The Evil Protagonist

There’s something that has intrigued me for a while. When we read or write books, we usually have a protagonist who is sympathetic, someone who we can identify with and cheer for. The main character should be someone we like, right? But what if it’s the opposite?

Imagine a novel where the main character is not good. It could be an antihero, though they usually have good in them, and we can sympathise with them. But what if the protagonist is your typical antagonist from fantasy? The one we always perceive as evil and never get to see what goes on in their mind. What if the main character is that evil overlord? And this time, we know what they’re thinking, we know their motivation, and we know how they feel.  Could we actually start to sympathise with them?

In a way, when we read a book, we are travelers going along with the protagonist. Not exactly kidnapped, but we are passive observers. But if the protagonist is evil, can we develop a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, and actually start liking and supporting the evil overlord? I wonder how a book like that would do.

So, my questions are:

  • Would you read a book like this?
  • Would you write a book like this?
  • Is there a book like this?

I’m very interested in your answers.

15 thoughts on “The Evil Protagonist”

  1. I like at least some stories with flawed protagonists — a perfect goody two-shoes would get on my nerves very quickly — but I don’t want to read a story in which the protagonist is actually evil.

    I would never write a book that tried to make the reader sympathize with an evil character. (Understanding how someone got to be that way is NOT the same thing as sympathizing or accepting or approving.) I don’t want to be told to sympathize with an evil character. Someone who cusses and disrespects authority and steals? Fine. Someone who disassembles puppies for fun? There is nothing you can tell me about such a person that would make me like them, even if they occasionally do something good. “So what if she disassembles puppies for fun? She gave all that money to a charity for orphans!” Nope. I’d still hate her, and I’d strongly dislike the author for telling me I ought to like her. I don’t accept “But this character had a bad life!” as an excuse, either. MOST people who’ve had bad lives do not disassemble puppies for fun, although they may be more inclined than average to cuss and disrespect authority.

    (I’ve done my best to express my opinion without making my comment utterly “not safe for work.” No, mistreatment of animals is not the only thing that would make me hate a character.)

  2. I would definitely read a book like this, and I would absolutely consider trying to write one myself. I don’t know of any that actually exist off the top of my head, but I can imagine there must be at least a few. There are so many amazing villains out there whom people just love regardless of how strange it seems…the Joker comes to mind right off the bat…he’s just so insane and somehow genius at the same time. I’d definitely read a book written from his point of view!

  3. Sephiroth, the primary antagonist from Final Fantasy VII is a popular protagonist of fanfiction. Not as popular as Cloud or Zack, but it’s fairly common. There are many sides to him. Before he has a psychotic break, he is an honorable leader of Shinra’s military, and a loyal friend. He has trouble expressing his emotions because he was raised by a mad scientist (his father) to be a killing machine for ShinRa. His mother is in crystal stasis, but he believes an alien is his real mother because he was injected with her cells in utero. After the psychotic break where he learns of his origins, he sets fire to Nibelheim, he wants to destroy the world. But even at this point a lot of people still empathize with him because how could he have turned out any different. And how could he not want vengeance on humanity? Loki from the Avengers is a similar type of villain. Then you have Cloud the self-loathing antihero with PTSD who saves the world out of revenge rather than noble intent. The only true hero in the Final Fantasy VII series is Zack. Zack and Cloud are my favorites, but I do like Sephiroth. I think the complexity of the heroes and villains of Final Fantasy VII is what makes it one of the best video games in the history of video games.

    As far as books go, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood features a Loki/Sephiroth type of villian, Crake. Uh, I guess I can’t really explain why because that would be spoiling the whole book XD The book is told from Jimmy’s perspective, but he is best friends with Crake. It’s a sad story to be honest. As a reader I was left feeling sorry for everyone, including Crake 😦

  4. 1. Yes.
    2. Only after having written many books with standard good guy protagonists.
    3. Don’t know of any offhand.

    I think an evil protagonist would work as long as he is doing evil or bad things for the right reason. An example might be a person who despises child molesters and makes it his mission to kill as many convicted child molesters as he can in order to make the world a better place. Perhaps he’s going along nicely eliminating the convicted slime, but decides he might as well take out those most likely to molest children, too, which would be a definite crossing of the last moral line in the sand (at least in a society that presumes innocence until proven guilty).

    Chris

  5. I’ve read some of the Dexter books (he’s a serial killer who kills other serial killers, not because he cares so much about stopping them but because he needs to kill -someone-). They were interesting but they eventually went off the rails plot-wise, so I didn’t continue past 4. I’ve heard of a few others from fellow bloggers — Fletcher by David Horscroft, and the Siobhan Quinn trilogy by Kathleen Tierney — but don’t have experience of them myself.

    I might write one myself, but I think it would be at a point where my villain protagonist has sort of switched to antihero… So it doesn’t quite fit.

  6. As my mother used to say when I complained that no one died in the first five minutes of a film.

    “You’re a blood thirsty little weasel.”

    We all have a little weasel in us. That is why we read what we read right? I authored a few stories myself where bad guy wins. It is escapism.

    Try American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I wouldn’t call Patrick Bateman an anti-hero, but he is a definable evil protagonist.

    1. I’ve never read American Psycho. Didn’t even come to mind when I thought of this post.

      I’m often thinking while reading about who’s going to die next. Kind of fun speculating.

  7. Enjoying a book with an evil protagonist. I think this is a bit easier with movies because you can appreciate the style of the performance and the quirks and gestures of an evil protagonist even if you don’t like them for their morality.

    For instance, though he is the primary antagonist in the Outlander TV adaptation, Captain Black Jack Randall is absolutely awful, but Tobias Menzies plays him absolutely awesomely. It’s the gentlemanly politeness, the patience awaiting the protagonist’s next move, the confident command of every situation, the teacher’s approach to training his subordinates, his genuine loyalty to the crown, and the way he uses it as an excuse to be heinous. Then, there are gestures: the sniffs, the snarly lip curls, the amused twinkle in the eye when he knows he’s got you, the way he touches the middle of his forehead when planning his response to an attempt to outmaneuver him (uh-oh, he’s about to checkmate!), and especially the humorous bits in the worst of his episodes (final two of the season) where he boops Jamie on the nose and considers the enjoyableness of watching Marley rape Claire with a grimacing head jiggle. I laugh out loud every time at that one; it never loses punch.

    So, if Black Jack Randall were a protagonist–oooh, maybe not him for empathizing with the character, but it would certainly be fascinating. We love to peek inside the minds of the villain because it is so different from what most of us think and feel. What makes that person tick? Even if it were only for part of a book, I’d enjoy reading the villain’s voice. But I’d have to get into a book with an evil protagonist first before I would know whether I could handle continuing to the end.

    1. It would be fascinating to see their point of view. I guess it would be difficult to get into, unless it’s written very well, and the character is very interesting to the reader.

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