Pet Peeves: Protagonists that are the Villains of their Stories

Sam and Dean Winchester are the villains of the show. In this essay I will…

My wife got me into SUPERNATURAL. I just finished up the eighth season and, I’ve come to realize that the Winchesters are the villains of their own show. Many of the problems they face are of their own making, either because of selfishness, ignorance, or legitimate villainy. Sometimes, it makes the show difficult to watch.

There is an exchange late in the eighth season that demonstrates what I mean, and how the show is at least peripherally aware of it. SPOILERS AHEAD for an episode that originally aired in 2013.

STOP READING TO AVOID A MINOR, INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER.

Alright, so one of the Prophets of God, Kevin, able to read the Word of God, has been kidnapped by the King of Hell, Crowley. Crowley has imprisoned him in a set-up indistinguishable from his hideout and had his demons take the form of Sam and Dean Winchester, who Kevin trusts, in order to learn where Kevin has hidden one of the tablets. Kevin figures out that he’s not dealing with the real Sam and Dean. This exchange follows:

Crowley: “What gave it away?”

Kevin: “The real Sam and Dean would never go across town to get me barbeque.”

Crowley: “So, my demons were too polite?”

Supernatural – S8:E21 “The Great escapist”

That’s indicative of the show at large–many of the biggest issues Sam and Dean face they cause themselves. This is a trope in many stories, so much so that you can neatly classify it multiple ways depending on the intent of the story and motivation of the character. Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another good example of this, as most of the problems he or the Avengers has to deal with are his own fault.

I find these tropes frustrating if handled poorly (as, unfortunately, Supernatural tends to) because it makes the characters harder to root for. In Supernatural’s case, I often wonder if Sam and Dean aren’t the actual villains of the entire series. I don’t want to be tricked into rooting for the villains.

Much of the time for a protagonist to inadvertently cause the problems or conflicts that the story hinges on, they have to make an irrational or sometimes downright stupid decision. Decisions like the ones pointed out here.

It can be difficult to write a compelling, conflict-filled story where people don’t make irrational decisions to keep the story going forward, especially for long-running series or when characters run out of ways to grow. So, as writers, we need to work extra hard to maintain that momentum and keep evolving with the story without pushing it too hard in any one direction.

3 Comments

  1. Jace

    Interesting topic. The protagonist of the script I’m wrapping up isn’t quite a villain per se, but he definitely has some morally questionable qualities. I find writing this type of main character more challenging (but also more intriguing) than writing the standard goody two shoes protag.

    • admin

      I think morally gray protagonists (anti-heroes, villain protagonists, whatever) are much more interesting to follow over a long period of time. BREAKING BAD is a great example. Even JUSTIFIED, even though Raylan definitely fell on the “hero” side of the line. I do think there’s a line some shows and movies stumble over when the person you’re meant to be rooting for is the cause of all the worst things to happen in the story. SUPERNATURAL stumbles on that line often, where I think to myself that the Winchesters are their own worst enemies because of selfishness and bad decisions, which makes it hard to root for them all the time.

      • Jace

        For sure

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