Is it okay to have an immoral character as the protagonist?

by Nicolas

Hi! First of all I'd like to thank you for creating this awesome website and answering questions from beginners like me.

Currently, I'm working on a story where my protagonist is a rebellious high school student in China who's also the son of the chief of the police department. He's going to be involved with local gangs and later with large triads. At the start, he only hangs around local punks because he thinks that it's "cool", then later he starts to get corrupted and becomes involved with the largest triad and the high rank gangsters.

Throughout the plot, he does things like getting people to beat up his best friend, starting street fights, tricking girls into having sex with him, drug dealing, and all that kind of stuff.

It's definitely not my intention to encourage people to behave the same way as him, I'm simply trying to portray such a character from that character's point of view.

Answer: Many main characters are immoral people. What you have to think about is the message you want your story to convey. Human beings, apart from those suffering from psychopathy and similar psychological disorders, have a capacity for empathy that generates our concepts of fairness and morality, which in turn govern how we respond to stories.

For instance, tragedies are stories about main characters who make bad choices or suffer from character flaws that push their behaviour behind the limits of what is tolerable. They deserve a bad ending, and their downfalls serve as warnings of what can happen if we do not curb our darker natures. If your character ultimately pays the price for his bad choices, you may be writing a tragedy.

Then again, there are stories of immoral or
flawed individuals who succeed. Such stories are often indictments of a society that allows such people to achieve power and success. This is the message behind a number of films about Wall Street. In such a story, it helps to show the corruption of the system or community.

You will also see stories about characters who do immoral or illegal things in some areas, but still function as heroes because the people they oppose are even less moral. For example, Batman is a character who breaks many laws and uses violence against others, but most readers forgive him because he protects the innocent from those who have even less scruples. Again, these stories often show that the community or system is corrupt or unable to cope with threats, and this is why the hero must use methods that are dubious.

It's the same kind of logic that says that, while violence is bad, soldiers can be forgiven for using violence in a war if they are protecting their people from bigger threats. (In other words, the world faces a threat that cannot be resolved by the ordinary rules of moral conduct.)

Of course, when you create characters for whom the end justifies the means, you are entering a moral grey area. It's important to show the justification for your main character's actions, if you want him to be seen as a hero. Otherwise you can end up creating the second type of story (indictment of society).

In my humble opinion, a story in which a main character behaves immorally with no justification and is rewarded for his behaviour with no condemnation of the society that tolerates him could only be acceptable to an audience of people who totally lacked empathy (psycho/sociopaths).

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