When enjoying a work of fiction, people seem to be more willing to accept morally reprehensible acts and support evil characters even though they would not do so for a real-life counterpart. This is evident in works of fiction where often, villains and other malicious characters come across as likable. This indicates that our ethical engagement with fictional characters actually differs from our ethical engagement with real people. Why is this so? (psst, spoilers ahead!)
When we consume fiction, we are sort of invited to look into what has happened in a story, making us bystanders of the created world. It thus becomes easier to understand the motives of these characters, take on their viewpoints, or simply be entertained by them. This is strengthened the more time we spend with these characters and see how their actions arise from the events of the story. As we follow these characters, we are often provided access to their thoughts and feelings on the situations. We are thus able to rationalise their actions within the story, as the characters themselves do.
Take Johan Liebert from Monster, for example. One major theme of the show involves deciphering what made Johan a monster and whether this evil is intrinsic or due to his environment. Later in the show we are invited into his psyche and explore his past, understanding the events that led to his actions, allowing us to engage with his ideology and be entertained by them.
Another example would be Isabella from Yakusoku no Neverland, who is by all accounts, a terrible human being. But when we look into her past, we see a tale of survival. We see the same trauma the children went through, a story of oppression that she desperately escaped. She follows orders through her pure instinct to live, and this is something we simply can’t fault her for. Cruel as she may be, she also cares for the children in the best way she can, revealing that she genuinely wants them to live their best lives under her care. She rationalises her own cruelty in this way, telling herself that this is the most she can do for them. Her twisted ideology is as entertaining as it is terrifying.
Next, let’s talk about framing. Fictional works have the freedom to frame characters as likable with admirable qualities, forming complex characters rather than one dimensional ones, something which would not normally be accorded to say, a real life serial killer (except in the inner-most circle of hell – Tumblr).
This is evident in characters such as Light Yagami from Death Note, who is framed as being intelligent, charismatic, attractive and charming, making him extremely likable despite his manipulation and murders. Johan Liebert too has these traits. These positive qualities stand in opposition to their disturbing views, making them a thrill to watch as our feelings towards them are much more intricate than that of one note characters who have limited traits.
In stories involving magic or superpowers, these characters are usually additionally very strong and sometimes even admired by the morally upright characters within the show for their strength.
A great example of this would be Hisoka from HunterxHunter. He is shown to be a psychopath whose motive is to destroy other powerful characters, which he derives pleasure from. Hisoka is not only a goal that the main character, Gon, has to work towards, but also somewhat of a mentor to him and guides Gon through his journey to gain power for his own selfish reasons.
One of the most entertaining aspects of these characters is that they challenge social norms and push for ideas that might, in a twisted way, actually make sense. We are more open to these ideas in fiction where the world shown plays in parallel to our own, but carry no ‘real’ consequences so we are free explore how these paths turn out. They truly make us think and reflect on the ways we accept our world to be.
Alongside the obvious Light Yagami, Kyubey from Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is a great example of this, harvesting the magical girls for energy, in the same way that we humans make use of other living beings for food and other necessities. What makes us as a species special, and exempt to such treatment ourselves? Such questions appeal to our want to have answers for questions that don’t really have any, making it really difficult to argue against the logic of the character, except by pure gut feeling. This is both thought provoking and extremely engaging.
Stain from Boku no Hero Academia does a similar thing of challenging social norms in the world in which he resides, rejecting how heroes behave as being shallow and selfish. We are shown how this world is not just black and white, and how his ideology does actually make sense when we see people like Endevour being branded as a hero. Though his methods are undoubtedly wrong, his message is logical. And with the world’s current political climate, the idea that our society’s ‘heroes’ may not be all that we make them out to be is more relevant than ever before.
Morally reprehensible characters are some of the most entertaining characters in fiction, as they invite us to take on their ideologies and think critically about the world around us. They are often complex characters that challenge social norms and offer new perspectives in their fictional worlds. They surely are some of my personal favourite characters, and elevate already incredibly interesting stories by giving both the other characters and us something to think about.
This was adapted from an academic paper I wrote a while back, sorry if the tone is a bit formal, though I edited it to make it less so! None of the images are mine and are solely used for commentary purposes.