Recently my son Stan (6) discovered something it took me until I was an adult to figure out. He’d been playing a lot of Lego Batman on his Nintendo DS—I know I’m a model parent—and I noticed he was no longer playing as Batman or Robin; instead he was switching between the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker. When I asked why, his eyes never left the screen. “Bad guys are cool,” he said.
And he’s right—bad guys are cool. It’s the good guys, the ones we’re supposed to be rooting for, that are often a bit dull. So what does this tell us about ourselves? Well I think it tells us everything.
To go a bit cosmic for a moment—and, stay with me on this—we are all made of the same material as everything else. The atomic building blocks that make up our atoms are the same ones that burn at the heart of stars and collect in huge particle clouds at the edge of the expanding universe. Because we are made of the same stuff, the same universal powers and influences affect us in the same way as everything else. And the universe is ever expanding, flying apart at increasing speed, fueled by dark matter we don’t understand—tearing itself to pieces. We know this to be true because of the theoretical brilliance of Einstein and Hawking and from deep space measurements of the red shift in distant light taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
This is all very clever stuff but you can do a simple test yourself to test the same universal theory. Just take two piles of sand and build a castle with one of them. In a fairly short period of time the castle will disintegrate back into individual grains of sand with no knowledge that it was ever a castle. Conversely, the pile of sand will never order itself into a castle. It will just dry out and blow away.
Because we are made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe this same process is working on us too. We know this to be true because as we age we feel ourselves unravelling and it terrifies us. We fear the chaos that is working on our ordered selves. But as creatures of order we have to try and make sense of it. One way is to embrace religion and buy into the, not unattractive, notion that mortality and the material life we are living is just a staging post to something better. Another is to study the chaos, face the demon and try and understand it—and that is where stories come in.
Stories allow us to safely explore that which would be hazardous in reality, they take us places in our minds our bodies would rather not go: and in the fictional landscape, it’s the bad guys who represent chaos and disorder. The great thing about stories is that they are things we can control. We can give chaos a name, walk around in its shoes, experience what it is like to be the very thing we fear. In short we can become it without destroying ourselves in the process—and that is why we love the bad guys. They allow us to make some kind of sense of the chaos.
See, I promised I would get there in the end.
As a coda to this story, shortly after the Lego Batman incident Stan wandered into our bedroom with an Optimus Prime helmet on his head, a Roman sword in his hand and announced he was no longer Stan, he was now—Captain Evil. He then slew his sister and promptly marched out again. So I, at least, have made my own peace with Chaos. For Chaos has a name and he lives in my house. But if he wants to play on the Nintendo again he’s going to have to tidy his room first.
Simon Toyne has worked in British television for twenty years. He was the writer, director, and producer of several award-winning shows, one of which won a BAFTA. He is the author of contemporary thrillers Sanctus and The Key and lives in England with his wife and family.