Why Bad is so much Better when it comes to fiction

So, two of my all-time favourite fictional characters aren’t actually in books, but on screen. And they were both created by Joss Whedon. I’m talking Spike, aka William the Bloody (Awful Poet), and Wesley Wyndham-Price.

On the surface you might not think they have anything in common. Spike burst into Sunnydale as an unrepentant villain, while Wesley minced his way in as the replacement Watcher for Giles, emphatically a white hat. But as the series, and their characters, evolved, as they transitioned from the world of Buffy to the world of Angel, both characters became more and more nuanced, less and less one-note. More complicated. More ambiguous. And as the lines blurred, so did their allure increase. Spike started doing good, but not always for the right reasons.  Or for pure, unselfish reasons. And Wesley shed his goody two-shoes persona to reveal a man far darker and more damaged than any of us had ever suspected.

But what they also had in common was, at the heart, enough self-knowledge to know they wanted better, they could do better, they needed better. And that struggle became integral to their journey through Whedon’s fictional worlds.

A few months ago, for various reasons, I started watching The Vampire Diaries. And it wasn’t too long before I found myself actively engaged in Damon’s story. Yes, Damon, the bad boy older brother who’d promised to wreak revenge on his younger brother for forcing him into vampirehood, and who delighted in causing misery and mayhem. The other brother? Stefan? The handsome central love interest, hero to the heroine, steadfast and loyal and honourable and good?

Yeah. Meh.

Damon is twisted, he’s complicated, he’s damaged and he’s dangerous. Which means, for me, he is infinitely more intriguing. He fascinates because of his flaws and scars, not despite them. It’s his moral ambiguity that immediately sparks my interest. Every day, he struggles. And in the struggle lies the story.

When it comes to fiction, the morally ambiguous anti-hero  – at least for me – is vastly superior to the straight arrow good guy or gal.

The question is, of course, why? Surely we should be most attracted to the stalwart and shiny, morally unambiguous, never tarnished  hero?  And maybe we are, in real life. Or tell ourselves we are, anyway. But just ask any actor: the shadowy,  morally conflicted,  intricately complicated characters are the most fun  to play. Ask the audience: they’re almost always the most fun to watch, and to read about. And since writers are really just another kind of actor, you can bet your grubby white hat that, a lot of the time,  we too are drawn to the less-than-perfect characters of our stories.

One of the trueisms of writing fiction is: Drama equals Conflict.

In other words, conflict provides the grist for the story mill, it energises the narrative, providing light and shade. In a nutshell? Relentessly, never-conflicted good guys are boring. They’re dull. They have no psychological depth. They have no nooks and crannies, no unexpected twists and turns. They’re like a blank sheet of white paper. Nothing to see here, move along.

But the characters with a past? A past that contains dark secrets, regrets, mistakes? The characters who do the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons,  who wrestle with temptation and give in, or  escape but not unscathed, or who throw themselves with abandon into the abyss because they just can’t see another way or they’re so despairing that they no longer care? Even the unrepentant villains, who do wrong because it thrills them, because they have no moral compass, because embracing  darkness is the fastest path to their goal?

They are, to me, the most human of characters. The most like you and me. And that is why they fascinate us so much.

As humans, we’re flawed. We’re scarred. We’re haunted, by things done we regret, by things undone we ache to do, but can’t because the moment has passed us by. And fiction is a mirror. It holds up the world to us, and asks us to find the familiar and understand it. Who among us can truly understand the man or woman who is never tempted? Who has never strayed, never fallen, never done the unthinkable then been forced to live with the consequences? I don’t think we can. We might often wish we could be better, more like them, but the unrelenting heroes don’t offer us camaraderie or familiarity or a sense that the struggle is worth it.

Why is Christopher Nolan’s Batman a more successful revisited character than Superman? I think it’s because Superman is too good.  Whereas Nolan’s Batman is flawed, he struggles, he fights. And that, for me, makes him a million times more interesting.

Pain is humanity’s common denominator.  The pain of living transcends race, gender and creed.  If we have nothing else in common, we can share the scars life has left us with. And so, in turning to fiction, in the books and the tv shows and the films that hold up that demanding mirror,  we seek out the characters who remind us of our imperfect humanity. Who sometimes allow us to vicariously indulge the very worst of our impulses. And who offer us  the hope that  at the end of the day, there is an answer. There is redemption. That even the most scarred among us can find healing and peace.

I think that’s one of fiction’s most powerful gifts. I think that’s why stories will never die. And I think that’s why I really, really love Spike, Wesley and Damon.