In the TV series Dexter, the main character – a forensics specialist by day and a serial killer by night – hunts down murderers who have slipped through the cracks of the justice system. The show aired for almost a decade garnering millions of fans who were fascinated by dark comedy plots, the carnage and ambiguous morals. How can some people actually like a serial killer? What about a meth dealer like Walter White from Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano, the gangster from HBO’s The Sopranos? According to research made by Mina Tsay-Vogel and colleagues at Boston University’s College of Communication (COM) what makes us like these anti-heroes is directly related to how we feel about ourselves.
Walter White, a chemistry teacher goes breaking bad after he’s diagnosed with cancer. Image: CNBC
Tsay-Vogel made several studies which investigated character motivation, plot outcome and the engagement between audiences and characters from popular TV shows. For instance, a study published in 2013 tested how character motivation influences how we feel about the character. Participants were split into two groups and asked to read different versions of a story in which the main character commits something that seems negative (dishonorable, bad, etc.). In one version, the story suggests the character’s reasons are selfish while in the other version the negative actions are motivated by altruism, a positive property.
If the negative character was motivated by altruistic reasons, we’re more inclined to see that character in a positive light after all. For instance, Walter White turned to cooking and selling crystal meth, but he did it because he was diagnosed with cancer and wanted to leave some cash to his family after he passed. That makes W.W. an empathetic character — sometimes, at least in our heads, we’d be willing to do anything for our families.