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Bad Guys: The Allure of the Dark Side

Monday, August 24, 2009

sylar-- HEROESImagine you’re sitting in a well-lit room. Sunlight is streaming in through the many, large windows on three sides, as well as the skylights overhead. There are so many lights—from the can lights overhead to the sparkling crystal chandelier, to the lamps on every table—there is nary a shadow to be found. A man you don’t know walks in, carrying a flashlight, and tells you not to fear, he’s here to lead you out of this terrible situation. What is your reaction? Skepticism? Laughter?

Now imagine you’re in a different room. This one has no windows. You do not know if it is day or night outside. If there are any windows or doors, they are sealed so tightly that not an iota of light penetrates the room. You have been locked in this darkness long enough that you’ve lost track of time, lost your sense of direction, lost your sense of self as a corporeal being. Suddenly you hear a noise, a flashlight comes on. A soothing, deep voice tells you not to fear, he is here to lead you out of this terrible situation. You are drawn to the warm comfort of the flashlight, to the humanity represented by the silhouette beyond the flashlight’s beam, to the sense that the reappearance of light means you will be able to return to a state of normalcy—of time, of direction, of self.

This is the allure of the dark side.

“Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. . . . The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”
~Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith)

“Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.”
~Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars: A New Hope)

Sound familiar? What is it about the “dark side” that can be so alluring? Actually, what is it about human nature that makes the dark side so alluring?

“Bad”/dark characters are alluring because they give us a glimpse into the taboo or the forbidden. I’ve already illustrated this with my explanation for why Sir Drake (Ransome’s Honor) has been my favorite character to write so far in my career: because I could do pretty much anything I wanted to with his character. He could gamble, smoke, get drunk, carry on an affair with a married woman, bribe public officials, and scheme against Julia, all without having to feel guilt over any of it.

PC JadisWe all get annoyed when rush-hour traffic slows to a crawl because everyone has to try to get a glimpse at the carnage at the accident that happened. Tabloids and celebrity “news” magazines make millions upon billions of dollars every year by pasting all the sordid rumors and details of divorces, breakups, affairs, and other nefarious activities by public figures on their pages. Even though it may disgust us (remember the media spectacle surrounding the death of Princess Diana—or Michael Jackson or Prince?), we’re secretly drawn to it. We all have our vices, whether it’s celebrity gossip, true crime novels/shows, “reality” shows like the “Real Housewives” series on Bravo, soap operas, shows featuring vampires and werewolves and ghosts, etc. Whether it’s something you’d consider “bad” or just entertaining, analyze it next time you watch one of those shows or read an article about the latest Hollywood It-Couple’s divorce. What’s the draw? What is it about that story that is alluring to you? Then channel that into a way to seduce your character away from his or her goal.

gisborne_403x470There is a difference between “bad” and “evil,” and that difference is motivation. For a character to be a “bad guy,” he simply needs to stand in opposition to the achievement of the hero’s goal. This kind of a bad-guy character can actually be acting out of good intentions (in his own mind/worldview). These can be two people on opposite sides of a social or political issue; each is acting on his deeply held beliefs, each believes the other is wrong, therefore “bad.” Yet in their own ways, both are “good”/right. But it’s when motivations and intentions change—for example, when the person on one side of an issue starts to kill those who don’t agree with his belief—that evil enters the picture.

As an author, it’s my job to present my main character’s worldview in such a way to make you determine he is the good guy and the other one is the bad guy. This is how authors/screenwriters can get away with creating dark heroes/heroines: They get us so wrapped up in the character’s viewpoint, in what drives the character to make the decisions he makes, that we willingly go along for the ride and rubberneck and gawk at the “accidents” that happen along the way. Not everyone enjoys these types of stories—me, for one. When the show 24 first premiered, I was an avid watcher every week. So I was excited when the second season started. But then in one of the first episodes, Jack Bauer killed a confidential informant in an interrogation room to take his head to the “bigger fish” they were trying to catch. While the show tried to explain that this was for the “greater good,” I stopped watching. I don’t want my protagonists to be morally ambiguous, especially someone who is in a position in which he has sworn to uphold a certain set of moral and ethical codes (like the LAW). This happened to me with Heroes as well when, in the third season, all of the heroic characters I’d come to love started doing really stupid/bad things that were genuinely out of character with how they’d been developed so far on the show.

the one ringBut there is definitely something to be learned/taught by showing the allure the darker side of life can have on people—in that it makes characters much more realistic. In the behind-the-scenes commentary/interviews with Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens, they explained that the reason they vastly diverged from the books with Faramir’s character in the movie—that he was tempted by the ring—is that for the viewers to (a) believe that the ring was as powerful as it was supposed to be and (b) believe in Faramir as a character, he had to be tempted by its supernatural allure.

There’s a reason why so many bad-guy characters in movies are portrayed by good-looking actors and actresses—because it’s a physical representation of the allure of the dark side. Even Satan is described as being one of the most beautiful creatures.

For Discussion:
Give an example of a story or character which shows the allure of the dark side—from your own writing or a book you’ve read or movie/TV show you’ve seen.

  1. Monday, August 24, 2009 1:15 pm

    You have a picture of my favorite on this post!

    I’m not into ‘bad guys’ as a rule. I just like the characters who are completely different than me. I grew up in an upper middle class, cultured, preppy home. It’s not just the tattooed, made-some-mistakes characters who intrigue me, but those that are different (I married a manual labor, no-suit, back-packing outdoors-man).

    What I like about the dark characters is finding their redemptive quality – the best ‘bad guys’ have one weakness that can be exploited to show the good within them. On ‘Heroes’ Sylar lets Micah go, so there’s something in Sylar that still feels and can choose to do the right thing. I think that’s the fun of the ‘bad guy’.


    • Monday, August 24, 2009 10:50 pm

      Good bad guys are the ones who not only have their own Achilles’ heels, but can immediately sense what the protagonist’s weakness is and exploit it (before the bad guy’s own weakness gets exploited). Sometimes, it’s almost like a defense mechanism. Like in the movie The Patriot when Mel Gibson reads through the British general’s journals looking for some way to beat him and figures out that Pride is his weakness and ends up using that against him.


  2. Monday, August 24, 2009 4:39 pm

    You keep showing pictures of “Guy” from Robin Hood and he’s one of those that I love to hate – but not too much. 😉 While he definitely isn’t good, he certainly isn’t evil like the Sheriff is. There are times when I feel sympathetic towards him, and he definitely is alluring…but overall {sadly}, bad news. 🙂


    • Monday, August 24, 2009 10:52 pm

      I would say that Guy definitely borders on evil, because there is definitely motivation behind many of the bad things he does. They’ve done a good job of showing his softer, “redeemable” side to make us sympathize with him (that, and the fact that most of us fell in love with Richard Armitage when he was portraying a hero, with a slight dark side).


  3. Monday, August 24, 2009 7:15 pm

    How am I supposed to concentrate on a post with pictures of RA distracting me??!! Hahaha!! As for the allure of the dark side my friend and I get into a debate just about every week on exactly this subject!

    Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series (aka True Blood on HBO) features some pretty hot vampires, one named Bill a 150+ yr old vampire and Eric a 300+ year old Viking Vampire. Christy and I go back and forth on why one is sooo much hotter than the other. I like Bill so I’ll say why I think he is the best part of the “dark” side. Okay first of all he’s hot! I mean it’s hard to dislike a character that’s as good looking as he is! Second, he’s not afraid to kick some butt. Third he is bad BUT he is not evil…he has some good in him, for ex. in the first few books he rescues Sookie and others from bad situations, it’s hard not to at least feel a little bit for a guy who will take care of someone else. I think people are drawn to the dark side because we all do have a little bit of bad in us. We don’t like the guy/girl who’s perfect…well at least I don’t so that’s probably why I like Bill. Thanks for these great posts!!

    Here’s Bill!! 🙂

    Here’s Eric! 😦


    • Monday, August 24, 2009 10:54 pm

      I’ve watched the first season of True Blood and I have to give the writers props—the storytelling is strong enough that I kept watching even though I absolutely cannot stand Sookie as she’s portrayed in the show. She’s a borderline too-stupid-to-live heroine, plus the fact that she’s extremely fickle. Bill is definitely one of the main reasons why I kept watching. (And Eric was barely introduced at the end of the first season, so I haven’t had a chance to really form an opinion on him, other than that he’s good looking.)


  4. Monday, August 24, 2009 8:05 pm

    I think one of the reasons that we (ok, myself) are often attracted to bad guys is for the same reason that we’re attracted to bad boy heroes…the idea that we (the heroine) have the power to reform them. My two cents. 😉


    • Monday, August 24, 2009 10:56 pm

      With as much as I’m drawn toward “manly” men (i.e., football player–types), I’ve never been attracted to the “bad boy” segment of the population—usually because to me, all I can see when I look at that kind of behavior is someone who’s immature and doesn’t want to grow up and take responsibility for himself, much less a family. Now, a reformed, former bad-boy . . . ? 😉


      • Monday, August 24, 2009 11:16 pm

        Bad-boys were never really my type…but I never could figure out why there was that attraction to those few…until I “figured it out.” 😉 Yes, manly-men are what draw me. But there are one or two baddies that stole me little heart…


  5. Monday, August 24, 2009 8:16 pm

    Oh!!! Spike from the tv show Angel 😀 Definitely a villain I was totally drawn to 😀

    That’s my example.

    Oh! And Ms. Parker from The Pretender! Loved her too.


  6. Monday, August 24, 2009 10:58 pm

    One of my favorite somewhat seductive bad guys is Col. Tavington in The Patriot. Of course, that “seductive” thing may be simply because I really like Jason Isaacs (because I find his portrayal of Mr. Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies to be somewhat alluring, as well).


    • Monday, August 24, 2009 11:11 pm

      Haha! I hate JI in The Patriot! But you’re right, it’s a love-to-hate…he’s so despicable.


  7. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 11:34 am

    This is a great article, Kaye! You have really opened my eyes about villians with this series.

    Mr. Wickham, especially portrayed by Rupert Friend, in Pride and Prejudice falls into this irresistable villian category. Interesting that Kiera Knightly and Rupert Friend are a couple, I guess, “Jane” couldn’t resist him after all. There’s also Alec d’Urberville, portrayed by Hans Matheson in the Masterpiece Theater version of Tess of the d’Urberville’s/.

    In Ruth Axtell Morren’s Dawn of My Heart antagonist Major Gerrit Hawkes was irresistable to the protagonist. He was later redeemed in The Rogue’s Redemption. Both novels are among my favorites. Goes to show, there can be such a fine line between bad boy heros and alluring villians.

    In one of my stories, the villainess (whom I’ve spoken of before), is obsessed with the hero to the point of being dangerous, is actually the secret object of his younger brother’s desire. In his story he reluctantly gets involved with her (despite the harm he caused his family) and has hopes to reform her and love her to goodness.

    In another story, the scarred hero is hiding/protecting the heroine from the handsome villian only to have the villian try to convince her that it was the hero all along who had manipulated and imprisioned her. She will become very confused and she’ll have to decide who she trusts.


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