It is as surprising as it is real: negative characters like Dexter Morgan, from the eponymous Dexter, and Walter White, from Breaking Bad, have been cropping up in popular culture more and more often lately. Since when, how, and why have anti-heroes gained so much popularity?

What would it be like if you found out that you were suffering from an incurable disease? After a lucid analysis, you would probably conclude that what you had done so far is unimportant, and what you’ll do from now on will matter the most. Thinking this way, having nothing to lose, the frustrations you’ve been piling up for a lifetime might push you towards extreme solutions. You’ll die anyway; the least you could do is leave some money behind to bolster your family’s future, since you’ll no longer be there for them.

This is Walter White’s story, the main character in the Breaking Bad series who is a chemistry professor at a high school. The moment he finds out he has lung cancer, out of a desire to help his sick son and pregnant wife, he decides to begin a criminal life, setting up a lab to produce methamphetamine, a psychostimulant drug. Some critics have claimed that Breaking Bad is one of the best series ever made.

Pushed into the moral maze

The characters featured in film or television productions nowadays suffer from a lack of morality, says Maureen Ryan, TV critic at the Huffington Post.

The fluidity of the boundaries between good and evil, the creation of convincing stories that, in the end, come to justify the characters’ disloyal actions are not at all a coincidence, Ryan says. Neither is the existence of various movie channels that offer producers the freedom to create different types of content and push the moral boundaries of their productions to such an extent that they even distort the accepted norms. Overthrowing the classical (and rightful) vision regarding positive characters, and turning a negative character into the leading one, are intentional endeavours.

As the pseudo heroes in movies/TV series promote the idea that today we can no longer stay clean, the following thinking pattern is inculcated: “It’s just a matter of how dirty we’re willing to get in our pursuit of what we want.” No matter how surprising it may seem, the reality is that we are “helped” to reach these conclusions. In other words, they are induced. One appeals to (carefully studied) psychological mechanisms that make us love negative characters despite the elements signalled both at a logical and a moral level.

1. The fundamental attribution error

The more data we have about a person, the more their actions will be regarded as excusable.

It is a known fact that if a series is watched for a long period of time, the audience becomes more permissive and thus excuses behaviours that would initially have been regarded as reproachable. This can be explained by the fact that our perceptions of another’s attributes are influenced by the volume of information we have on that particular character. The key is identification with the character, and empathizing with them. Walter White’s drama could become anyone’s drama, and the audience is helped to realize that. Thus, the person behind the screen, temporarily abandons (during the show/movie) the social roles they have and adopts the perspective of the character they fell compelled to identify with, according to professor Jonathan Cohen from the University of Haifa.

2. Stage direction

The internalization of the way a character thinks has a lot to do with the manner in which scenes, and the characters in the movie, are captured on film. Using certain angles and the first person in monologues helps those watching the screens penetrate the mind of the character created by the writers.

The different filming techniques also influence the endorsement of a certain point of view towards the audience. For instance, foregrounds are used to distract our attention from the characters we must not identify with[1]. Thus, the director can lead us to identify with any character, even a negative one. What follows is natural: the more we identify with a character, the more permissive we will find their actions, and, moreover, we’ll attribute the explanation for what happened to external factors (“He was forced to act that way; he had no other choice”).

3. The passing of time may make actions excusable

Having time at our disposal to connect the dots that are being offered to us gives us the possibility of finding explanations regarding the factors that lead to the adoption of certain behaviours.

The passing of a certain amount of time since the occurrence of an event contributes to a change in people’s opinion, according to Didier Truchot and his fellow researchers. This relationship could also account for people’s preference for negative characters. Even if, initially, we do not agree with the behaviour of negative characters in a movie, this perception can disappear in time, because we have the possibility to reflect on the situational factors that could have led to their unacceptable behaviour.

This reflection time is an important piece of the puzzle, given the three stages that unfold before making an attribution: identifying the other person’s behaviour, personal attribution, and modifying the initial attribution.

4. Long time exposure to a stimulus

Another aspect contributing to the attraction negative characters exert on people is the exposure to a stimulus for a long period of time. The longer the period, the more we come to like the stimulus we are exposed to. Therefore, the more often a negative character is seen and presented in a favourable context, the more the audience will perceive him in a favourable light.

5. What is beautiful is also good

Repeated use of physically attractive characters, of appreciated stars, who are loved by the audience, in negative roles, leads to an association of what is beautiful with what is good. Beautiful people score high on intelligence, social desirability, success, happiness, and persuasion scales, compared to less attractive people. Moreover, physical attractiveness (together with physical strength and humour) is one of the best predictors when it comes to characters we love, according to researchers Cynthia Hoffner and Joanne Cantor.

Physical attractiveness has the strongest correlation with social competence, adaptation competence, and intellectual competence, and a lower correlation with integrity or concern for others, as some of us may have expected. An appealing physical aspect makes the audience regard negative characters as intelligent, socially skilled, and, at the same time, strong, without any implications when it comes to their expectations of good behaviour.

6. The formation of schemes in relation to the information one has

Following repeated experiences with various people and events, we start to organize the information we have into categories of facts that in psychology are called schemes. Once a scheme is formed, this can have a significant impact on future expectations and perceptions.

This scheme formation explains the preference we may manifest towards negative characters. In most movies, the main character is a good person, and the end of the movie presents the triumph of good over evil.

Repeated exposure to this kind of story determines the formation of a certain scheme: the main character will win in the end.

The formation of this scheme will influence future experiences through the expectations induced by this kind of scheme. Still, in some movies, the main character is not necessarily a good person, from a moral perspective, but they are enticing. The explanation? Since we’ve identified the main character and we’ve been taught that they will win in the end, we will be attracted to them even if they are a negative character.

The same happens in the case of the scheme, “What is beautiful is also good”. This is why some people tend to prefer negative characters as long as they are good-looking.

Dexter Morgan: an example of a negative character the audience loves

The (psychological) tricks used to turn Dexter Morgan into a successful negative character exploit the following aspects:

1. The normality factor

Dexter Morgan is not presented as a monster, as a murderer that’s hiding dead bodies in his own house after he killed them, but like a plausible neighbour who has a hidden secret. Moreover, he is a loving husband, a caring brother, and a devoted friend.

2. We find excuses for addictive behaviours

When facing his personal demons, Dexter becomes a character that must fight with his addictions. This makes him human and enables anyone watching to identify with him. He is elevated to the rank of victim: “Poor soul, he could not help himself.”

3. Traumatizing childhood

The murders cannot be officially justified. However, the moment when the audience finds out that Dexter witnessed his own mother’s murder, yet he still did not become antisocial, the following explanation is invoked: “It’s normal to have slightly distorted behaviour given his traumatizing childhood.”

4. Reformulation

Dexter kills bad people who have not been punished by the system. He is some sort of vigilante and people excuse this behaviour because they believe Dexter “makes the world a better place.”

5. All the other people like him

Dexter develops good relationships with all the other characters, who rely on him. Those who do not like Dexter come to be disliked by the audience. Paradoxically, these people will come to be viewed as the real negative characters.

7. Selective analysis

Most of the time the audience is manipulated through the creation of certain contexts where the accent falls on the emphasis of one single aspect of the presented problem. In other words, if one wishes the audience to feel for a negative character, then they will focus on the challenging aspects of his life that have pushed the character into his current situation.

8. Appeal to emotions

The producer is aware of the fact that the more moving and convincing the stories behind immoral characters are, and the more easily justifiable the characters’ actions are, the easier it is for the viewer to overlook evident trespasses of moral boundaries. The appeal to emotions (which is anything but unintentional) of a film/series producer leads to an emotional response that fuels the audience’s state of upheaval. In the long run, this state will generate the reversal of classical visions and norms established in the past.

We can be influenced insofar as we allow ourselves to be influenced

When it comes to manipulation, it almost never matters what you say, but rather, how you say it, according to Noam Chomsky, emeritus linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is why we need to analyse the decisions we make more carefully. To what extent are we influenced by physical aspects when we analyse and try to establish what kind of character some people have?

How much are we willing to excuse others just because life has not been good to them?

In the attempt to gain control over our own thoughts and avoid manipulation, good self-knowledge—knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, one’s reactions to situations one is confronted with—is essential. Then, there are a few golden principles. Information must never be endorsed unequivocally, but filtered according to higher principles, clearly established, and verified. Asking questions about the way in which certain things go, and trying to find potential explanations for what is happening around you can prevent the unwanted influence or manipulation from such media.

[1]„John Fiske, Television  Culture, London:  Methuen, 1987.”

„John Fiske, Television  Culture, London:  Methuen, 1987.”