Admit it: You’ve rooted for the not-so-totally evil guy.
Andy Garcia’s turn as savvy casino mogul Terry Benedict in “Ocean’s Eleven” is a good example. Bradley Whitford’s outing as the conniving CEO in “Billy Madison” is another. Or the DEA’s Hank Schrader in “Breaking Bad.” Hell, the shark from “Jaws” will do it.
From where I’m sitting, the villains above can hardly be called villains. Take Terry Benedict: He owns and operates three luxury casinos in Las Vegas. He treats his girlfriend and employees with respect. “The guy’s a machine,” says one character. “He remembers every valet’s name.” Enter Clooney, the ostensible protagonist, a thief who decides to burgle roughly $150 million from the casinos because?—?get this?—?Benedict is banging Clooney’s ex.
Or how about Bradley Whitford in “Billy Madison”? Sure, he’s a snippy jerk, but I might be a snippy, too, if I’d worked for decades to secure my spot among the brass at a Fortune 500 hotel chain only to be told the company would go to the owner’s son, a drunken layabout who never passed the first grade.
Even the staunchest “Breaking Bad” fans have to admit that Hank Schrader is no true villain. The guy was, quite literally, just doing his job.
And then there’s the shark from “Jaws.” Hunt or be hunted, right?
Rooting for the not-totally-evil guy
So what if a villain isn’t as out-and-out evil as The Joker or Lord Voldemort? Does it really matter whether we’re rooting against a sorta-bad baddie or an off-the-rails lunatic?
In some sense, I think it does. According to Dr. Arthur Raney of Florida State University, a character’s appeal relies heavily on whether the audience finds his or her actions “morally justifiable.” If the character’s moral compass squares with our own, we support them.
Dolf Zillman’s Affective Disposition Theory posits the same thing: Character does good, we like character. But Zillman includes another variable, called a “latitude of moral sanction,” which suggests that our morality expands when consuming fiction to allow naughty or outright bad behavior from a character we support.
Latitude of moral sanction (LMS) has allowed shows like “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad” to enjoy huge success. In conventional storytelling, serial killers and drug dealers are the villains. In LMS storytelling, writers flip the script and must put otherwise good people (read: Hank Schrader) in the villain’s seat.
Which is where I think a little objectivity goes a long way when watching a movie or reading a novel. It feels good to root for Danny Ocean; he’s funny, handsome, charismatic and he plays by his own set of rules. He’s an appealing rogue. But one might benefit from doing some laps in Terry Benedict’s shoes?—?he is, technically, a better role model than Danny Ocean could ever be.
And that’s what fiction is, largely, isn’t it? A way of refocusing the world’s ethical or moral constituents and extracting from that grid a Better Way To Live? A Boston Globe article about the effects of consuming fiction employs a wealth of evidence that fiction can change its audience’s beliefs and values simply through the act of storytelling. As writer Jonathan Gottschall puts it:
Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.
Antihero with a grain of salt
Gottschall’s article acknowledges that most heroes?—?even antiheroes?—?are motivated by love, while most villains are motivated by wealth, power and prestige. My issue with this diagnosis lies not in the question of whether love is a worthwhile motivator (it is!), but whether a character like Terry Benedict can really be vilified for choosing his life’s work over a girlfriend who’s still hung up on her ex.
That’s what sets Danny and Terry apart: Terry chooses the $150 million, Danny chooses the girl. Never mind that Terry is on the up-and-up; never mind that he employs hundreds (if not thousands) of people; never mind that he’s a respected and fair boss. Danny can make Tess laugh.
Or Whitford in “Billy Madison”?—?forget his decades of loyalty to the company, his business degrees, his general know-how. Billy has a good heart.
Wealth, power and prestige aren’t inherently evil, is my point. There’s value in listening to both sides of the story. Because for all the good fiction does for our society, it also the runs the risk of over-romanticizing the easy way out. The world needs Terry Benedicts and Hank Schraders just like the ocean needs sharks. They might not be the type of guy you want to get a beer with, but neither are they splitting their souls in half and hiding Horcruxes around their old high school.