep. Not all readers of course but there are plenty who do. I like some Dark heros. I think some go to far but a lot of the Urban Fantasy heros are dark like that. They brood, they sometimes do bad things to bad people. Even though they don't go around killing everyone, or even every bad guy they will. They will even use a poison knife on someone.
Just finished reading a fantasy where that happened. The hero took the knife away from lesser bad guy and in the fight to get away, stuck the knife through his foot- the only part of his body she could reach. del Franco's heros will kill or worse to stop the bad guy.
David Weber's very popular Honer Harrington will kill. Of course she is in the military so of course she kills but I'm talking about face to face in a duel with a sword or a pistol. Someone is trying to harm her and her friends so she takes his head off. She even killed a friend that had been taken over and was killing other friends while trying to get her.
Simon Green's hero in his Nightside books has no problem with killing, even slowly, bad guys. He does what ever he feels needs doing to stop someone.
I won't go into a details so it won't be a major spoiler but Harry Dresden, in "Changes", does something very cold, dark and deliberate. He not only does the deed but he set it up. He said something he knew would probably start a chain reaction that would led to that end. All to stop the bad guys and rescue an innocent.
There are many other examples in fiction. So it has been done and some dark characters are very popular.
I like what Matt and some of what the others have said.
[This message has been edited by LDWriter2 (edited September 25, 2011).]
I have a story in the making where the main character is openly fighting Necromancers. But every once in a while she will use the methods and pseudo-science of her enemies because that's what she does: using everything she knows, not only what she thinks is right. Her entire life is walking that very fine line between moral and immoral. I want the reader to relate to her but I would also like the reader to question her actions and if possible to be afraid of her.
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Check out the "Hitman" series by Lawrence Block. A morally reprehensible main character (the titular hitman), who kills people left and right without a second thought, but is extremely likable in the process.
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I have to agree with a lot of what John has analyzed.
You pretty much have to stay away from the affects of his bad deeds--unless he is dealing with guilt, which will make him more sympathetic--and show some likeable qualities, whether it's generosity, a sense of chivalry, or a reasonable motivation for his dirty deeds (suffering that he went through).
The Godfather was a father and family man at heart. Everything was for his family, and acceptable in his skewed vision of the world. A world with Sicilian values, which taught him the pain of vendetta and fear of vendetta early in life. Though his son turned darker, you could see why he was dragged down that road.
People are often a product (or have been molded by) their environment. Showing some of this creates sympathy. Showing some of the ways they overcame being worse can create some admiration. Even the worst heroes have to have something that the reader can ground himself or herself to.
IStay away from the effects of his bad deeds? That's rather extreme. Sometimes that's the journey the protagonist himself has to make: understanding the consequences of his actions. In that case it's even more important to establish rapport with the protagonist, otherwise his redemption isn't important to us.
Blake Snyder the screenwriter has two techniques for this. One is what he calls a "save the cat moment" , in which the protagonist does something that makes him seem human. This could be showing mercy or compassion ( perhaps taking time to save a cat that's going to be killed ) or simply seeming approachable and maybe even funny ( the killers in Pulp Fiction having their famous conversation about hamburgers ).
The second is to make the antagonists even worse. I was watching Iron Man 2 the other day, and that's what the writers do. The antagonists are either self-righteous hypocrites, talentless hacks, or terrifying and alien. This takes the edge off Tony's unattractive hubris. In fact we enjoy seeing Tony act like a jerk toward people we strongly dislike.
[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited September 29, 2011).]
Sometimes you run across characters who seem, to the outsider, to be scum of some variety, but, by their own lights, they live and die by their own tough moral code. Somebody's already mentioned The Godfather.
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quote: IStay away from the effects of his bad deeds? That's rather extreme. Sometimes that's the journey the protagonist himself has to make: understanding the consequences of his actions. In that case it's even more important to establish rapport with the protagonist, otherwise his redemption isn't important to us
Didn't I say that in the part you didn't quote?
quote: You pretty much have to stay away from the affects of his bad deeds--unless he is dealing with guilt, which will make him more sympathetic--and show some likeable qualities, whether it's generosity, a sense of chivalry, or a reasonable motivation for his dirty deeds (suffering that he went through).
Which is essentially what John laid out in more detail.
[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited September 29, 2011).]