As we fiction fans experience stories through the years, I think of the “good guys” as a time of youth and innocence, “the anti-hero” as an audience-specific protagonist (Thomas Covenant fans, are you still out there?), which leaves a very often used and popular protagonist: The not-so-good guys.
My favorite example is from the book and film “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy. The story is about the good guy, the Sheriff, the bad guy, Anton, Chigurh, and the “in-between” guy, Llewellyn Moss. Question: What makes Moss an “in-between” or “not-so-good” guy? Answer: Moss wouldn’t go out of his way to harm anyone. But he saw money, took it, and didn’t have a problem taking the fight to life or death level even when it endangered his wife. A good guy prototype would have gone to the cops the first thing. A bad guy would have killed the remaining living man, never returned to the scene, and taken with wife with the money and skipped town, making it more difficult for Chigurh and the Mexicans to track him. (But that dang transmitter, even in 1980, doh!).
Another example of “not-so-good guys? Answer: The pirate culture; one of romance, good-looking guys, badass fighters on the open seas. The men stand tall and handsome, sabre at their side; wind blowing threw their unkempt hair, wow, what a heartbreaker. The other side of these men: Pirates in present and past are criminals; they attack ships, kill passengers, steal cargo, in the past, moved slaves, stole young men and made slave sailors of them, and I won’t go into their reported treatment of women. Sometimes I ask myself why pirates are considered so romantic, but think that the life of crime restricted to a ship, well, yes, give pirates their due. It takes nerve to do that for a lifestyle.
Almost any character can be changed with clever writing into a protagonist. Anyone that’s read the non-fiction “Wiseguy” and have seen “Goodfellas” see the subtle spin on the story that puts gangster Henry Hill in a more positive light though he was no less of a thug than the guys he kept company with. I use a dark heroine in my stories, who uses unsavory means to achieve the ends of her enemies. I think people like to see “no-so-good” guys to show us that some with a hard life make good things happen, as the real world is not a simple place where good and evil is easily defined.