I have written before about the fact that many readers delight in a well-written antihero. But… why? Why do we enjoy reading stories which feature characters who teeter on the ledge between hero and villain?
Okay, let me back up a second. For the purposes of this discussion, I am: 1) speaking exclusively of fiction and 2) making the enormous assertion that we read because we find the act of reading enjoyable.
That being said, why do we enjoy reading about antiheroes?
Affective Disposition Theory (ADT) explains why an audience finds a particular narrative enjoyable; the theory predicts that a reader’s pleasure will increase when a likable character experiences positive outcomes as a result of their actions, and also when a disliked character experiences negative outcomes.
The reverse is also true: a reader’s enjoyment of the narrative will be diminished when a liked character experiences negative outcomes, or a disliked character is rewarded.
Further, the reader’s like or dislike of a character is closely tied to both empathy and morality; arguably ‘good’ characters who do ‘good’ things are likable, while ‘bad’ characters who do ‘bad’ things are repellent.
So, for our purposes, there are three components to a reader’s enjoyment of a story: favorable or unfavorable disposition towards a particular character, emotional reactions to that character’s victories and failures, and the cognitive response of the reader to the final outcome of a character’s journey.
It can therefore be assumed that a reader may find enjoyment in reading about a character who is cast from a hero’s mold: a good person who strives to do good things and is ultimately rewarded by the universe for being heroic. A reader can admire such a character, empathize and sympathize with them, cringe when things go badly, cheer when they go well, and ultimately feel delight when the hero wins the day (in what would classically be considered a comedy) or, if the story is meant to be a tragedy, we might experience a cathartic sorrow when the hero fails despite their best efforts. Either way, the cognitive effect of the story upon the reader is one of satisfaction.
Why, then, do we find ourselves cheering for the antihero? If we find a character likable or despicable based on our moral judgment of their character, how then do we explain the satisfaction we feel when Michael Corleone becomes the next Godfather, or when William Munny slaughters an entire saloon full of people and rides off into the sunset, leaving his best friend’s body unburied? Either character neatly fits the description of an antihero: a character who lacks conventional heroic attributes such as idealism, morality, and courage.
Does such enjoyment speak to the hidden nature of the reader, and suggest that a person who gains pleasure from reading about the triumph of a morally ambiguous character is somehow twisted in nature, and therefore, finds themselves attracted to wickedness?
A character who is morally ambiguous for the sake of being contrary, or for the joy of being evil, is not an antihero at all, but a villain. A well-written antihero struggles—struggles hard—with their own concept of morality and the drive to do ‘good’ vs. the necessity of doing ‘bad’. The character defines themselves and is defined by both their actions and their moral compass, however broken. And the agony of a character who longs to be a hero but falls short—at least in their own eyes—is exquisite.
Again—why? Why not simply write off such a character as a ‘bad’ person, boo when they succeed, cheer when they fall? What emotional payoff do we get from the antihero’s rise that keeps us coming back for more?
One answer may lie in the concept of affective judgment, which is defined as judgment about the pleasure/displeasure and feeling states we expect to experience when enacting an activity. Similar to the effects of affirmation and positive thinking influencing real life experiences, we enter an antihero’s story rooting for them and expecting to experience the cathartic effects of success when they achieve victory by overcoming their own less admirable qualities, completing a character arc towards the good, and winning the day.
Only… that’s not how the antihero’s journey works. They try to do good things and be good people, but in the end their obstacles can only be overcome by unleashing their darker impulses. Every time they attempt to follow a moral path, their more vicious and villainous adversaries grow stronger, until the only remaining choice is to go dark or go home. And so our antihero goes dark.
We’ve been invested in their story since the first page, cheering them on, knowing that they are going to show themselves to be true and just, and… oops. But they win in the end, and we’ve been anticipating our thrill in their victory all along. We experience pleasure because we had expected ourselves to be pleased. We so want to feel this thrill of victory, in fact, that we morally disassociate ourselves from the bad things our character has to do to win it for us. We excuse murder, mayhem, and all manner of moral violations because we have been anticipating the delight we will feel when our character wins and damned if we’re not going to feel it.
Perhaps we ourselves are not as heroic as we’d like to believe.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #31