Fictional characters can become firm favourites in the hearts of readers and viewers. There are many reasons as to why we might prefer one over another, such as a fondness for wise old grandfather figures might draw us to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, or a desire to be our best selves when we watch superhero movies.
We may be happy to share our preferences for inspirational characters with the world, but often we keep our fascination with the baddies a secret. There are always wicked, evil or downright deranged characters embedded into stories to drive the plot action, such as Darth Vader in Star Wars or Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty.
These fictional people possess personality traits that we would normally find abhorrent if we were to meet them in real life, so why would we admire them on our screens or in our books? Are we secretly bad people who yearn for a life of crime?
A recent study, published in the journal, Psychological Science, gives us a comforting explanation. Most of those fictional baddies presented to us are designed to appeal to us on a fundamental level. They are created as flawed human beings with shared personality traits to the average person in the street. Writers provide us with a plausible reason for their descent into evil doings, allowing us to relate to them, pity them and hope that they will be given a chance of redemption later in the story.
We are drawn to the darker aspects of humanity in a safe fictional construct. By exploring this imagined wickedness, we can absorb the depths of emotional responses without risking the shame or condemnation of the real world.
PhD student, Rebecca Krause, at Northwestern University, states; “When people feel safe, they are more interested in comparisons to negative characters that are similar to themselves in other aspects.” People can identify with rogues in fiction without the discomfort of admitting that they might share similar traits. Within the confines of a story, we can experience those darker personalities that might represent an extreme version of ourselves while preserving our self-image.
People who enjoy cryptic crosswords and puzzles, might admire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Moriarty for his/her high brow machinations and clever plots. Others might revel in the ambitions for world domination like the baddies in Bond films. Some villains are so popular with viewers that sequels are centred on the conflict within that one character alone, making the struggle comedic and human, such as Gru from the Minions movies for children. It’s hard not to feel pity for him, or Wile-E-Coyote for that matter.
Krause and her colleague, Rucker, conducted statistical analysis of data from a website called, CharacTour, where 232,500 anonymous surveys matched personality traits to villains and non-villains from fiction, such as Darth Vader and Yoda. Their findings showed that people were not just drawn to non-villains who shared similar character traits to the respondent, but also to the villains.
Although both researchers agree that more testing is required to narrow the field as to the reasons behind this, its safe to assume that fiction provides us with a unique environment to plumb the depths of all aspects of the human condition without the distress of reality.
The problem with this only occurs when readers or viewers are unable to separate fact from fiction.
There are some who become so engrossed in the entertainment that they feel compelled to hurl abuse at actors in the street for their characters’ behaviour or send threatening letters to the writers and creators demanding a change to aired storylines.
Stephen King is perhaps the most famous author who is, to a certain extent, a victim of his own success. He regularly fields the same question in interviews where comparisons are drawn between his own personality and the depravity of his fictional characters and storylines, the assumption being that if he can write disturbing tales, he must have a disturbed mind.
Fiction writing is no different to fiction viewing or reading. Authors and creators are able to relate the extremes of emotions thrown up during imaginary situations without ever having to leave the comfort of their homes. Watching or reading Harry Potter does not make a reader a wizard, nor does it make JK Rowling one either.
What is important is that people understand the difference between the two worlds, real and imagined. If critics and fans start to blend the two, censorship will ruin the future of storytelling for everyone. It may not take the form of compulsory suppression, but vocal groups are already influencing the content of books by posting damning reviews on sales pages, criticising scenes and plots that individuals find distasteful, rather than avoiding novels that they know aren’t their cup of tea. Authors are beginning to add disclaimers and trigger warnings to their work so as not to offend those noisy dissenters who would be unlikely to buy and read those stories anyway.
Yes, we must protect the young and vulnerable, but at what point do we throw the responsibility back to the individual to decide if they wish to read a dark storyline or choose something uplifting instead? What we don’t want, is for all fiction to be neutered on the off chance that a few people might not like the content. If that should happen, stories would be so far removed from reality that none of us could relate to the characters at all. We must preserve our light and shade without censorship. Without it, more people might start testing out their darker sides in the real world instead.