“Good” and “Bad” Characters

by Mike Toohey, M.A.

I have been watching a lot ofI TV lately, and I’m fascinated by the shows that have me guessing whether a character is a “good guy” or “bad guy.” Traditionally, TV shows have had a clear protagonist who is good and an antagonist who is bad. Nowadays, shows such as Mad Men, House, Dexter, and especially Damages have characters with complex relationships and lives. At times any character might be on high moral ground and within the same episode will manipulate/have an affair with/murder someone. I love these shows because in real life there are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In the course of one hour (including a commercial break) we might be saving someone’s life and then might be ruining it (whether intentional or not).

In the second season of Dexter, Dexter is questioning how to label himself: am I good or a monster? Lila, his friend, is showing him a bunch of dead serial murderers, and Dexter asks something along the lines of: Don’t you think they are all monsters? Lila’s response: They are humans who at times have ACTED like monsters – just as we all do. This is a big difference. Dexter’s problem is that he is attempting to give himself one all encompassing label – Good or Bad. Lila’s response is more precise. And she’s right. I’ve certainly acted like a monster at times, and not the good kind of monster.

So, good luck trying to label people/yourself as good or bad. I’m sure the labeling can be done, but will it be accurate? Not really. People are inconsistent. Nobody is good or bad. Since we are all human, by definition we are imperfect. Hence the phrase: I’m only human. We make mistakes. We behave out of emotional impulse. You could be doing something that you think is nice and it may have a harmful effect. Don’t devalue the harmful effect, but also don’t devalue yourself as a person for doing it. In other words, the behavior is bad, not the person. All we can ask to do is the best that we can. If you are going to label yourself, here is the best label you can use: human.

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