Rooting for the Bad Guy
Why are you rooting for the bad guy?
I caught myself rooting for a bad guy a few weeks ago when I was watching the Netflix original Ginny & Georgia. Without spoiling too much, Ginny and her mom Georgia have been on the run for years. It’s unclear why, but we find out more about Georgia’s dark past throughout the season. She’s a criminal, yet I found myself still rooting for her. Still hoping that she gets what she wants, regardless of what (or who) she must conquer to get it. It’s dark, y’all.
Of course, there are countless examples of this phenomenon — rooting for the bad guy. Think: Don Draper, Tony Soprano, or Walter White. Even though their behavior, ranging from adultery to murder, wouldn’t exactly grant these characters an upstanding citizen award, some part of us can’t help but root for them.
Why is that?
It’s because the “bad guys” in these stories are not villains. They’re anti-heroes. This important distinction allows us to categorize a character as “great mom with an unfortunate habit of offing her enemies” vs. just “murderer.”
A villain and anti-hero’s actions can be the same (i.e. murder, adultery, manipulation). But in our minds, a villain is just killing to kill. An anti-hero, on the other hand, has a reasonable motivation — a backstory that justifies their godforsaken actions. We may not agree with his or her problem-solving, but we believe they’re a good person deep down and can empathize with them given the overall narrative of their lives.
When writers are building these anti-hero characters, they ensure they’re familiar to us. In a 2012 article from Studies in Popular Culture, researchers Richard Keen, Monica McCoy, and Elizabeth Powell elaborate on this idea:
“The [anti-heroes] we root for are generally not strangers to us; we know a great deal about them—from narration, from flashbacks, or because they talk to themselves and we get to listen...We know a great deal about how the situation is influencing him.”
This creates space in our minds to have empathy for those characters despite our apparent differences. It allows us to recognize some part of ourselves in that “bad guy” character. We can understand the allure of making an easy buck, wanting to go beyond the “system”, doing anything to provide for our families, or going too far in the name of love.
Empathy is rooted in these backstories because we’re able to see the characters’ moral formation. Since these anti-heroes never play by the rules, they cannot be judged against moral absolutism, where right and wrong are decided on a universal standard with little room for debate. Instead, we judge the characters based on moral relativism.
Moral relativism is the idea that deeming actions as right or wrong is relative to the circumstances — social, cultural, or otherwise.
For example, is money laundering wrong? Yes.
But is it wrong when Marty and Wendy Byrde from Ozark launder money to ensure the safety of their family against the wrath of a drug cartel? Well… moral relativism makes that a bit trickier to answer. In the context of their unique situation, we can justify their corrupt behavior.
Historically, our ideas of right and wrong have stemmed from one thing: our religion. God decided strong morals for us. And others within our religious communities would be the arbiters. This is reflective of moral absolutism.
However, ties to religion have loosened over the years. Rather than seeking external validation from a higher power, society has turned to an internal compass on ethics by delving into human psychology. Erik Torenberg has a great take on this:
“While truth used to reside in religion and society, over the last 50 years we’ve made our feelings the highest source of all truth. So for 99.9% of human history, you adapted yourself to the world, and you didn't expect the world to adapt to you — but now it’s the opposite… The decline of organized religion signified a great inversion in how we view the self too. Consider how therapists have replaced the role of priests in modern society, for example.”
With these societal changes toward the self, we’ve created new religions and areas of worship: wealth, status, fame, etc. We have come to accept — for ourselves and for our anti-heroes — that there is no objective right or wrong. It’s all relative to personal experiences, background, and future desires.
The Dark Triad vs. The Light Triad
If we accept the idea that morality has become more subjective, we can be more open to exploring “negative” qualities that were once denounced. Enter: the Dark Triad.
For those who haven’t heard of this term before, it’s a concept in psychology used to understand personality. The Dark Triad consists of three personality traits:
Originally, these traits were primarily used in clinical research to study criminals, but psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams expanded its application to the general population. They made the case that all of us have pieces that are narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic. These traits exist on a spectrum rather than a binary yes/no scale.
The Light Triad is like the prosocial antithesis of the Dark Triad. It consists of three personality traits too:
While these personality traits are negatively correlated with those of the Dark Triad, they are not in exact opposition. Rather than each of us being either Light or Dark, researchers have found that we all possess certain aspects of each triad to varying degrees.
You can explore your personal balance between Dark and Light Triads by taking this quiz. Here are my results:
So, I ask again - why are you rooting for the bad guy?
When we learn that elements of both the Dark and Light Triads are within each of us, we can understand that the same is true for others as well. And since morality is relative anyways, we can empathize with someone whose beliefs, actions, or ethics are different from our own.
Holding on to this empathy piece is key. It’s important to remember that we rarely have the full story on anyone. As anti-heroes like Don Draper or Tony Soprano can teach us, all the nitty-gritty pieces of backstories are the key ingredients that allow us to hold empathy for others. Knowing that we don’t have that context in most instances, root for the bad guy anyways.
Sending love to you and your ~villain vibes~,
Stories by Shiv is part of Wayfinder, a writer collective exploring questions that matter.