Warts and halos – Why bad guys hog the limelight

Here’s a quick test. What fictional work did the character Clarice Starling appear in? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While you’re chewing on that, consider the new research published in the journal Nature that suggests infants 6-10 months old already distinguish — and prefer — helpful as opposed to unhelpful characters. New York Times writer Eric Nagourney gave this story a great lede:

Did that mean Square push that poor Circle down the hill? Yes – and Baby isn’t about to forget it, either.

In a study that suggests that people may begin evaluating one another for trustworthiness even earlier than believed, researchers showed infants a demonstration in which different shapes played the good guy or the bad guy. Then the infants were allowed to choose one to play with.

The good guy won almost every time.

It makes sense that we would be programmed at a deep level to pay attention to who’s naughty and nice – it’s a matter of survival. If creeps and bums populate the environment, then we’d better know whom to run from, and whom to run to.

This may also partly explain why we’re more interested in reading and writing about twisted, mean, bitter, degenerate, weak, vindictive, evil or otherwise deeply flawed characters than we are about the good, humane, strong and decent sorts. The good guys are pretty much unchanging and, although it’s important to have them as allies, we don’t need to keep tabs on them the same way we do the badasses.

So while the name ‘Clarice Starling’ might ring only faint bells, the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ is likely to make you sit up a little straighter. They were both characters in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but the epicurean mass murderer rightly commands our greater attention.

I guess in one sense this is a colossal case of stating the painfully obvious; of course the character and motivations of a psychopathic cannabalistic serial killer are more interesting than those of a hard-working gumshoe, even when she’s played by Jodie Foster.

The really bad guys, thankfully – and despite what television news, detective fiction and manipulative conservative politicians would have you believe – are relatively rare. But our genes do compel us to remain hyper-vigilant to potential sources of danger, just as they have since our days in the crib.

One consequence of that fixation is a dearth of textured portrayals of good characters. Perhaps I’m misquoting Robertson Davies (or misattributing), but I think he remarked that most writers can conjure up one or two convincing bad guys, but very few can do a credible good guy.

Here’s a challenge: name as many interesting, fully developed and compelling good guys (and of course, gals) from the world of fiction that you can. Exclude two-dimensional comic book heroes, detectives, superheroes, obvious tropes, stock characters, Harry Potter, George Bailey, Ned Flanders, Forrest Gump, formulaic Heroic journeyers, and anything ressembling a Hobbit. Try it off the top of your head before you go browsing your bookshelves. Perhaps someone like an Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or a Wilbur Larch from The Cider House Rules would fit the bill.

I’m betting you’ll struggle as much as I did.


1 Response to “Warts and halos – Why bad guys hog the limelight”

  1. 1 Marsha January 6, 2008 at 2:37 am

    I thought of Forrest Gump and Atticus Finch immediately, but they’re already on your list.
    The bad guys do seem to be more memorable. In comfortable fiction (rather than life) they can ‘safely’ scare or repel you. I tend to gravitate to fiction which highlights flawed characters. For example, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘March’, by Geraldine Brooks. We may sympathise with such characters, or feel superior to them.
    In fantasies, we side with the heroes and remember them because we want them to succeed in their quest, e.g., Frodo.

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