What do Kaz Brekker, Artemis Fowl, Harley Quinn, Amy Dunne, and Dexter Morgan have in common?
They’re all technically ‘bad guys’. And I love them.
A quick rundown: Kaz Brekker cultivates a Machiavellian, ruthless reputation while planning various heists and cons. Artemis Fowl is introduced to the reader as a twelve-year-old blackmailer who kidnaps a fairy to sell her back to her bosses. Harley Quinn is an abuse victim who has turned to a life of crime and loves every minute of it (cool motive, still murder). Amy Dunne tried to pin her own murder on her husband, then killed a man so that she could contrive a way to go back to her old life. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who murders other killers (cool motive, still murder).
Why do I like these characters? And – probably more importantly – why do I read about them or watch them and find myself wanting them to succeed?
I look forward to seeing Kaz’s schemes play out. I enjoy Artemis Fowl’s smug little shit moments and Harley Quinn’s unhinged chaotic neutral approach to life. I was on Amy’s side in the divorce and every time Dexter is at risk of getting caught my heart starts racing.
I can’t stress this enough: usually*, I don’t agree with their moral choices. They aren’t ‘good’ people, even though sometimes they do good things. Most of the time, they’re on the wrong side of the coin.
And yet… I want them to succeed.
Why? Why do I want characters like these ones to be successful in all of their endeavours? Why am I on the edge of my seat as Amy and Kaz’s schemes unfold, hoping that they’ve thought things through correctly? Why am I willing to overlook all of the evil shit Harley, Dexter, and Artemis do when I’m watching them achieve their goals?
I really wanted to understand why I feel this way. So I did some research.
I started with Jens Kjeldgaard-Christian’s 2017 paper, ‘The Bad Breaks of Walter White: An Evolutionary Approach to the Fictional Antihero’. Kjeldgaard-Christian writes about the apparent disconnect between Affective Disposition Theory (Zillman and Cantor 1977), which argues that characters will be more liked when they act morally, and the fact that antiheros like Walter White seem to be just as enjoyable and interesting as the unambiguously good characters – sometimes, more so. He eventually argues that morally ambiguous protagonists navigate ethical conflicts that the reader/viewer will never have to navigate themselves, and they allow the audience to explore those problems safely.
In short, we like them because they represent a vicarious experience.
While I agree that vicarious experiences are an important part of engaging with fiction and we shouldn’t judge a person’s morality based on the fiction that they consume, I don’t think this idea quite explains what I’m feeling when I read about dickheads like Amy Dunne succeeding in all of their bullshit.
I don’t think my enjoyment of these characters represents a desire to live vicariously through their success, because their success is usually not good for other people.
I’m not excited by the success in itself. I’m excited because they are the ones who are succeeding.
Richard Keen, Monica L McCoy & Elizabeth Powell (2012) wrote ‘Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives’, and in that paper they argue that context matters when deciding which Bad Guys we root for:
“Questions about motivation, past experiences, and consequences all figure into deciding whether someone is seen as bad. There is general agreement that bad guys break society’s conventions or rules. However, the question of whether all people who break the rules are bad is more complex.” (129-130)
That goes a little way to explaining things… I want them to succeed because I have context for why they ought to. I take external factors into account. Kaz Brekker is driven by a desire for vengeance, but can you blame him? Harley is an abuse survivor and she finds pleasure where she can. Dexter has his Dark Passenger, but instead of allowing it to rule him he channels it towards altruism.
It does help to understand a character’s motivations. The fact that these characters are POV characters means that we get direct access to their thoughts and feelings. Much of the time the reader/viewer doesn’t have that kind of access with ‘the Bad Guy’ in a story because stories are usually told from the ‘Good Guy’s’ POV. I have more empathy for characters when I can get in their heads.
This also explains why I find these characters interesting but I find characters like the Joker (Heath Ledger’s version) much, much less interesting. The characters I talk about here work hard to achieve a goal and we see the progression of their plans. The Dark Knight doesn’t really do a Joker POV and we don’t see him coming up with all of his schemes – just their results. So when he’s happy about succeeding, I don’t feel the same way because I didn’t see any of the work that he put into it.
But even with a POV character, insight into their process isn’t always enough. I want to see them working for their success and I want to see them enjoying their success. Main character, POV bad guys like Patrick Bateman and Anakin Skywalker do not spark joy for me. The insight we get into Bateman’s mind just reiterates over and over what a privileged, entitled little douchebag he is – also, there’s no real finesse to his crimes, so it’s clear to the reader that he’s not actually working hard or planning things out beyond laying down a sheet of plastic and calling it a day. Similarly, Anakin Skywalker’s story, while tragic, doesn’t trigger my peculiar interest because he doesn’t actually achieve anything. He doesn’t ascend to something that he’d worked really hard to achieve – instead, he descends into what he thinks is the only way to fix all of his problems, gets his arse kicked, and wakes up miserable because he accidentally did a murder.
Also, neither Patrick Bateman nor Anakin Skywalker are happy in the end. Even if they are technically successful (getting away with murder is a success, I think), there’s no joy in their success. So I find no joy in their success.
Keen, McCoy and Powell also bring up the exposure effect: the more often you are exposed to a stimulus, the more you like it. If you’re in a character’s head for a whole movie or book, then that’s a lot of exposure. The initial image doesn’t need to be positive – it just needs to be repeated.
They also float the idea that villains are hot.
A) I’m asexual. B) some of them are teenagers. Don’t be gross.
There’s no attraction to the characters in my case – just genuine pleasure in the way that they are able to make things work for them.
I had a hard time finding strong research to understand what I am feeling. The problem, I think, was that I was having a hard time thinking of key words.
Is there a word for taking pleasure in someone else’s success?
I started with German. They gave us schadenfreude, after all, so I thought they might come in clutch. I asked a German friend if that was the case and he responded that he couldn’t think of a word to express what I’m trying to say. He cobbled together ‘Fremdenerfolgsfreude’ because apparently one of the reasons German is so good at obscure vocabulary is that it’s really easy to make shit up on a linguistic level.
I finally found something that resonated with me in – of all things – Buddhism**.
Mudita: sympathetic joy. Rejoicing in others’ success and good fortune.
This is apparently the most difficult Brahma Vihara to trigger. It is an acknowledgement that others have something you don’t, have experienced something you want, and being genuinely pleased about that fact. Without envy or jealousy. It’s supposed to be difficult to feel because humans just naturally tend to want what they don’t have – it’s a problem of the ego, an assumption that if someone else is succeeding or celebrating, then they must be taking something away from us.
Buddhists take decades to learn how to let go of their ego. It’s a lifelong practice. They practice cultivating mudita for someone they love, for a stranger, and finally for someone they don’t like – slowly building up the ability to genuinely feel joy in the fact that others are feeling joy no matter how they feel about that person.
I’m not even close having a beginner in Buddhist practice. But I do think it’s easier to cultivate mudita for fictional characters.
Fictional characters are not taking things from me when they experience joy – therefore, they don’t trigger my envy or jealousy. I am able to observe their success without feeling inadequate (because, let’s be clear, I don’t actually want to succeed in the same way that they do. I don’t want to get rich blackmailing fairies. It seems like a lot of work).
More importantly, I am able to see the work that goes into these characters’ schemes. I saw the effort they went to. I saw how they had to train or manipulate their way to success. In the real world, you don’t see the blooper reel; only the highlight reel. There’s a sense of dissonance when we observe peoples’ success in real life because we don’t always see what went into that success, and so we believe that it is unearned or undeserved – especially when compared to the hard work that we know we’ve put in, and the level of success that hard work brings to us.
In the case of Kaz, Artemis, Harley, Amy, and Dexter, we see everything. We’re in their heads, following along with their quest, witnessing the mental and sometimes physical strain that they’re under, and so their success feels appropriate to the amount of work they put it.
It is also a pleasure to see a well-executed project. For me, at least, the level of attention to detail and planning is important. Even Harley, who seems so unhinged when she’s living her life, is hyper-intelligent and able to use that intelligence to work around obstacles and plan out processes to achieve what she wants. I like the intricacy of their plans and the way that they account for people trying to thwart them. The face that they take pains to plan something carefully makes their success almost beautiful.
So that’s why I enjoy these characters; they trigger a feeling of mudita that I generally don’t feel in real life. It is an affect of reading their story that I find really wonderful and exciting. Even if I don’t agree with their morals, I’m still able to feel excited when they get what they want.
And I can’t stress this enough: just because I want these characters to succeed in their fictional worlds doesn’t mean that I would want them to succeed in real life. Remarkably, I can tell the difference between the two – as I imagine most readers/viewers can.
If you’d like more thinking around this idea that fiction doesn’t need to offer a moral compass for readers, then I recommend looking at this article.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂
*sometimes they lean into the chaotic neutral/good side of the alignment chart and in those times I’m usually fully onboard.
** I read about it in How to be Sick by Toni Bernhard, if you’re interested.