Antiheroes: Top 5 Reasons a Little Bad Feels So Good

Why do we love heroes with a bit of bad in them?

Antiheroes are popping up more and more in novels, TV shows and movies. Here's a look at why:

1. Moral Ambiguity Is Interesting and Entertaining

Of all the different kinds of heroes and villains, it's the ones with moral ambiguity that offer the most for audiences to chew on.

The question isn't whether we agree with all of the moral choices a hero makes—with a traditional hero, we'll agree with their choices; antiheroes, we won't.

Here's a spectrum of heroism and villainy. All the fun stuff is in the middle, because that's where the most internal conflict and drama lives.

  • Pure, cartoonish hero—does the right thing for the right reasons
  • Melodramatic hero—does the right thing for no apparent reason
  • Bumbling/comic hero—does the right thing by accident
  • Antihero—started bad, turned good; does the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the right thing for the wrong reasons
  • Tragic or fallen hero—started good, went bad; does the wrong thing because of hubris (MacBeth, Walter White in Breaking Bad)
  • Melodramatic villain—doing the wrong thing for no apparent reason
  • Pure, cartoonish villain—wrong thing for the wrong reason

2. Normal Heroes Are Predictable, Which Is a Synonym for Boring

Put a traditional hero in any given situation, and you can usually predict how they'll react. Even if they do something different than you expected, it won't be miles apart.

Villains and antiheroes are inherently unpredictable, which is always more exciting and entertaining.

Send ten normal heroes into Safeway or Home Depot with a shopping list and they'll go about their business, pushing shopping carts, helping little old ladies reach things on high shelves and saying “please” and “thank you” to the cashier.

Put ten antiheroes or villains into those same stores with the same lists and God knows what might happen. Think about sending Dirty Harry or Darth Vader into those stores. It gives “clean up on aisle three” a whole new angle.

Unpredictability is a good thing, for writers and readers alike.

3. Heroes Don't Change Much, While Antiheroes Do

With a series of books or movies about the same character, there isn't much room for a traditional hero to change and grow.

Their essential nature won't change.

Antiheroes are deeply flawed and conflicted. They have a lot more space to evolve. An antihero may have a setback or three that you wouldn't accept from a traditional hero.
 

4. Antiheroes Can Get Away with Anything

A traditional hero can only stray so far from heroic behavior. And when he or she does, there better be a good reason.

Much like villains, antiheroes get to say and do things that you and I could only dream about. Instead of merely honking at the car camped out in the left lane of I-5 for ten miles, they might shoot out a tire.

If the local butcher tends to sneak his thumb on the scale when weighing a sirloin, a regular person or hero might raise an eyebrow or say something polite. An antihero or villain would say something like, “Awfully hard to put a thumb on that scale when you don't have any thumbs.”

This isn't just fun, it opens up a world of dramatic possibilities that doesn't exist with regular heroes.
 

5. Redemption Is Beautiful

Audiences naturally hate heroes who go south. You take it as a betrayal.

If we did a focus group, heroes who go sour would be less popular than mandatory overnight on a Friday night.

The opposite journey is incredibly sympathetic. You naturally root for a charming rogue trying to go straight, or a former contract killer for the mafia who gets out of prison and decides to take on the drug dealers making his neighborhood a living hell.

Redemption stories bring us on a journey from darkness to light.

 


Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and reformed journalist. He's represented by literary agent Jill Marr and can be found on Twitter @speechwriterguy or at his blog, redpenofdoom.com. For etiquette questions you want answered in this column, try guybergstrom@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. ocelot1234

    I only like real heroes.

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