A mark of excellent writing and phenomenal acting is when you are fooled into thinking you're investing in the usual "bad boy with a heart of gold"... when you aren't.
I had to stop, take some time, and really ponder how in the world I ended up in protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok's corner on Vikings (the new dramatic TV series on the History Channel) when I've never invested in someone who enjoys killing those weaker than himself. I mean honestly, Stephe, you have Hero-on-the-Brain, so what the heck?
Hmm... what made me start feeling at ease with the man, in the beginning? The way he treated his son. He was a protective, hands-on father who also seemed to know when to either step back, or be rough. He pointed out when Vikings did questionable things, unlike the others. The way he treated his wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha. How highly he valued her as a mother, partner, and warrior was immediately apparent, even when they would each grab a weapon and go 12 rounds over a significant disagreement about the household. Whether they were defending themselves and their crew during a raid, or discussing the kids, or having a wild romp in their bedroom, it was clear that though he was head of household who brooked no interference, she was by no means his chattel.
He took chances with his life by opposing the tyrant chieftain of his tribe. At any time, Ragnar's head could have been ceremoniously removed from his neck and his soul ushered on to Valhalla heaven. Still, he would go toe-to-toe in a battle of wits and wills with the egotistical, nasty Earl in front of the whole town and, even when things looked grim, manage to best him. And the reason he did it was simple. The Earl was on a power-trip, oppressing the tribe by trying to keep it boxed in and cut off from the rest of the world.
He was a free-thinker who couldn't suppress the need to broaden his knowledge. He felt in this bones that there was a way to safely navigate the uncharted waters to the west and find new lands, no matter how the Earl downplayed the possibility and kept sending them east for plunder. He felt in his bones that there was more to life than being a farmer/warrior for an unscrupulous chieftain. And he wasn't going to stop until he proved it, or died trying.
A protective father, a caring husband, a man who fought oppression and challenged himself to think outside of the box in an effort to better himself, even if he paid with his life. How can you NOT invest in a character like that? And so, by the time Ragnar had made the impossible happen -- found a secret way to sail into the unknown to a strange land, I had actually forgotten who I was dealing with. I had forgotten that one significant word.
Next thing I know, he was forcing his way into a secluded monastery on the coast of England with his crew and gleefully slaughtering every Anglo-Saxon monk in the place. Gleefully.
There were many monks, but no one opposed the Vikings or tried to defend themselves. They basically huddled in corners or underneath or inside of things, in groups, terrified and praying for salvation. All were hunted down or rooted out and hacked to death in their spot, as if it was a game. I was mad, and thinking to myself, Girl, how could you forget? When it came to Vikings, the pillaging and plundering was absolutely NO FUN without the killing and raping. They butchered the weak for breakfast. Every day.
For the first time, I looked at Ragnar as the cold, laughing killing machine that he was. I was pissed off, at him and me.
But then, he spared the life of a single monk after discovering the young man spoke their Viking language, which showed more thinking outside of the box, more challenging himself to not just do the norm. Monk Athelstan: "Why didn't you kill me?" Ragnar (after a moment of thought): "I don't know... yet." Though it had nothing to do with compassion, it still showed that Ragnar was more than the average Viking when it came to his brain.
Mankind discovered all that we know of our present world because of thinkers like him. And so, I resigned myself to my fate.
I care about Ragnar Rothbrok. I enjoy watching the way actor Travis Fimmel brings him to life and crafts Ragnar's unique idiosyncracies. As a writer, I have to admire how Travis and the scriptwriters snuck up on me like that. It's a lesson I can always use in my own stories: If your protagonist isn't a hero, he can still do heroic things, but only for reasons that serve himself.
I have the perfect character for it, languishing in a space opera manuscript in my file cabinet, just waiting for a chance to shine, a destructive force with absolutely no desire for redemption. I wasn't sure what I could do with him before... Now, I think I can pull something off. Wish me luck!