Not a hero and not a villian
Question: The main character of my book isn't a hero but she also isn't a villain. She's killed people, has done horrible things, and will do whatever it takes to get what she needs. But she doesn't do anything for herself, she helps other and will do whatever it takes to protect those she cares about, and most of the horrible things she's done she did to survive. So what does that make her? Is she a hero? Is she like a vigilante? What would I describe her as?
Dramatica says that a traditional hero has three main traits:
1. She is the protagonist--the primary pursuer of the story goal.
2. She is the main or principal point of view character--the person through whose eyes we view the story.
3. She is someone the reader has empathy or sympathy for. Usually this means she is likeable, admirable (being moral or holding strong values we agree with), or someone the reader can identify with.
Assuming your heroine qualifies on the first two points, it is the last point you have to consider.
Obviously, if she puts others needs ahead of her own, then she has certain moral values, yet I'm inferring she does not extend that moral protection to those who would threaten her or the innocent.
Often such characters are referred to as Byronic
heroes (after the writer Lord Byron). These are characters who are emotionally damaged. They tend to be proud, clever, aware of their superiority and also their faults. They tend to
be outcasts who avoid society and relationships. They are cynical, rebellious, and move in circles where "nice" people would not go. Batman in his "Dark Knight" incarnation would be an example. So would Rorschach from The Watchmen
Antihero is another term sometimes used for such characters, because their morals are imperfect. However, an antihero is a hero who may lack any of a number of traditional qualities of a hero. Byronic is a more precise term.
The key to writing such a heroine is to show that...
1. Bad as she may be in some ways, her crimes are understandable given her circumstances.
2. She is more moral than the actual villain or villains of the story. In other words, there are lines she will not cross (such as harming or exploiting the innocent).
Such characters have a tendency to blame the world for making them who they are or for forcing them into making tough choices that compromise their former ideals. However, they don't come across as dodging responsibility. Rather, the reader can empathize with them and see that they may be justified in their view that the world is at fault for allowing immorality to win so often.
It's also common for such characters to seek a generalized revenge against the evils of the world, which is why there are many Byronic, vigilante crime-fighting characters.
Traditionally, most of these Bryonic heroes have been male, but you see more female versions these days. Of course, they tend to be single and childless--like their male counterparts.