The Serial Killer Hero

How should a writer handle a story in which the protagonist is a serial killer?

It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it?

Because every book tells you that your protagonist should be “empathetic” and/or “sympathetic,” right?

The audience has to “connect” with him/her on some level, “feel” for the character, and hopefully “root” for that person to achiever a goal. But how can you connect with or feel for or root for a protag who’s killing people for all the wrong reasons?

Consider “Mr. Brooks”. It failed as a story. Mr. Brooks (played by Kevin Costner) is a serial killer.

In order to make the audience “sympathize” with Mr. Brooks, they created this cheap gimmick of showing us Mr. Brooks’ alter bad boy nature in the form of Mr. William Hurt who Mr. Brooks calls “Marshall.” And thus, we see Brooks whine and argue with Marshall about quitting and not wanting to do this anymore, thereby giving the writers an easy venue to externalize Mr. Brooks’ inner conflict through verbal arguments. This was also a way for them to squeeze some sympathy out of the audience.

But it puts the audience into an awkward position – (“Oh, poor Mr. Brooks. I hope he achieves his inner goals of not killing people. Oh, look, he slipped up and shot a couple. Oh well. In the end I hope he finds a way to stop.”). Please. They also gave him an inner arc by leading us to believe he met his goals in the end and hopefully, quit. But then the ending left it wide open for sequels. Come on.

Sometimes you have to go with
“entertaining” and/or “fascinating.”

It would’ve been far more entertaining had they just presented us with a fascinating individual who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the end. The point is, you cannot stuff this convention of “empathetic/sympathetic protag” into every type of film. Sometimes you have to go with “entertaining” and/or “fascinating.” Darwin is most certainly both.

I did a study a while ago, which I can’t find anymore, on how to handle serial killers as protagonists in scripts. I concluded that there are only two successful approaches:

– a vivid, honest portrayal (Monster)
– wicked satire (
American Psycho)

In both of those cases, you absolutely must avoid cheap gimmicks or subplots designed to squeeze out of the audience more sympathy for the protag, because that undermines the credibility of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Thus, ScriptShark completely missed the boat when they rated Mickey’s story poorly in the category of “protagonist is sympathetic and/or engages our emotional investment.” It’s just absurd that they would judge every protag by those requirements. Those are the kind of narrow-minded, tunnel-vision ideas that have created endless bad movies.

avoid cheap gimmicks or subplots designed
to squeeze out of the audience more sympathy for the protag

And ideas from other reviewers that push Darwin into being more sympathetic, like (so sorry, Ted) “everything Darwin does, he does for the daughter he loves” would ruin the integrity of the story.

Take for example, Monster. Just in the act of seeing this beaten down women’s inner conflict of wanting to have a normal life with her lover but yet, new murders seemed necessary to cover the tracks of previous murders, she’ll get SOME sympathy from the audience, but you can’t force it. The most you can hope for is just an illumination of the human condition, a sense of understanding to this tragedy that we may not have had before. And that’s what we got.

The most you can hope for is
just an illumination of the human condition.

It would be absurd to ask audiences to sympathize with Patrick Bateman, and that would have muddled the point of the satire. Make no mistake, the filmmakers would’ve lost all credibility (and careers) had they stooped to a sympathetic portrayal. But, you see, that’s the essence of satire, which is to ridicule the protagonist and/or the protag’s environment.

As Ebert wrote:

“Mary Harron (director) sees him as a guy who’s prey to the usual male drives and compulsions. He just acts out a little more…

The film regards the male executive lifestyle with the devotion of a fetishist. There is a scene where a group of businessmen compare their business cards, discussing the wording, paper thickness, finish, embossing, engraving and typefaces, and they might as well be discussing their phalli. Their sexual insecurity is manifested as card envy…

The function of the murders is to make visible the frenzy of the territorial male when his will is frustrated. The movie gives shape and form to road rage, golf course rage, family abuse and some of the scarier behavior patterns of sports fans.”

– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

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