Jennifer Jaynes, USA Today bestselling author of Ugly Your Thing, discusses why we're so captivated by today's anti-hero.
They send adrenaline coursing through our veins, tempt us to stay up way past our bedtime to consume just one more episode…one more chapter. We Google, Facebook, and live-tweet, ad nauseum, their latest escapades. We cheer them on as they charge ahead, doing whatever it takes to reach their goals.
Today they’re more popular than ever, leading some to call this the era of the anti-hero.
What Exactly Is An Anti-Hero?
While a more traditional hero is mostly morally sound, possessing primarily good qualities or personality traits, the anti-hero has more bad then good. In other words, he is flawed. Sometimes to the extreme.
Not bound by strict moral codes, anti-heroes destroy stereotypes, blurring the lines of right and wrong, often acting in ways that we find shocking, even repelling, to reach their end.
Anti-heroes come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. Anti-Heroes are everywhere from screen to books, some favorites include:
Walter White. The “everyman” schoolteacher of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Walter is a dying man who wants desperately to ensure his family is provided for once he’s dead. To accomplish this, he cooks methamphetamine for public consumption.
Dexter Morgan. The lead character of Showtime’s Dexter series. Dexter is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department who moonlights as a serial killer, slaying other murderers to help rid the world of evil.
Nancy Botwin. The lead character of HBO’s Weeds. Nancy is a recently widowed mother who sells marijuana to support her children.
Batman. The beloved DC Comics superhero and alter ego of Bruce Wayne. Batman often stoops to ruthless acts of violence in the name of fighting corruption in Gotham City.
Other great examples include Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly’s crime novels), Jack Reacher (Lee Child’s thrillers) and Jack Bauer (FOX Television series, 24).
While noble of purpose and intent, these characters take morally ambiguous actions born from the philosophical perspective that "the end justifies the means."
Why Are We So Drawn to Anti-Heroes?
So what’s so captivating about the good family man gone bad, the killer who justifies his murderous ways, the superhero who resorts to acts of unspeakable violence in the name of fighting corruption? After all, these characters are incredibly imperfect and make bad decisions, yet we want them to win.
The answer is simple: They’re relatable.
These very same imperfections and bad decisions make our anti-heroes feel real to us. The fact that they are not always strong and courageous, that they’re often physically weak, frightened, insecure, rebellious, and that they sometimes make terrible choices intrigues us. They are rife with human frailty, and we find that endearing.
We also identify with the anti-hero’s moral motivations. After all, like Batman’s Gotham, our world is filled with irredeemable corruption. Whether we live in downtown Los Angeles or rural Texas, we flip on the local evening news and tales of murder and mayhem instantly fill our screen—along with reports of unconscionable dealings involving our country’s major corporations, as well as our own political and religious leaders.
What’s more, much like Dexter Morgan, we see the killers, the thieves, and other bad guys continually slipping through the often ineffective nets of justice. And much like Walter White, many “nice guys” find themselves falling victim to circumstance, trapped in a system that seems to reward the bad and punish the good.
We love that our anti-heroes have the courage to say what we are afraid to say, to take action where we are frozen with fear. They are what we cannot be and they do what we won’t do.
They allow us to escape for a few hours, living and escaping vicariously through them. Then, when the episode or chapter ends, we happily switch off our television or Kindle, rise from the couch, and return to our safe, comfortable lives with our morality firmly intact.
We need not fear any physical, emotional, spiritual, or legal repercussions because we were simply consuming fiction, a very powerful, deliciously satisfying form of escapism—and we were just along for the thrill of the ride.