Why I Empathize with a Serial Killer

I recently started watching Dexter for the first time. You know, Dexter. That tv series about a serial killer? Not my usual cup of tea, but I have to admit, within minutes of watching the first episode of the first season, I was hooked.

Dexter is a bona fide serial killer. He gets overwhelming urges to murder and feels absolutely no remorse in taking a human life. In fact, he doesn’t feel any normal human emotions at all and spends most of his life pretending to be a good brother, caring boyfriend, friendly co-worker. (He works as a forensics expert on blood splatter. Cute, huh?) Here’s the twist: he was raised by an honorable cop who instilled in him a rigid moral code, so that Dexter only kills people who “deserve” to die — other murderers, rapists, etc.

Dexter is the ultimate anti-hero. He’s the star of the show, we root for him, and we want him to achieve his goals. And yet, he’s a serial killer. One who takes extreme pleasure in violently dismembering people. (Yes, I have to cover my eyes during the scenes with the whirling chain saw and the spraying blood.)

So how on earth did the writers accomplish this? How did they get me to empathize with a serial killer?

For answers, I turned to Michael Hauge’s recent workshop with the Washington Romance Writers. (For more information, please see his website: www.storymastery.com or his book, SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS). During the workshop, Mr. Hauge listed five key factors for creating empathy and claimed that the hero of every successful movie or novel has at least two of these five. Please note these factors must come into play when the character is introduced. A character arc where the hero eventually learns to be kind may enrich a story, but it does nothing to create empathy for the hero at the beginning of a movie or novel.

1. Make the hero sympathetic/ put him/her in an undeserved situation. In the first episode of this series, we see Dexter going through the motions as he pretends to have the requisite human emotions. He yearns to feel something — anything — and thinks if he goes through the motions often enough, the emotions he pretends to feel might actually become real. We don’t know at this point whether Dexter’s situation is deserved or not, but we certainly feel sorry for him. All of us, at one point or another, have felt like an outsider. We have all pretended to smile or laugh when we really felt like crying.

2. Put the hero in jeopardy. From the beginning of this series, Dexter walks a very fine line between detection and safety. He murders his victims — right under the noses of his coworkers in the police department. He interacts on a daily basis with the very people whose job it is to catch him. According to Mr. Hauge, we empathize with characters we worry about. Because of the very nature of Dexter’s job, we worry from the start that he might get caught.

3. Make the hero likeable/ show the hero to be well-liked by others. Although Dexter hides behind a mask, he is clearly well-liked by the other characters on the show – his sister, his girlfriend, his colleagues. In fact, an early scene in the first episode shows Dexter bringing donuts to the office, while everyone slaps him on the back and tells him what a great guy he is. Moreover, in a poignant moment in the first episode, Dexter says, if I could love anyone, it would be my sister Deb. His words imply that he does not love even his sister, but his actions speak louder than words. He may say he is just pretending, but his actions indicate that he is a caring brother to Deb and a thoughtful boyfriend to Rita. As viewers, we suspect that even though Dexter can’t acknowledge it, he truly cares about these people.

4. Make the hero funny. Dexter himself isn’t funny, but the situations in which he is portrayed are certainly amusing. For example, while his colleagues are disgusted by the blood splatter at a crime scene, Dexter whistles cheerfully as he takes pictures of the murder victim. In another example, after Dexter shows thoughtfulness to his girlfriend, Rita throws her arms around his neck and exclaims something like, “How did I find the last decent man on this world?”

5. Make the hero powerful/good at what he/she does. Mr. Hauge told us that viewers and readers like to root for characters who can “get the job done.” Dexter is extremely good at what he does. His colleagues are in awe of his deep knowledge and instinct concerning blood splatter, and he is a very competent and efficient serial killer. What’s not to like?

So there you have it! Five reasons why I empathize with a serial killer, according to Michael Hauge’s factors.
What about you? Do you like watching Dexter? Who is your favorite anti-hero? Why?