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Does a “Bad” Hero Work?

Does a “bad” hero, or a “bad” lead work in literature? I started to think of this question for one main reason. I am in love with the show Chicago Fire. I’m sure it is much like movies/shows based on teachers where the accuracy of how they depict the job is slightly flawed (my favorite teacher show flaw is when they find a couple of students fighting and simply split it up and let the kids walk away). Anyway, I am completely hooked. Starting last week, the show has a spinoff in the form of Chicago PD. I was intrigued because it uses the brother of a character from the original show, who appeared a few times. However, one of the leads is a “bad guy” from the original series. 

I haven’t given up hope for the spinoff, but am doubtful it will grab my attention. My problem is that this lead has been established as a dirty cop. What’s worse is that it appears from the first episode that he has not changed his ways. The show is trying to show multiple sides to this man. They show him care for kids, for instance, in street gangs, offering them an avenue of escape. I’m sure future episodes will show this softer side of his character. However, I can’t get over the fact that he is still a dirty cop. This brought about my original question.

What complicates this issue is that most writerly advice suggests that heroes should be flawed. A character that remains unflawed reads more like a comic book hero…although I guess it can be argued that even these are often flawed. I have even discussed before how I enjoyed the fact that the character struggles. A prime example of that is Tris from the Divergent series. She begins the series struggling to join the new Dauntless clan. Then, throughout the book, she struggles with her own identity and how that relates to the politics. She can be selfish and impulsive, but those qualities make her more human. 

Chicago PD tried to allude to my sympathies by having the main character care for a boy who obviously inherited the gangster lifestyle. But every “villain” should be complex as well. If a villain is all bad, then the story will read too much like a Disney movie. They need to have some sort of motivation for being the way they are. So, what differentiates between a villain and a hero seems to be what “flaws” and “offenses” can we forgive? Selfish and impulsive…sure, everyone is like that. Taking bribes from drug lords…probably not. 

So, can a lead be a villain? I know the movie Psycho gets acclaim for killing off the heroin and leaving us with the serial killer’s point of view. But not everyone is Alfred Hitchcock. But, then again I also love the show Blacklist, where a clear villain shares the spotlight. I may have to think on this more and do a follow up. What are your thoughts?