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Good Characters = Good Stories

15 03 2011

Photo Copyright 2007 Showtime Networks, Inc., a CBS Company

After Lost ended last year, I started watching Mad Men to fill my television void.  Well, when Mad Men season 4 ended this past fall and it looks like season 5 might be on hiatus for awhile, I decided to give myself a break from watching television shows.  I love a great show, but the time, energy and effort in watching what can be well over a 100 hours to continue and follow a story is daunting and difficult if you actually have a life to attend to.  My girlfriend decided to start watching a new show though and after an unsuccessful try with Heroes she settled on Showtime’s Dexter. I was determined not to get sucked in and didn’t watch much of the first season with her, but, alas, eventually I sat down for one episode which led to another which led to….well, you get the idea.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it is currently awaiting production of its sixth season and centers around Dexter Morgan, a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Homicide division.  OK, what’s so interesting about that?  Well, he moonlights as a serial killer and not just a normal serial killer, but a killer of other killers.  Without giving too much away, he is a sociopath that was taught to control his “dark passenger” to some degree by a code his adoptive father put in place.  The code helps to satisfy his murderous desires, but helps turn his negative impulse into a slightly more productive thing for society.

Alexander Mackendrick, noted film director and scholar, said that more important than plot is the depth of character in a great story.  I think Dexter is a good example to analyze in this context.  It seems a little far fetched to think that a serial killer, a murderer without emotion, could be at all a likable protagonist. However, if you watch the show, there are many times that you find yourself rooting for his character and empathizing with his problems and concerns.  Whereas most protagonists seem to garner a high level of positive attributes coupled with a few crippling negative attributes that create conflict, the character of Dexter seems to possess a higher level of negative attributes with a few shining positive ones.  Not only does his anti-social personality disorder cause murderous impulses, but Dexter’s emotions seem very stilted and situations we would consider normal human interactions are often quite difficult for him.

This further complicates the ability for the viewer to relate to him, but still you do.  How?  Why?  It’s because Dexter genuinely wants to change.  As the narrative develops, there are multiple times where it seems that he wants to be “normal” and turn his back on the dark aspects of his life.  For Dexter, I think, it is like kicking an addiction, only in that the addiction is a defining part of his psychological makeup as opposed to an outside force like drugs or alcohol.  We, as viewers, relate to his need and want to change because we all have our own “dark passengers” that we wish we could hang in the closet; of course, most of the viewing audience’s addictions and dark sides aren’t nearly as bad or socially unacceptable as Dexter’s, but we can all relate to the desires of becoming a better person.

It’s that little bit of good in him that you want to see shine through and, as the series progresses, it seems that these little glimpses of normalcy become a more and more prominent part of Dexter’s life.  To take what would generally be considered a despicable character and help the average viewer relate and empathize with him is what is at the heart of a great narrative and I think Dexter is a wonderful example of character as a definitive part of the story process.

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