(Beware: Season 4 spoilers for The Walking Dead and Season 9 of Supernatural are included)
Protagonists – or just “good characters” in general – seem to be incapable of doing bad things. And if they do, there’s always an excuse: he was possessed, she was really tired from trekking through the magic forest, they just wanted to save someone. These are all ways to brush off what happened and make mending relationships easier.
Well, I say screw that. I want a protagonist who fucks up hard. I mean, they do something almost irredeemably bad, something that makes you so mad at them that you can barely stand it – and if there’s a reason for it, it’s the flaw of the character himself.
We all do this. Even if we count ourselves as Good People, we’ve all done or said something completely out of line that left us feeling like trash afterward. Whether we had a “good” reason or not, it was still a shitty thing to do. Take Carol from The Walking Dead. In the show, when people are sick and they’re about to die in the prison, Carol doesn’t wait for them to be completely dead. She kills two of the dying characters and drags them out back to burn their bodies. These people were definitely going to die, because they had no antibiotics, and if they died, they’d become walkers – and thus a threat to the whole prison. Carol takes it into her own hands and decides to just kill them and dispose of them for the safety of the group.
Did she do something pretty bad? Yes. Do we sympathize with her? Yes. Do we think she did the right things? That’s a point of contention.
While I thought it was an interesting twist to the story, it still isn’t enough for me. I need more good characters doing awful things for no reason and then being forced to redeem themselves.
Dean Winchester in Season 9 of Supernatural is a perfect example, as he does a terrible, awful, awful thing by tricking his brother Sam into accepting an angel into his body in order to save him. Dean doesn’t do this for Sam’s sake; he does it for his own sake. I love Dean. I adore him, but this made me incredibly angry at him, because he did a bad thing. For Sam, who struggled for so long to keep Lucifer himself out of his body, who eventually did take the devil in because he thought he could fight it, who has wanted death since season 5, this was a huge blow and a betrayal of trust unlike any other, and the boys are still dealing with the consequences to their relationship.
That’s the kind of stuff I want. I want to see characters who do awful things, see what they do, and then work to make themselves better. I don’t want to see the redemption arc of “Protagonist starts out bad, learns his lesson, becomes good.” I want to watch characters I love and trust make mistakes because of their own nature and then have to fix it.
Having this kind of arc is important, because it shows us that it’s not just the bad guys who do unspeakable evils. It’s the good guys, too. The difference is who tries to repair it, who accepts what they did and changes because of it.