Guest Post by the Author
Dark Heroes and the Moral Code
I’m a mystery writer. My Lola Cruz Mysteries with are soft-boiled and caperish. My Magical Dressmaking Mysteries and Bread Shop Mysteries are both cozies.
And I have my two romantic suspense based on the haunting Mexican legends of la Llorona and chupacabra. They are much darker than my other books.
Shifting from writing smart, sexy, sassy mysteries to small town cozies to darker romantic suspenses sometimes makes me feel as though I have multiple personality disorder! There’s never a dull writing day, that’s for sure.
When I began to think about a darker story, I automatically focused on the dark hero. The damaged heroine. It was about that time that I got into Dexter.
I should note here that I have taught creative writing (Southern Methodist University with the creative writing CAPE program). One thing I love about teaching is that it forces me to continue my own learning in new and unexpected ways. Discovering a new (to me) television show and realizing it can teach me something about characterization, is thrilling. I went through this with Supernatural (love love love those Winchester boys). went through it with Lost (rife with conflict, those plane crash victims were). I experienced it with Breaking Bad (Walter White is one heck of a conflicted cancer victim). And I went through it with Dexter.
If you haven’t seen Dexter, here’s the lowdown:
Dexter Morgan is a forensic scientist. He studies blood spatter. This television series is based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, although, in the vein (no pun intended!) of True Blood, the series has taken on a life of its own. My observations are based on the TV series, not the books.
The further into the series I got, the more I wondered: Is Dexter a Villain or a Dark Hero?
My take on Dexter is that he walks a thin line between being a dark hero and a villain. This line is blurry and complicated; he is fascinating, which makes him an excellent case study. One could probably write a dissertation on the subject, in fact. The bottom line? He’s a layered character who does horrible things for all the right reasons.
The show has been great food for thought in regards to crafting my own characters (for any of my different series), developing their layers and depths and figuring out how to build conflict into my stories (particularly in the romantic suspenses like the Deadly Legends book, which are, by nature, dark).
When I develop a character, good or bad, I craft his/her moral code. Even the darkest hero and the villain have a moral code. It may be twisted or skewed, but it exists and in his/her mind and actions are justified because of the code. I’ve always written this way, but the point was driven home as I watched the end of season one in Dexter. We begin to see flashbacks to Dexter’s adoptive father and the code he helped Dexter establish. Harry’s Code. It’s the guiding force in Dexter’s life, informing all of his decisions. It’s his moral compass.
Dexter is an anomaly within humanity in that he doesn’t feel anything. He says he has a hole inside him where those feeling should go. If he could feel something, he’d care about his sister, also a cop.
Harry, Dexter’s father, steps in to help Dexter adapt to the world he lives in. He teaches him how to survive, kill effectively and efficiently, how to never get caught, and, on an emotional level, how to interact with the people around him so that he can fit in.
We all have our own moral code, we just don’t recognize it or live by it as intentionally as Dexter. But when crafting a character, knowing his/her code can help you stay authentic to him/her. In my Lola Cruz Mystery series, Bare Naked Lola (book 3), the mystery takes Lola to a nudist resort. The big question is, “Will she or won’t she?” Go naked, I mean. See, Lola lives by a code of striving for gender equality, seeking justice, being true to her sexy, sassy, smart, kick-ass self, preserving her family’s culture within her life, and respecting herself and her family. She’s also a good Catholic girl. A few of these elements conflict when I try to answer the question of whether or not Lola’ll take it all off in order to solve a case.
Harlow Cassidy, the sleuth in Pleating for Mercy, has her own moral code, as well. It revolves around the idea of justice, preserving the safe, small town Texas town she grew up in, and keeping family close and safe. She’s not an ends justifies the means kind of woman, but she is a go-getter, willing to put herself on the line if it’s the right thing to do.
Just like in Dexter, people can make a choice to go against their code. There are consequences to those decisions, and in a book, that’s exactly what you want. If Lola doesn’t go nude, she upholds parts of her code, but sacrifices other elements. If she does, she may solve the mystery, but will she respect the decision knowing what she did and how she compromised? Does the end justify the means?
In Silent Obsession, someone is killing women and making it look like the drownings of la Llorona, a 500 year old mythic woman (think Madea). The killer lives by his own code and sees what he does as justified. Skewed, yes, but authentic. The characters in Silent Echoes also have their own moral codes.
In good books, conflicts manifest in very unexpected ways. A great character, dark or not, will force us to look more closely at ourselves, to examine what we think and feel, and any character who can make us do that is well worth watching or reading about, and will, ultimately, help us as we build our own conflicted, real characters–no matter how light or dark the book.
◦ What do you think of Dexter (if you’ve seen the show and know the character)? Do you think he’s a villain or a dark hero?