Most often, in creating protagonists for stories and shows, the author tries to make their main character as life-like as possible. That means, with wants, likes, dislikes, strengths, and flaws, but usually with enough positives that the reader or watcher will form a connection with the character and care about him or her.

Of course this isn’t always the case. I few years ago a friend recommended the novel, A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. It’s a dark story about Ralph Truitt and his mail-order bride, Catherine Land. I began reading. About a third of the way through it, I told my friend that I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. I disliked the characters because they were bad people and I couldn’t see any redeemable traits. Ralph was a wealthy tyrant and Catherine was a liar with a single-minded determination to marry Ralph and then kill him so she could become a wealthy widow. I wasn’t quite ready to give up, though. I read a little more, and soon I was at a point where I had to keep reading to find out what would happen—either they would destroy each other or save each other. I finished the book, and I won’t spoil the ending, but I must say it was well worth reading. This is a suspense novel, but also a wonderful character-study.

The next case is Dexter. I haven’t read the books by Jeff Lindsay, but I’ve watched all seven seasons of the Showtime television series based on the books. When my husband and I watched the first couple of episodes, we were appalled, yet fascinated. How could we enjoy a show about a sociopath who is compelled to kill people—not only kill them, but drain their blood, chop them up, and dispose of the pieces in trash bags? It felt wrong to even watch this character that referred to his compulsion as his ‘dark passenger’. Now, I should add that Dexter Morgan knows what he does is morally unacceptable to most people, and he has a moral code that makes it wrong for him to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve to be killed—meaning, he only kills criminals. We kept watching because there’s something intriguing about seeing how the mind of such a person really works; this is a psychological study in many ways. Perhaps that is why the show is so popular. Over the seasons, Dexter Morgan has grown and changed. He has become more emotional, more caring, and more likeable. While he’s still a killer, he struggles more with his dark passenger.

Another example is the television series, Hell on Wheels, which began two seasons ago on the AMC network. The show is a fictionalized drama about the beginning of the U.S. railroads. It depicts the lives of workers who lived in a sort of nomad camp as they worked on laying the railroad tracks that would eventually connect the states. The main character is a wealthy and often mean railroad baron, played by Colm Meaney. The supporting cast includes the gruff and sometimes drunken foreman, the crew, the widow of the map maker, a crazy minister, a bunch of prostitutes, a creepy Norwegian man, and hostile indians. There’s plenty of conflict, fighting, and debauchery. In this case, the not-so-nice characters make the show intriguing, realistic, and educational.