Monday, May 04, 2020

Bad boys and bad girls...why do we like them so much?

Bad boys and bad girls…why do we like them so much?

During this time of quarantine, my wife and I are binging on shows we’ve found on both Hulu and Netflix.  We just finished season three of Ozark and we’re in the middle of season two of Killing Eve.

Both have antiheroes who are the lead characters.

In Ozark, the program focuses on a married couple who are laundering money for a drug cartel.  They started out as nearly normal in episode one of the first season, but as the program progresses, the fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.  In order to save their lives, they had to break the law.  But as the show unfolds, they’re clearly outstanding at what they do and, to a degree, are enjoying it.

In Killing Eve, the show is about an MI6 operative who is chasing down an international assassin.  While Eve, the operative, is interesting, it’s Villanelle, the killer, who is endlessly fascinating. Villanelle has a childish quality and is a charming psychopath.

Then again, so was Ted Bundy.

Tony Soprano from the HBO series The Sopranos. Walter White from Breaking Bad.  Don Draper from Mad Men.  All antiheroes.

A few literary antiheroes?  Jay Gatsby, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Tom Ripley, Lestat de Lioncourt from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles.

How about James Bond?  He’s an assassin with a license to kill, drinks heavily, likes to gamble, and is an incessant womanizer.

What about anti eroes draws us to them?  I think it’s their depth of character.  I’ve written that a protagonist can’t be too perfect or they’re deadly dull.  They have to have flaws to make them human.

For an anti hero those flaws are much more pronounced.  And in many cases, becoming an anti hero was the result of a noble cause.  Walter White in Breaking Bad learns he has terminal lung cancer and wants to leave a financial legacy for his family so he turns to cooking meth and selling it.  And he becomes damned good at it.  And through the course of the show, devolves more and more into a monster.

So, an antihero should be good at what they do.  Don Draper was an awesome ad guy.  Tony Soprano would do most anything for his family and he was adept at staying one step ahead of his enemies.

In all of their cases, they can rationalize their bad behavior because they think they’re doing it for a good reason.

And when I talked about depth of character it can also mean being colorful.  Of the two female lead characters in Killing Eve, the MI6 operative starts as a boring but likable protagonist.  As she chases her killer quarry, her behavior becomes more and more questionable and I’ve found that she's becoming more interesting. More like the assassin.

The second lead in that series, Villanelle, started as a colorful character and never lets up.  When she kills a target, it’s macabre theater.

In the end, we're fascinated with antiheroes because they’re damned entertaining.

Just as a side note, years ago I wrote a thriller where the lead character was an antihero.  He worked as a bartender in a strip club, was dating one of the strippers, and in his spare time he was a con artist. One of his cons gets him in trouble the Mob and he and his girlfriend have to go on the run.

I never found an agent for the book and it was never published.

However, the agent I’m working with now told me that she recalled reading the first fifty pages of the book when I'd submitted it to her.  Then she said that the reason her agency didn’t take it on was that she immediately didn’t like the lead character.

Writing anti heroes is a tricky business.  So, who is your favorite antihero?


Frankie Y. Bailey said...


It's a coincidence that you mentioned Tony Soprano. I'm going through the series right now because I'm working on a book about gangster films. Even though The Sopranos was a television series the publisher thought it important to include because of the show's impact on depictions of organized crime. Tony is fascinating.
Your comment about anti-heroes being more interesting than the hero reminded me of White Heat. James Cagney as Cody Jarrett is certainly more riveting than Edmond O'Brien as the undercover cop (whose name I can't even remember).
I agree with you about the difficult balance when it comes to the protagonist. I'm had that problem in the 1939 thriller I'm working on. My hero started off as too noble, too good. Downright boring compared to the bad guy. So I'm trying to make the hero's motivation more complex, with some not so nice reasons for doing what he does.

Sybil Johnson said...

I like the lead in Prodigal Son. Not sure if he's an antihero, but he's definitely very troubled. And his father, who is a serial killer, is extremely intriguing though I wouldn't want to be alone with him!

Susan D said...

Nope. Not one of those guys turns my crank. I guess I like my heroes heroic.