Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bad Guys We Love but Probably Shouldn't

I was watching Se7en the other day and it dawned on me that at the end, I'm actually sort of rooting for the bad guy to get away with it. A serial killer gets my vote for winning the day? What the hell?

So I had to examine why. What is going on in the story that I'm actually cheering for the antagonist to see his wicked plans come to fruition?

Nathan Bransford once mentioned on his blog that characters, even bad characters, have to be redeemable to be likable. I see this. I think it gives us some sympathy and humanity to relate to. Sure, Shaw is a major tool in Jaws, but when he takes a swipe at a higher social class and recites that haunting story of being in the water while sharks ate his war buddies, it draws the audience into his world, his life, and ultimately, his point of view.

I examined Se7en and the antagonist's twisted, brilliant opus, and I had to ask myself if I found him to be a redeemable character. His message is grounded in teaching the world a lesson, and there's something epically Lex Luthorian about how it's executed, especially how he fulfills the last two sins, but I am not sure that his desire to teach humanity a lesson makes him redeemable enough.

Am I just a sucker for brilliant psychopaths in fiction or is something else going on?

Let's examine Hannibal Lecter. Does seeing him locked behind glass for the rest of his life and knowing that he yearns for a view make him redeemable? I don't think so. I think I can relate to the desire for a view (I work in a bull pen and views are hard to come by here), so I suppose there might be a touch of sympathy for that plight-- but I can't forget that eating people's livers with some beans and red wine landed his psychotic butt in jail in the first place.

So perhaps it's his his relationship with Clarice, and the fact that he helps her in his own way, that makes him redeemable? I don't know. He did rip a nurse's tongue out with his teeth at one point and strip the face off a nice security guard, so mentoring Clarice a bit helps, and the specialness of their intellectual relationship is certainly delightful, but I'm not sure it qualifies as redeemable. Almost, but not quite.

So what's the story here? Is the ability for redemption the common denominator we need for a chracter to be likable?

To be honest, I am not sure that either character is redeemable, not in the sense that they accomplish something in the story that would rinse away the magnitude of their crimes (not by mortal means, anyway). But I do think that something greater than the page is happening.

Let's face it, I learned about deadly sins I previously didn't care about from Se7en, and that we covet what we see every day from Hannibal (not to mention that I had to look up the word rube at the time since I had no idea what that word was, and now I can't even reference it without thinking of Hannibal). They both do something very valuable that gave them more life than the bounds of the story.

They taught me, the reader.

These two characters managed to step into a mentor role that stretched beyond fiction to change my perspective on the world just a wee bit, and they have my intellectual respect even if I am repulsed by their actual deeds. That is where their redemption happens for me. I am wiser, smarter, or more aware of a greater thematic element because of how they educated me, and for that reason, I like them, even while despising the things that they do in the story.

So I am left with this question for you all: Is it possible for a character to transcend the page and become likable because of the reader's meta-relationship with that character, and not their relationship with other characters in the story?

What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Flickr's FreeSpiritted.


  1. I think part of it has to do with the "Strength" we find in villainy. That uncaged passion allows you the ability to break down barriers you might not be able to before. There was an old episode of Star Trek where through some absurd technological accident Kirk got split into two. As a pure evil and pure good character he was unable to function, but together the two sides gave him a strength to act. Because the world we live in is not black and white, we need to be able to tap the "Evil" in ourselves to survive and make the decisions our "Good" side couldn't make for a greater good. That inner voice also provides some balance for your good side to make sense of the consequences of poor or evil decisions. Spacey's "John Doe" points out to us, even in his evil, the conflicts we face in our daily lives. Through him we can come to our own conclusions about how to solve those problems.

  2. Oh that is a sensational comment. I especially love how you point out our love of mirrors in writing/movies, and how catching glimpses of ourselves and our humanity, the darker parts, is still something we can relate to but also appreciate the good in ourselves because of. Well said.