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As you can tell from my recent questions, I've been asking a lot about works of fiction and how Objectivism and Romanticism can influence them. However, some stories are not influenced by Objectivism or Romanticism and can harbor a totally different philosophy. I've been anticipating the new season of House of Cards since I watched the first two seasons last summer, and I realized that despite the fact that Kevin Spacey plays a pretty evil politician, he's delightfully fun to watch and even makes me laugh at times. I should really ask why anti-heroes and sociopaths are very appealing in some works of fiction. For instance, Howard Payne, portrayed by Dennis Hopper from the 1994 film Speed is perhaps my own personal favorite villain in a film. He was hilarious. His actions in the film involve bombing innocent people because his pension wasn't large enough. After becoming familiar with Ayn Rand, I find it even more humorous because he was motivated by entitlement. I have my share of favorite heroes in fiction, but this question isn't about them. I'm curious as to what makes a villain entertaining.

Do some people--myself included--enjoy watching anti-heroes because they represent what not to admire? Does the narrative of a story featuring an anti-hero acknowledge this somehow with a moral frame? Oftentimes, a villain in a film is portrayed as comical while the main protagonist is stoic, serious, and principled.

asked Feb 17 '15 at 11:41

Collin1's gravatar image


edited Feb 18 '15 at 11:02

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

I think some clarification about what you are asking would be helpful. An anti-hero is not the same thing as a villain, but it seems like some of your question is directed more towards villains than anti-heros. For example, the character in Speed you reference is clearly a villain, not an anti-hero. Even the Kevin Spacey character you reference is not clearly an anti-hero (to my understanding), but rather seems to be a villain cast as the protagonist. This phenomenon of casting a villain as a protagonist is interesting in itself, but I think it is distinct from the idea of anti-heros.

(May 14 '15 at 11:26) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As I understand it, an anti-hero is a character "whose distinction is that he possesses no distinction -- no virtues, no values, no goals, no character, no significance -- yet who occupies, in plays and novels, the position formerly held by a hero, with the story centered on his actions, even though he does nothing and gets nowhere" (see Ideas' answer for citation). I understand this to be referring to the phenomenon of the "un-extraordinary" hero, the "everyday" hero who doesn't really have skill or competence and who doesn't really do anything important to affect the story,..

(May 14 '15 at 11:31) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

but rather who has the story happen to him. His triumphs (to the extent there are any) are the result of luck or external intervention (Deus ex machina), rather than a result of his heroic character and efforts.

On the other hand, Kevin Spacey's character as you describe him (I haven't watched the show), is extraordinary--he is smart, competent, effective. Moreover, I assume he does perform important acts to affect the story, rather than just having the story happen to him. Finally, I assume that his achievements are a result of his character and skill.

(May 14 '15 at 11:35) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thus, it seems like he fits the role of a hero, except for the important fact that he is evil. This I think is distinct from being an "anti-hero". I guess if I had to summarize the distinction I am driving toward it would be that an "anti-hero" is an incompetent and ineffectual protagonist, while a villain-as-hero is a competent and effectual, but evil, protagonist.

As for why a decent person would like an anti-hero, I do not think that any do. They are too boring. I suppose some people might like them because their mediocrity makes the person feel better about their own mediocrity,

(May 14 '15 at 11:41) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

but to me such a person who revels in mediocrity would not be the "decent person" you are referring to.

On the other hand, I can see why some decent people might enjoy certain villainous characters. I believe they are responding to the villains good character traits--the intelligence, skill, resolve, etc--and not to the villain's evil intentions. They can also be responding to the fabulous acting job done to portray the character (or the fabulous writing if its a book). I do not think that they are responding to the evil intentions--if they were, then I would not classify them as "decent".

(May 14 '15 at 11:45) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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The question describes some anti-heroes, and also some villains who aren't clearly and consistently recognizable as true villains (they might be better described as anti-villains, who bear the same relation to true villains as anti-heroes bear to true heroes).

It might be asked: why do we see so many anti-heroes and anti-villains in today's movies, TV fiction, etc.? The question asks essentially this, in part, in the following formulation (underline added):

Do some people--myself included--enjoy watching anti-heroes because they represent what not to admire? Does the narrative of a story featuring an anti-hero acknowledge this somehow with a moral frame?

True heroes and true villains imply the existence of a moral choice for man in the face of the metaphysical possibility of setting the direction of his own life and therefore having the responsibility to set one's direction. But there are many today and historically who do not want such responsibility or accountability, and/or who feel more comfortable believing that they have no choice about their lives. Anti-heroes and anti-villains say to man, in effect: don't worry; nobody can help what he is or does, and nobody can blame anyone (or deserve credit) for it.

Ayn Rand discussed this phenomenon in her article, "The Cult of Moral Grayness," published as Chapter 9 in VOS. At the end of that article (p. 92 in my Signet paperback edition of VOS), she concludes:

Observe, in literature, the emergence of a thing called anti-hero, whose distinction is that he possesses no distinction -- no virtues, no values, no goals, no character, no significance -- yet who occupies, in plays and novels, the position formerly held by a hero, with the story centered on his actions, even though he does nothing and gets nowhere. Observe that the term "good guys and bad guys" is used as a sneer -- and, particularly in television, observe the revolt against happy endings, the demands that the "bad guys" be given an equal chance and an equal number of victories.

Like a mixed economy, men of mixed premises may be called "gray"; but, in both cases, the mixture does not remain "gray" for long. "Gray," in this context, is merely a prelude to "black." There may be "gray" men, but there are no "gray" moral principles. Morality is a code of black and white. When and if men attempt a compromise, it is obvious which side will necessarily lose and which will necessarily profit.

One who holds such a "black and white" view of morality and its underlying metaphysical outlook on life will not be particularly "impressed" by anti-heroes and anti-villains. He may react with a yawn of indifference and boredom, or perhaps moral revulsion toward the work as a whole and its creator(s).

Anti-heroes bear the same relation to heroes as anti-concepts bear to valid concepts. Ayn Rand mentions this in her article, "'Extremism,' or The Art of Smearing," published as Chapter 17 in CUI. On p. 177 in my Signet paperback edition of CUI, Ayn Rand observes:

The same mentalities that create an "anti-hero" in order to destroy heroes, and an "anti-novel" in order to destroy novels, are creating "anti-concepts" in order to destroy concepts.

The purpose of "anti-concepts" is to obliterate certain concepts without public discussion; and, as a means to that end, to make public discussion unintelligible, and to induce the same disintegration in the mind of any man who accepts them, rendering him incapable of clear thinking or rational judgment. No mind is better than the precision of its concepts.

As one might expect, there are a number of relevant references in Ayn Rand's article, "Art and Sense of Life," published as Chapter 3 in RM. Ayn Rand observes (pp. 38-39 in my Signet paperback edition of RM):

Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then create his values -- a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will reshape the world and himself. Art gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.

... It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one's own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one's ideal world ... "not a theoretical principle, not a didactic "message,' but the life-giving fact of experiencing a moment of metaphysical joy -- a moment of love for existence." (See Chapter 11.)

Less aspiring, less purposeful individuals are likely to react very differently to different kinds of art:

When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man's character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work -- and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.

(From RM p. 44.) Several other noteworthy passages in RM include the discussion of how ethics affects an artist's work (p. 23); impassioned hostility toward plot in literature and its metaphysical significance (p. 102), Classicist conventions versus the Romanticist emphasis on the primacy of values (p. 104); and determinism in art prior to the rise of Romanticism in the 19th Century (p. 123). Refer also to the topic of "Art" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Update: Meaning of Anti-Hero

Comments by James have raised questions about the meaning of the term, "anti-hero," and have offered the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera as a strong example of an anti-hero. Accordingly, I rechecked Ayn Rand's usage of the term "anti-hero" and also the Wikipedia description, and I also read the Wikipedia descriptions of The Phantom of the Opera more closely. I found a total of three instances of the term "anti-hero" in Ayn Rand's writings:

  • The excerpt from "The Cult of Moral Grayness" in VOS, already quoted in my original answer;
  • The excerpt from "'Extremism,' or The Art of Smearing" in CUI, already quoted in my original answer;
  • Ayn Rand's article, "Perry Mason Finally Loses," published in The Ayn Rand Letter, dated July 30, 1973.

The Perry Mason article describes the original TV series, ending in 1966, and the striking contrast to the "new" version (which was very short lived). Near the end, the article observes:

By some ineffable osmosis of their own, the makers of the new "Perry Mason" sensed which human characteristics their masters -- today's intellectuals -- want men to lose: firmness, self-confidence, and any trace of a moral tone, as well as any touch of dignity. To say that the new Perry Mason is an anti-hero, would be to flatter the show: he is just a slob. It is the image of the real Perry Mason that today's cultural leaders want to eliminate from People's consciousness, as a vision, a hope, an inspiration, or even a possibility. So much for their view of man and for their concern with education, the enlightenment, the happiness of "the people."

One of the comments by James states:

Your interpretation of anti-heroes as anti-concepts…

But that is precisely Ayn Rand's usage of the term "anti-hero," as both the Perry Mason article and especially the CUI article make clear. If anyone wants to challenge Ayn Rand's usage of "anti-hero," he is free to do so, but not by misidentifying what Ayn Rand's usage actually was.

The Wikipedia article on "Antihero" begins with the following description:

An antihero or antiheroine is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality.[1][2][3][4][5] These individuals often possess dark personality traits such as disagreeableness, dishonesty, and aggressiveness. These characters are usually considered "conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero".[6]

On closer reading of this Wikipedia article, I find it somewhat ambiguous, leaving unclear the status of a protagonist who is actually an evil villain. A story of heroic "good" against villainous "evil" doesn't achieve the same anti-heroic effect as a bumbling drifter, tossed by the current of events, but who nevertheless seems to accomplish great things, like a hero, without much skill or purpose, while occupying the place of a hero in the story.

I also read two Wikipedia articles specifically on (a) "The Phantom of the Opera" (the 1910 French novel), and (b) "The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical)." The disambiguation page lists a total of three different stage productions at different times, and eleven film and TV productions over the years. I haven't read the novel myself, nor seen any stage or screen versions of it, so I'm at a disadvantage to discuss it in much detail; but the two Wikipedia articles seem to offer good summaries of the story's essence. From the two Wikipedia articles, in my understanding, the Phantom certainly seems to have some definite, metaphysically significant qualities of character (passionate valuing) that an audience could readily find very moving. I do not see him (as described in the articles) as an anti-hero (as Ayn Rand uses that expression).

answered Feb 18 '15 at 21:58

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 16 at 01:14

While some may enjoy anti-heroes for these reasons, I think there's a simpler solution: anti-heroes are easier to write. An anti-hero automatically has internal conflict--the conflict between the "anti" and "hero". It's an easy way to set up dramatic tension. For a true hero, you have to actually understand the character and setting, much more difficult a task!

Given the quality of writing these days, I think "easy" is a more likely explanation than "evil". Not an excuse, to be clear--just a difference in intent.

(Jan 05 at 12:04) James James's gravatar image

Original question: "Why do decent people like anti-heroes?"

Suggested answer:

Given the quality of writing these days, I think "easy" is a more likely explanation than "evil". Not an excuse, to be clear--just a difference in intent.

Are we talking about the artists or their audience? "Easy" seems to be aimed at the artists. Ayn Rand has been sharply critical of artists who pander to low standards. It doesn't matter whether they do it because they are lazy or because they are nihilists (both types of motivation exist). Laziness doesn't make the moral crime any less evil. When willful mediocrity rises to cultural dominance, it becomes extremely damaging to man's life qua man. It's an effect of the influence of bad philosophy on a culture.

(Jan 06 at 00:25) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I was referring to the artists. I think that the artist's purpose should adjust our interpretation. Your interpretation of anti-heroes as anti-concepts presumes that the character is the focus. I'm arguing that in the case of poor writers, they're not--the anti-heroes serve not as characters, but plot devices. From that perspective, they can sometimes be a good sign--at least the author acknowledged that one should improve through time.

Again, I'm not defending it. I'm merely offering what I think is a reasonable alternative explanation.

(Jan 11 at 10:31) James James's gravatar image

"I was referring to the artists. I think that the artist's purpose should adjust our interpretation [of the artist's work]."

The original question and its main focus are on the responses of the audience. What a member of the audience may respond to, in sense-of-life terms in an artistic work, may or may not correspond to what the artist may have intended. And an objective esthetic evaluation (and philosophic meaning) of an artist's work likewise may or may not match the artist's conscious purpose, depending on the artist's own philosophic premises.

(Jan 11 at 22:56) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I'm not convinced the two are as unrelated as you imply. An anti-hero by its nature establishes certain aspects of plot, conflict, drama--which the reader may relate to. And if the reader isn't terribly well-versed in introspection they may not realize that what they're responding to is the character as plot devise, rather than the character themselves. The clearest example I can think of is the phantom from Phantom of the Opera--the character is nearly a non-entity, but people seem to like him. The only reason I can determine is that he drives the plot.

(Jan 12 at 13:46) James James's gravatar image

Perhaps a more explicit discussion of what an "antihero" is would be useful. There is an apparently informative article about it on Wikipedia titled, "Antihero." I'm not entirely sure that the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera would qualify as one, any more than Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame would qualify, although I'm not greatly familiar with The Phantom of the Opera. (There's a Wikipedia article on it.) A more in-depth discussion of why Ayn Rand regarded Hugo's works as literary Romanticism might be of great value, as well, as a separate but related topic.

(Jan 13 at 00:43) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I fail to see any way in which the Phantom doesn't fit the criteria. He practically serves as a Gothic Double for Christine (make of THAT what you will...), angst and alienation define his life, he was flat-out evil, and his acceptance of evil could be viewed as a climax of the play. I would say it's obvious that he fits both the definitions provided in Wikipedia, and the spirit of the definition provided here and in Rand's writings.

(Jan 14 at 21:51) James James's gravatar image

I would describe an anti-hero as one who is either morally ambiguous or one who lacks any moral code at all.

(Jan 15 at 23:17) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

I love it. :D The anti-hero would be the perfect hero for a fundamentally pragmatic age: no morals, just whatever works--the dramatization of the morality held by so many!

The question, then, becomes "works--for what?" One without morality can't define that. That may be why bad guys are so much more interesting than heros in modern fiction: the bad guys are the drivers of the plot, while the good guys merely stop the bad. Without evil, anti-heroes literally have nothing to do.

(Mar 03 at 22:48) James James's gravatar image
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Asked: Feb 17 '15 at 11:41

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Last updated: Mar 03 at 22:48