Tag Archives: Anti-Heroes

Why Do We Root For Characters Like Bojack Horseman?

Why do we root for people who do awful things?

Why do we root for the crazed killer in a slasher movie?

Why do we celebrate anti-heroes over traditional, upstanding heroes?

Why do we want people who do irredeemable things to be redeemed?

These are questions are similar in that they have a common theme, but they apply to a wide variety of situations. It feels like those questions have become more relevant in recent years as the standards for quality TV, movies, and characters has risen, which I’ve called the Walter White effect. While it can make for compelling stories, the questions themselves have distressing implications.

I’ve found myself contemplating those questions more seriously after the final season of “Bojack Horseman.” While I love this show and have praised its themes in the past, the final season really pushed the envelope on how far a show could go in telling stories about broken characters.

There’s no getting around it. From the first episode to the series finale, it’s abundantly clear that Bojack Horseman is not a respectable person. He’s a self-centered, narcissistic, alcohol, ego-centric asshole who has hurt people, exploited people, and taken full advantage of his celebrity status. If we knew someone like this in real life, we would never root for them. We’d probably root against them.

However, as I watched this show over the years, I still found myself rooting for Bojack. In following his story, learning about who he is, where he comes from, and how he deals with his problems, I genuinely hoped that he would find some semblance of peace in the end. Even as his sordid deeds started to come to light in the final season, a part of me didn’t want to see him fall, especially when he’d made so many strides.

Bojack isn’t the only character with this issue. There are countless other characters in popular culture, such as Don Draper and Wolverine, who do many awful things throughout their story. I’m a fan of those characters, especially Wolverine. At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that he’s done terrible things that are on par with Bojack’s crimes.

At the same time, I root for Wolverine. I also find it easier to root for him over Bojack because while Wolverine is largely a product of what others have done to him, Bojack is a product of his own awful decisions.

Bojack has no special powers or excuses, outside being a celebrity. He has his share of issues and circumstances, from verbally abusive parents to substance abuse to legitimate mental illness. However, throughout the show, he’s still the one who makes the choices that ultimately hurt him and his loved ones. Moreover, he spends a great deal of time avoiding the consequences or downplaying them.

This is why I think the final season of Bojack Horseman” was so impactful. While I did often root for Bojack throughout the show, the final season made it a point to remind everyone of the terrible things he’s done. The show is brilliant in how it has everything collapse around Bojack, but not because of circumstance. Once again, his own terrible choices and endless excuses are what do him in.

Seeing him face real, actual consequences for his decisions helped give the show a sense of balance when it ended. Bojack didn’t have a happy ending. Very few characters did. At the same time, he wasn’t killed or endlessly punished. It just left him in an uncertain state where he faced consequences for his past choices. Now, he has to make new choices moving forward.

It’s not satisfying for anyone who’d been rooting for Bojack. At the same time, it’s cathartic for that part of us who wanted him to face consequences for the awful things he’d done. Even so, the fact we rooted for him in the first place is oddly jarring and I think it speaks to a part of our nature that’s difficult to understand.

On some level, I feel like people want to see horrible people redeem themselves. Redemption stories are powerful in both the world of fiction and the real world. I think it’s in our nature to want to see good in everyone, even when they’ve done awful things. The power and desire to forgive is real.

However, does that mean we should let horrible deeds go unpunished? It’s one thing to forgive someone for a lie, but what about someone who abandons his best friend when he gets fired? What about someone who nearly chokes a woman to death in a drug-fueled rage? What about someone who takes advantage of a woman with amnesia?

Those deeds are all things that Bojack did over the course of Bojack Horseman.” There are many others, some of which he never faced consequences for. Even though he’s an extreme example, even by fictional character standards, we still root for him. We still want him to find redemption. I think that says more about us than it does about him.

Awful people will do awful things, but when we see them trying to make things better, it’s hard not to cheer them on. I believe its in our nature to want to see others be the best they can be. The challenge is balancing that inclination to root for them and the need to punish shitty behavior.

Bojack’s story is over, but there are plenty of other characters like him that we root for. It’s not wrong to root for them, but it’s important to maintain a proper perspective. Redemption can be a powerful story. However, can there be any redemption without consequences?

I don’t know the answer. If you have some insights, please share them in the comments.

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Filed under Bojack Horseman, human nature, media issues, psychology, television

The Ambiguity Of Anti-Heroes And How To Make Sense Of Them (According To Overly Sarcastic Productions)

Certain concepts easy to discuss, but poorly defined. You could get 100 people in a room, get them talking about art for hours on end, and at no point will anyone have a clear definition of what constitutes art. For some, it’s a beautiful painting by a long-dead artist. For others, it’s a banana taped to the wall.

The conflict occurs when discussing anti-heroes. I know because I’ve discussed them before. I’m guilty of throwing that label around and attaching it to certain characters. However, despite having a definition, the concept is still poorly defined. It’s so poor, in fact, that you can argue that almost any character with the “hero” is also an anti-hero to some extent.

Like art, it’s one of those things we think we know when we see. Given the sheer volume of superhero comics I’ve read over the years, I like to think I can point out and define an anti-hero better than most. Even with that experience, I doubt my standards are flawless. In fact, I’m fairly certain most peoples’ standards are ridiculously flawed.

I say this because I recently came across a new video by Overly Sarcastic Productions, a wonderful YouTube channel that I would highly recommend for all aspiring writers. Whether you’re writing adventure, sci-fi, or erotica romance, this channel offers invaluable advice and lessons.

My favorite part of the channel is its ongoing series, Trope Talk. It covers a wide range of writing topics, from paragons and pure evil villains to romantic sub-plots and reformed villains. Recently, it tackled the concept of anti-heroes in a comprehensive, colorful way. What made it even more compelling, in my opinion, are the characters it singled out to make the most important points.

There’s a lot I could say about it. Rather than spoil it, I strongly encourage everyone to watch the video. If you think it’s wrong on some areas or missed something, then please make your case in the comments. As both a comic fan and an aspiring writer, I’m always happy to discuss such topics.

If nothing else, I hope that video convinced you to go watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Seriously, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan and utterly despised the sequel trilogy, go check it out. It may not have Baby Yoda, but it has plenty to offer, both for anti-heroes and so many other wonderful things.

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Filed under media issues, superhero comics, superhero movies, video games, Villains Journey

Villains vs. Anti-Heroes: There IS A Difference

Go to any message boards for comic books, movies, TV shows, or Twilight fan fiction and you’ll hear any number of twisted interpretations of certain characters. Everybody has their own opinions, but let’s face it. Some go out of their way to melt their own brain in an effort to interpret a character in a particular way.

Talk to certain Harry Potter fans and you’ll find takes on Voldermort that are creepier than all the clown makeup and anime porn in the world. As a noted comic book fan, I’ve certainly had my share of twisted interpretations, as well as heated debates on message boards. I understand that these debates are about as productive as spitting into the ocean in hopes of causing a flood, but it also reveals how broad our interpretations can be.

I bring this up because in my many discussions about evil, villains, and recent trends in villains, I knew there was going to be one major complication to this discussion that was sure to piss off certain fans of certain characters. Given how much time and effort some people put into dressing up as certain characters, that’s not an anger to take lightly.

For many of my discussions about Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” I referred to him as a villain. I even fit his narrative into the context of the “Villain’s Journey.” When I watch Breaking Bad and assess the story, I believe Walter White to be a villain.

I did this knowing that there’s a sizable chunk of Breaking Bad fans that refuse to label him as such. To these fans, and they’re not entirely misguided in their assessment, they see Walt as an anti-hero. They see what he did and why he did it as not being fit for a true villain. Never mind the problem with calling any villain “true” in the era of “alternative facts,” it’s not an unreasonable position.

Walter White is not Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. He’s not Wolverine or Dirty Harry either. There are any number of debates fans can have, and there have been many, on this issue. I don’t want to have them all. My blog, if not the entire internet, simply isn’t big enough for that debate.

However, if I’m going to talk about villains like Walter White, Magneto, and Dr. Doom, I need to address the influence of anti-heroes. I hope to do another more in depth exploration of anti-heroes in a future post, but for now, I’ll keep it in the context of how they relate to villains.

First off, I think I need to make clear that villains and anti-heroes are not the same. Granted, they can be easy to confuse, but they are very different in terms of narrative, motivation, and personality. It’s possible for an anti-hero to be a complete asshat and still be heroic, as Wolverine regularly proves. It’s also possible for a villain to be endearing, as Freddy Krueger movies regularly prove.

So what’s the difference? What sets an anti-hero apart from a villain? Well, it doesn’t help that the definition of an anti-hero is somewhat vague. Even Wikipedia struggles to answer it. The simplest definition it offers is this:

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality.

It’s not overly ambiguous, but it’s lacking in that it uses what a character lacks to define them. Unless you’re diagnosing personality disorders, that’s just not sufficient. Anti-heroes are as old as Ancient Greece, Don Quixote, and a time when Clint Eastwood actually had a successful acting career. By any measure, this concept does have roots.

Being a comic book fan, there are plenty of anti-heroes occupying my list of favorite characters. Wolverine is probably the most notable, but there are many others like the Punisher, the Hulk, Deadpool, and John Constantine. Some of these characters, like Deadpool, go out of their way to make clear that they’re not a hero. However, they do have some distinct qualities that set them apart from villains.

Anti-Heroes, especially those in superhero comics, still battle injustice in a larger world, just like traditional heroes. They fight criminals. They protect the innocent. They’ll even save the world from an invading alien army. The main difference is they’re just more willing to be assholes about it.

While most sane people have an innate aversion to assholes, we are willing to overlook a certain amount of assholery if it serves the greater good. Aristotle might have been a racist, anti-woman, douche-bag by most standards, but his contribution to western civilization was pretty damn important for our progress as a species.

There is a limit to just how much douche-baggery we’ll tolerate for an anti-hero, but core sentiment of the character remains. They still want to help others. They still want to save the day. They still, and this is critical, will do the right thing even if it doesn’t serve their best interests.

It’s that last quality that helps unblur the lines between villain and anti-hero. When faced with a chance to do the right thing or do something that’s self-serving, an anti-hero will most often do the right thing. They may be a total dick about it. They may even kill, destroy, or cuss like a hung over Quentin Tarantino. They’ll still do the right thing.

A villain will, at the end of the day, mostly favor the decisions that serve their interests. At the moment in the comics, Lex Luthor is a member of the Justice League and Dr. Doom is the new Iron Man. It’s a long story as to how this happened, and some of those stories are pretty damn awesome, but the sentiment of the characters is still the same.

Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom are being heroes because it still serves their interests. It’s not about doing the right thing for them. They may claim they want to redeem themselves, but that’s really not that altruistic when you think about it. They want to be perceived as heroes. They want to have that kind of adulation. On some levels, it’s inherently selfish.

Compare that to Wolverine or Deadpool. They couldn’t give two whiffs of a wet fart about how they’re perceived. They still do things their own way and their decisions aren’t always self-serving.

By this standard, Walter White is far more in line with a villain. He let Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, die rather than save her when he had the chance. He poisoned a little kid as part of an elaborate plan to take down a rival. There are all self-serving decisions. These are, by most measures, morally abhorrent. That’s what makes him a villain and that’s what sets villains apart from anti-heroes.

I understand there are still arguments to be made about Walter White’s status as a villain and an anti-hero. I’ll save those arguments for another post. In the end, it’s still somewhat easy to confuse villains and anti-heroes. However, when you break down their character and what motivates them, the line isn’t as blurred as we think.

There’s a place for villains. There’s a place for anti-heroes. I imagine there will be plenty of debates about which is which and who is who, but it’s these very conflicts that help bring out the best and, necessarily, the worst in these characters.

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Villains, Antagonists, And The Walter White Effect

He’s the bad guy. He’s the obstacle. He’s the one that the hero must outwit. To put it more succinctly, he’s the one who knocks. Call him what you want. Say he’s a villain, an anti-hero, and an antagonist. We know who these characters are and we understand their role.

Then, Walter White came along and ran the concept over with his car. Villains, heroes, and antagonists have not been the same since.

Some may argue it has improved the way in which we tell stories. Some may argue that it has been a detriment, creating a race of sorts to abandon old ideals and make every character feel all too human. For fictional characters not bound by the crushing limits of the real world, this can be a race that no one should want to win. However, I believe the rise of Walter White and “Breaking Bad” has raised the bar for characters of all types.

I call it the “Walter White Effect.” I know that’s not very original, but it sheds light on a concept that has been permeating pop culture since “Breaking Bad” became a phenomenon. We’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games. What else explains Dr. Doom becoming the new Iron Man?

It’s just not enough for villains to be villainous anymore. It’s not enough for anti-heroes to have an edge anymore. Walter White has changed the way we think about protagonists, antagonists, heroes, anti-heroes, and everything in between. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve already felt the effects of those changes and I even welcome them.

This is an issue that spins right out of my recent discussions on the nature of evil in humans. In discussing such a morbid topic, I tried to keep things basic while also trying not to make too many people want to spit in their own gene pool. For this discussion, however, I want to focus on just one of those trees in the vast forest of human evil.

In doing so, I know I’ll rile up those who don’t believe that Walter White deserves to be classified as “evil.” I understand that argument. To call Walter White “evil” the same way we call IRS agents evil is to cast too wide a net on a remarkably complex character. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on the traits that highlight the “evil” qualities of Walter White and characters like him.

Those who have binge-watched “Breaking Bad” know Walt’s story well. He started off as this affable, sympathetic man who endured one too many bad breaks, if that’s not too fitting a term. He had a family who loved him, a baby on the way, and friends who supported him. On the surface, he had every reason to be a good person.

Then, the bad breaks added up. He was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and given only a couple years left to live. Being a grossly overqualified high school chemistry teacher, he was destined to leave his wife, son, and newborn baby with nothing. Something had to give. It led him down a dark path, one that eventually brought out the worst in him.

It’s a story that puts a major twist on the familiar “Hero’s Journey” that we know so well. In some respects, Walt started out as a hero, doing bad things for good reasons. He did what he did to provide for his family, not to snort crank off a strippers ass. However, that journey morphed into something very different, one that has set a new standard for heroes and villains alike.

Bit by bit, sin by sin, and excuse by excuse, Walter White descended into this evil mindset. He killed former partners. He also lied to others. He even abandoned his initial reason for becoming a criminal. It was no longer enough to just provide for his family. He was in the “empire business” as he put it.

These are not the thoughts, actions, and traits of a hero. This is no longer a character who deserves such sympathy. Walter White became a true villain. In the end, he basically admitted as such. He said outright, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” It effectively completed his journey into being a villain.

In doing so, Walter White proved something that nobody thought to prove. He showed through “Breaking Bad” that a villain’s journey could be every bit as compelling as a hero’s journey. It’s not enough for a villain to just be an egocentric, mustache-twirling asshat who wants to take over the world. Villains need just as much depth as heroes.

This presents a new challenge for everyone from movie producers to aspiring erotica/romance writers. It’s hard enough writing a compelling protagonist. The success of Walter White as both a villain and a protagonist effectively raises the bar.

Villains are now the new heroes. Anti-heroes generate more interest. What else explains the success of characters like Deadpool? It’s not enough for Superman, Batman, and Captain America to save the day anymore. We need villains who have better reasons for being who they are.

This effect has already skewed the standards somewhat and not just in the sense that it helped make Deadpool one of the most profitable movies of 2016. Just look at the villains in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Nobody is going to mistake Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor or Daniel Brühl’s as Helmut Zemo for Walter White anytime soon.

We can, however, forgive some of these shortcomings because the Walter White Effect is still very new. It’s still sinking in. People are just starting to try and emulate the success of Walter White and not just through “Breaking Bad” spinoffs.

It happened with westerns. It happened with sci-fi movies. When someone stumbles upon a winning formula, others try to recreate it with varying degrees of success. What else explains the glut of “Die Hard” ripoffs in the 90s?

Even if this does mean we’re in for multiple Walt wannabes over the next decade, I believe the lasting impact of the Walter White Effect will be a positive one. I think it’s better for all mediums, be they movies or erotica/romance novels, when both protagonists and antagonists alike are compelling.

The challenge, however, is making that journey into evil a compelling one. Walter White’s journey was long and difficult. There were times he could’ve stepped off that path, but didn’t. In the end, as others have pointed out, Walt always had this evil tendency within him. He just needed the right push in the wrong direction.

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