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?

12 thoughts on “Why I Empathize with a Serial Killer

  1. What an interesting post! And I’m still upset I didn’t attend the Michael Hauge’s workshop. I haven’t watched Dexter yet because I live by myself. I think I need to wait until I’m not alone for that type of show. I scare easily!

    I think vampires are the quintessential anti-hero right now. Vampires are inherently bad, often soulless creatures. But so many writers have made them sympathetic to us. Think Edward in Twilight, Stefan in Vampire Diaries, Angel in Buffy. Mmmmm, Angel!

    1. Hey Kerri, you are so right about vampires – especially on TV – and all of the vampires, except for Whedon’s Angel or Spike, are based on romance novels (including True Blood).

      And I do watch Dexter the TV series, and to me the he is a vampire without the fangs. A compulsion he must keep hidden, constantly not being able to be your true self in public, having human emotions you don’t think you are capable of having because of your nature, etc. Yep, Dexter is a vampire IMHO:)…

      But if you ever decide you want to watch an episode, you are welcome to do so at my place – I’ll let you know when to cover your eyes (just as I do when the graphics get a little too intense…:)…

      1. Thanks Denny-mermaid! Yay – a mermaid/serial killer sleep-over. Love it! I’ll bring the wine! And if we get too scared, we can just stop and watch episodes of Buffy!

        1. Yay! I third a mermaid/serial killer party! I never would have thought that I would like it, either, Kerri, but I’m telling you, I was hooked within the first five minutes…

  2. I love Dexter and have loved the show from the very first season. It is a tough watch, but the deeply layered characterization and the show’s ability to create such a complex character I think is because its based on a book series by Jeff Lindsay (the first book is called “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”).

    But wherever the inspiration for the character, you’ve provided excellent examples from the show that fit the list Mr. Hauge focused in on perfectly. And you won’t believe how timely this blog post is for me. Even after my sessions with Hauge I am still struggling with revisions of my opening chapter because my main character is a vampire and he’s doing something not so nice:), but I need the reader to exit the chapter feeling empathy for him. It’s a tough balancing act, especially in romance, although I’m writing urban fantasy, and the romance is not the main story focus…mmmm…I’m going to read your post again. You really have captured the best examples of Hauge’s five points. I need to look at ways to infuse them in my story opening/set-up, but not necessarily all at once in the same scene…(revelation!).

    Anyway, as you might notice, I’m in writing mode:)! Thanks P.H. great post.

    1. Good luck with the writing, Denny! I found this part of Mr. Hauge’s workshop absolutely eye-opening. Getting readers to empathize with our characters is so vitally important… and I never knew how to do it. Mr. Hauge breaks it down so simply, and yet his five factors are so true and effective. Thank you, Michael Hauge!

  3. Hi P.H.! I have not watched Dexter yet but one of my best friends loves the show and will probably mock-ring my neck if she finds out I still haven’t seen it! And I love this post because it gives me yet another chance to gush about this one lady we all know who I kind of sort of worship. But this is very relevant to your Anti-Hero post! Every time I read one of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books, (or any of her series that follow a large cast of recurring characters) I am amazed at how I can really detest the villain in one book and then find out he is the hero in another and totally fall in love with him. Don’t get me wrong, not every bad guy in her books is redeemable. Some of them are just evil and get what they deserve. But the ones who make that jump from anit-hero to super-hero are always redeemed by the only thing I think can really do that for a person-LOVE!

    1. Wow – the more I hear about these Dark Hunter books, the more convinced I am that I have to read them! I think Seize the Night just jumped up several more spots on my TBR list.

  4. So funny that you blogged about this, because my husband watches this obsessively and I got into it too. I keep wondering how the writers will redeem him or if they will even try.

  5. Lynne, I’ve only watched the first season and am very much looking forward to the others! I don’t know – I thought he was pretty redeemed by the end of the first season, but I guess I’ll have to keep watching to see what happens…

  6. P.H. — Dexter gets MUCH BETTER! (If you can believe it). Don’t read anything online about the show because there is a huge spoiler alert for season 4!! I’m the one who obsesses over the show (muah Carlene). It is definitely one of the best shows on TV. Kerri, because we LOVE Dexter, it’s not scary…in my opinion. But if I lived closer, I’d be down for a mermaid/vampire/serial killer sleep over!

    On a side note, I said, just a couple of hours ago, “I can’t believe the season finale of Dexter is this Sunday!!” Season 6 is ending…ALREADY!!

    Oh and the Dark Hunter series by Sherrilyn Kenyon…oh yeah!! What are you waiting for! (It’s all Carlene’s fault!)


    1. Kathleen, Thanks for the warning! I will steer clear of all spoilers. Maybe I’ll watch season 2 over the holidays – nothing like watching Dexter for good family bonding time! I’m being serious, too. I watched the bulk of season 1 over Thanksgiving vacation with my husband, sister, brother, and his girlfriend (after the kids were in bed, of course!)

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