I recently had the privilege of being able to ask some questions of the creator of Dexter Morgan, Jeff Lindsay, about the process and experience of writing a character like Dexter (now up to 7 books and the TV series.) I wanted to write on Dexter as he is a strong character who has held his own as the eponymous character in both fictional writing and television for many years now. Many characters seem to only be able to flex their muscles either only on the written page, only on television, or as part as a team of main characters, which it not the case at all with Dexter. Both in the novels and the TV series there is limited time that he is not in the spotlight and I think that speaks to the strength of the writing and the complexity of the characterization which has unfolded over time. Whether it be through the original books or through the television series many people will have come to know Dexter Morgan, his Dark Passenger and the people and themes that surround him.
He is one of those characters like many of recent times, antiheroes like Walter White, Gregory House, Hannibal Lector, that we find ourselves rooting for, even though their behaviours are particularly socially unacceptable or obscene. Characters like Dexter make us want him to win, but at the same time also want us to make sure that we never come across someone like them in our daily lives.
Briefly, for those who don’t know him, Dexter is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police. He also happens to be a serial killer, but not a run of the mill serial killer, but rather he is a killer serial killer, still following…? That is to say that Dexter’s killing is focussed on those people who have also taken lives and mostly for those who have not had any justice, in this sense he is somewhat of an avenging vigilante.
In the days of Dexter’s adolescence, his adoptive father, Harry, saw signs of his violent tendencies and instilled in Dexter a ‘Code’ to attempt to ensure that the darkness that he saw in Dexter was well controlled and funneled into something that was somewhat more adaptive than killing just anyone or anything.Dexter follows the code rather closely, ensuring that those whom he murders are guilty of murder themselves, with the help of his Dark Passenger – the guiding voice is his head which ‘takes the wheel’ in terms of his violent behaviour.
Lindsay has previously said that there isn’t an ending planned for the Dexter franchise at this stage, although there had been one – at the end of the first book. However, this wasn’t to be, as the success of the book meant contractual obligations which meant more Dexter. As a result Lindsay states that it has been possible for Dexter to be further developed into a multifaceted character stating that “he (Dexter) got older, he got married – all kinds of things forced the character to grow and evolve.”
Reports from the death of Heath Ledger state that there was a possibility that he became traumatised by playing the character of the Joker in the Dark Knight movie and somehow ‘lost’ himself leading to an over reliance of medication to help him sleep which led to an eventual accidental overdose. I wondered therefore, what sort of impact that the writing of a character like Dexter may have on the psyche of the person who wrote it.
Dexter has been traumatised early in his life, he has struggled through his adolescence and (surprise for those who don’t know Dexter) he kills people – which takes up a big part of his storyline. Despite some rather sharp humour, the content of the books is quite dark, so how is it that Lindsay get stuck in this mindset – wouldn’t it be a big part of processing the character?
It seems that this isn’t the case at all, but like with many people who deal with traumatic work, Lindsay is able to compartmentalise the work that he does with Dexter. He states:
Most of the time, writing the books is a lot like being an actor on a long-running TV show. In fact, as I’ve said before, I write Dexter from inside, like an actor. I inhabit the character. So I go to work and put on the costume and make all the spooky faces and say the scary lines. And when I’m done I go home and walk the dogs and make spaghetti sauce and read to my kids and talk about the mortgage – you know, all the normal shit. It’s my job. That said…. Once or twice, doing research into some of the stuff has been close to traumatic. When I was writing Dexter Is Delicious, I came across cannibal chat rooms. The real thing. And over half the postings were from people begging to be eaten. The one that broke me was from a 16 year old girl who was desperate to be cooked and eaten. I quit work early that day.
So rather than making the mistake that a lot of writers do early in their careers, Lindsay does not ‘take Dexter home’ From what he says, he is not thinking about his characters during the time that he is off-duty and ensuring that his personal and professional life are kept separate from one another.
I have to say, that as a Psychologist, that this is much the same approach the I would advise anyone working with traumatic material, whether it be writing, therapy, or exposure to real violence, such as emergency services. The ability to leave work at work is one of the most important skills for all of these professions, lowers burnout and enusres longevity of careers.
For anyone who has read the books, the humour in the novels is one of the things that keep people coming back. I asked whether the sense of humour in the books was a part of making an otherwise ‘bad’ character somewhat likable. Jeff replied that this was the case and that it is:
“Much harder to hate somebody if you’re laughing at their jokes” and further adding that this is one of the “cheats” I used in trying to create a sympathetic character out of something that is basically a Monster. “
Lindsay also further clarified that he has worked in comedy and that for people who can be funny that it is often something that is hard to turn off, and as a result the humour turns up regularly through the Dexter series. I would also have to say that this was a big part of the characterisation of Dexter in the TV series as well, whilst the television series didn’t follow the same storyline as the books it definitely followed the dry sense of humour that we often hear in Dexter’s stream of consciousness and gives an insight into both the character and the man who created him.
Dexter on the Couch
How would Dexter get on in therapy? Would he make some positive therapeutic gains in terms of addressing his antisocial side? No, says Lindsay. His research into people like Dexter shows “that sociopaths/psychopaths are born that way. It can’t be cured. Brain-mapping has shown some evidence that there is a certain area of the brain with what you might call the Empathy Node – and sociopaths don’t have it. So as valuable as I believe therapy to be, it can’t work on someone like Dexter” I have to agree here, in my experience whilst the building of social skills can somewhat help, there is usually little change to the overall psychological underpinnings of the individual. A person who suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder, as with most PDs are not likely to make stable and long term changes. This is due to the fact that it is the personality itself which is disordered, rather than symptoms of a mental illness.
Overall, however, sociopaths aren’t necessarily all bad, they tend to lack the care and understanding of what it is to be feel emotions, connections and essentially humanity and therefore this makes things such as murder and physical aggression a lot easier. I think this is all summed up the best by Dexter himself:
“Whatever made me the way I am left me hollow, empty inside, unable to feel. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. I’m quite sure most people fake an awful lot of everyday human contact. I just fake it all. I fake it very well, and the feelings are never there.” Darkly Dreaming Dexter
So, in finishing, Dexter is an antihero, maybe he is the thesis of what we would like to be ourselves, if the confines of society and punishment were not there. Although, in saying this, there is a great deal to suggest that human beings are inherently good, and that the act of killing another person would not be something that most people would ever follow through on, punishment or not.
What are your thoughts? Besides Dexter, who is your favourite fictional (or non-fictional) anti-hero?