The power of strong characterisation – Dexter Morgan

dexter-morganI’ve been mainlining Dexter recently. Let me state from the outset that it’s the TV series I’m currently loving and I haven’t yet read any of the original books by Jeff Lindsay. I’d certainly like to and will eventually, but right now I want to talk about the TV series. I started wondering what made the show so compelling and how we can get so invested in a serial killer. The performances are superb and the writing is brilliant, so that makes for great television, but what is it about Dexter Morgan that is so enthralling? The reason, I think, is that Dexter is such an incredibly well developed character and so utterly believeable. I won’t put any spoilers in this post talking about particulars of the show, but I do want to talk about why Dexter is such a good character.

To start with, let’s establish the facts – Dexter Morgan is a largely emotionless, mentally broken serial killer. He has a code that he lives by very strictly and only kills other killers. Here’s the first thing that lets us associate with him so deeply. We all want to see killers that escape justice pay for their crimes. Dexter makes that happen. But he kills them in a hideously ritualistic way because he has to kill. He has what he calls his “dark passenger” that fills him with an insatiable urge to kill and he regularly, though only briefly, satisfies that urge by killing bad guys, thereby having a certain justification for his heinous acts. But he enjoys it, and he enjoys cutting up the bodies into component parts afterwards before disposing of them. How can we associate with that part of him?

Dexter lives more than a double life. He works for Miami Metro Homicide, which gives him access to all the things he needs to find his victims. He has a lover (slight SPOILER – later he has a family), which he needs to protect from his true self. He has a sister that he cares for, and again has to protect from his true self. Make no mistake – the real Dexter is the broken, ritualistic serial killer. The job, the family, the sister, the social life – these are all contrived masks that he holds together to protect his true nature. Therefore he lies to and manipulates these people all the time.

So sure, Dexter kills bad guys, but he’s a horrific person that lies and cheats and manipulates. And kills. So why is he so compelling? Why do we associate so much with him? When you watch the show, you’re desperately hoping he won’t get caught. We want him to carry on. Why?

I think it’s a many faceted thing. Firstly, the writing is superb, with Dexter developing as a character all the time. Through the course of his life he learns more about what made him the way he is, which gives him personal insight and we get that insight too. As his relationships grow with the people around him, so too does his personal character. He learns that he does care about his wife, her children, his sister and his colleagues. He grows as a person even while he remains a slave to his dark passenger. This all helps to invest us in him as a character.

dexter_killBut more than that, I think the reason we really enjoy the show is because we can empathise with Dexter. We hate what he does, but we can see ourselves in it. We can see the potential for us to do similar if our own morals and emotional responses were dampened. Part of us can’t stand it, but most of us wants him to get away with it. We all have a dark passenger to some degree. For the vast majority of us that passenger is small and quiet and rarely does more than irritate us from time to time before sinking down again. But that tiny part revels in Dexter’s ability to let his demon out completely and give in to those dark, nasty desires that reside in everyone.

On top of that, it’s an adrenaline rush to ride with Dex. We constantly fear that he’ll get caught and while his emotional responses are so dampened that his own stress and panic levels are way more controlled than ours, we still get that vicarious buzz at watching him ride the risks the way he does. We like Dexter for the same reason we like rollercoasters and scary movies.

Dexter makes mistakes and feels guilt when he does, even though he doesn’t necessarily recognise guilt for what it is. But he is flawed even within his own code and abilities. He has incredible rushes with his successes, amazing highs when he satiates that dark passenger ever so briefly. And we rise and rush and fall along with him.

Dexter does terrible things but there’s enough redemption in the character for us to root for him. It’s an incredible achievement in storytelling and character development that we care for such an anti-hero. Especially as that character only gets more and more compelling.

So we can learn from this that great characterisation comes from a well-rounded, well developed character, with a shared and satisfying genesis. One that continues to grow and develop while still maintaining the core of what makes them who they are. One that makes mistakes and learns from them. One that has an internal consistency in their actions while still being affected by the world around them and responding to it. This kind of intelligent character building can even make us root for a ritualistic serial killer without making us feel like sickos for doing so.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment? Are you as fascinated by the character of Dexter Morgan as I am? Leave a comment and mention some other examples of great characterisation if you have any in mind.

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11 thoughts on “The power of strong characterisation – Dexter Morgan

  1. I can agree with your assessment of this very disturbed character, though I would add that he is also a product of a traumatic childhood event that affected him and his brother in a major way. Of course, without the mentoring of his adopted father as a teenager, his homicidal inclinations would be chaotic and serve no purpose to society. There are so many factors that make Dexter the way that he is, though he is essentially a tragic hero.

  2. Hi Alan,

    I am a massive Dexter fan, and agree that the characterisation is a big part of what makes it so brilliant. The development of Dexter as a person continues throughout the series, as he changes from the rigidly controlled killer of the start to something…dare I say…more human.

    But, and I very rarely would say this, I wouldn’t bother with the books. I tried reading them and they are awful. All the things I like about the show are missing. The author had a great concept, but it is the producers/writers/whoever who have executed it so brilliantly.

    It is one of the rare cases where the TV show or movie is better than the book and I have only ever ran into that two other times.

  3. Dianne – You’re absolutely right. We could talk for hours about why his backstory is so good!

    David – Now you have to tell us the other two! Shame to hear that about the books though.

  4. I adore Dexter. I think one aspect of the TV show that makes him so accessible is that Michael Hall does such a superb job making the character human (as you said, great acting), and I wonder how much his smirks and rueful expressions conveyed with such warmth help contribute to the likability of the character.

    I’ve read two of the books so far, and really enjoyed them, partly for the deeper entrance to his thoughts.

    It’s too bad I didn’t read the books first because knowing the story line made them a little less grippping and Michael Hall’s image was in my mind, so it’s difficult to separate the two.

    I think the other reason we like him is his sense of humor. That helps soften (if that’s possible) some of the gruesome scenes.

  5. I cannot add much to what has already been said, other than to tip my hat (if I wore one) to the excellent acting that brings the character of Dexter to life, namely Michael C Hall.

  6. dexter by far is one of the best shows on tv today! though many people do have a dark side, i don’t know if they could do and get away with, what dexter does. it takes a lot of nerve and precision! i too wonder about what it means that i love him and i root for him and hope he never gets caught! he disposes of trash in a different way! he gets the justice that the judicial system cannot! and i agree, he has evolved emotionally a lot thru the years!he seems much more genuine and capable of feeling, as was evident by this year with miss julia stiles! i hope this show lasts forever!

  7. Dexter is one of the TV shows I like watching whenever the kids aren’s looking. However, I wouldn’t say I associate with Dexter. Instead, I’d say I’m fascinated by him.

    It’s fascinating to see how he overcomes the obstacles he meets, especially when someone comes close to being able to ‘out’ him. Will his sister and/or his wife discover what he is?

    Sometimes I feel that he’s leapt to a conclusion about who is guilty and deserves to die, and then I have to suppose that the background research has been done but was too cumbersome to show. Wondering how he’ll cope if he’s broken his code and killed an innocent person is one of the things that brings me to the edge of my seat.

    At the moment, (in the part of the series I am up to) as he admits to a softening in his attitude to his wife, the children, especially his baby son, and his sister, I wonder how he’ll cope with becoming ‘human’. He’s always seen himself as a monster. I’m trusting the show’s writers to deal with this in a satisfying way.

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