Why are we fascinated with ‘Bad Guys’?
So many current TV series feature anti-heroes. Why?
In my current Character Development Keys class, we’ve had a ton of great discussions. One of them around this question:
Why are we fascinated with ‘Bad Guys’?
Here is my response:
What is the deal with Bad Guys / Bad Gals? How can we root for them in TV series like “Billions”, “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Dexter”, “The Shield”, “Sons of Anarchy,” “Breaking Bad” to name a few?
After all, they’re… you know… Bad Guys.
Here’s my quick take:
We find the Dark Side fascinating. For the most part, we don’t live like that, so stories are a safe way to indulge our more ‘negative’ impulses. And…
We all have a ‘shadow’ per Carl Jung, which for purposes of this discussion we may think of as ‘negative impulses’. Generally because of societal expectations, laws, upbringing, and so forth, we try our best to repress, suppress, avoid, and ignore these instincts, but they are there nonetheless. So…
When we enter into a story universe where the Protagonist has given him/herself over to those very same impulses, we find it interesting, compelling, if…
The crafting and execution of the character is done well. That is they aren’t a one-dimensional Bad Guy, but rather…
Have some humanity about them. In “Billions,” Axe is a ‘grown child’ and there’s not an adult among us who doesn’t have childish impulses and influences. We can relate to characters who exhibit things we do and feel, especially…
If they have constructed a world view which makes sense. They believe in what they do and who they are, they have a rationale which ultimately is ‘wrong,’ however it’s plausible enough and makes enough sense that we, the viewer, can understand it, even empathize with it.
Frankly, I predict we will see even more of this type of thing on the TV side of things, week to week explorations of characters and their shadows. “Westworld” is an example of that, not one single character I can think of who doesn’t indulge in their shadow, either willingly or compelled.
Indeed that series is a great example of two questions which lie at the heart of every story, particularly exhibited by the Protagonist character: Who are you? What will you become?
What “Westworld” does is play around with the idea of — using theological terms — predestination vs. free will. The robots would seem to be predestined to act a certain way. But no, as they begin to discover who and what they are, they start to claim new, unscripted choices. Likewise customers come to this place to explore any and all aspects of their psyche. Pick a white hat. A black hat. Follow your own instincts, the High Road, Low Road, or somewhere in between.
Again each of us has a shadow. TV series which traffic in Bad Guys / Bad Gals as Central Characters or even Protagonists (so-called anti-heroes) allow us to explore our own negative impulses vicariously through those characters.
Why do I predict we’ll see more of this? Because the world has veered dangerously toward the Dark Side. Governments giving into fear-mongering, hatred, demonization of The Other, greed. We look at these global movements and we ask the same questions:
Who are these guys? How did they become this way? How can they think and act this way?
TV series which traffic in lead characters exploring their shadow are not only compelling in and of themselves, but also in the context of the Zeitgeist resonate with what’s going
Final point: I don’t think we’ll see as much of this in movies. One big difference between movies and TV is that the former features Protagonists going through a psychological metamorphosis in a compressed time frame 90–120 minutes. In TV, change happens much more slowly. Even in a limited series, it can take 8–10 episodes to discern a character’s arc.
We are used to movies telling stories about change. As noted elsewhere, Joseph Campbell said the whole point of The Hero’s Journey is transformation. And movies have traditionally held to this model. Indeed Hollywood movies are by and large about a positive change. We need those type of stories to uphold our belief that we can change for the better.
Indeed given current geopolitical circumstances, just as TV may feature more dramatic series with Central Characters and Protagonists exploring the negative aspects of their psyche and their shadow, we may see a push toward movies with an even more heightened sense of the possibility for positive change — redemption stories, resurrection stories, incarnation stories (I’m speaking metaphorically).
So circling back to the original question, I think we root for Bad Guys in part because each of us has a shadow aspect to our psyche and stories represent a safe way to indulge and explore those impulses.
[Perfect example: Fifty Shades of Grey, the book as I recall had the highest per capita sales in two very red states: Mississippi and Montana.]
But those characters have to be compelling, have a legitimate rationale for why they do what they do, and have some identifiable human qualities with which we can relate.
What do YOU think? Do you watch TV series which feature as the Protagonist Bad Guys / Bad Gals? What is it about those characters you find interesting and compelling?
While we’re on the subject, I have two online courses coming up which are directly relevant:
Create a Compelling Protagonist [begins March 27]
Write a Worthy Nemesis [begins April 10]
Whether your writing a Bad Guy / Gal Nemesis or a Bad Guy / Gal Protagonist… or a Good Guy / Gal Protagonist, these are great classes which can help you develop, focus, and shape your story’s most important characters.