Why are TV’s Most Interesting Characters so Often the Morally Ambiguous Ones?


Nelsan Ellis as Lafayette Reynolds on True Blood

Why is it that some of the most interesting characters on TV are the morally ambiguous ones?

Whether it’s Santana on Glee, Barney on How I Met Your Mother, or Lafayette on True Blood, there’s a certain kind of character that almost always makes a huge impression on the audience. Think Kalinda on The Good Wife, Marc on Ugly Betty, Jack on Torchwood, both Jack and Karen on Will & Grace, Maryann on Cybill, and Spike on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

Break-out characters, all.

These folks think outside the box. They say the blunt truth that most people don’t dare. They take the world entirely on their own terms.

And they’re willing to bend the rules – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sure, sometimes they break the rules in the name of justice. They recognize that few things in this world are black and white – and that people who see everything that way tend to be simpletons.

But sometimes they aren’t always nearly so noble. Sometimes they break the rules just because they want to. They do it for their own selfish ends.

And we love it!

Why the audience fascination with these characters, who are sometimes called anti-heroes (or “Byronic heroes,” because they’re flawed, like the poet Lord Byron)? Why is it that, over and over again, these seem to be the television characters who always get the most attention?

I just might have a few theories:

They act out our fantasies – but they almost never have to deal with the real-world consequences.

Most of the characters on The Good Wife are complicated and interesting, but the most interesting one of all is definitely Kalinda, the mysterious, willing-to-do-anything investigator who dresses in leather mini-skirts and is always lurking the shadows. She’s not the main character, the “good wife” Alicia – she’s Alicia’s best friend (or was, before she was caught having slept with Alicia’s husband).

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda on The Good Wife

On one hand, Kalinda confirms a bad bisexual stereotype – that bi folks are more morally fluid (and more sexually promiscuous) than other folks.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that Kalinda is simply a fantastic character – and that she breaks many racial and gender stereotypes even as she confirms some bisexual ones. She’s sexy, mysterious, and brilliant. And dramatically speaking, she says and does the things that Alicia, who is much more “noble,” is often unwilling to think or do.

But for all her rule-breaking, Kalinda never gets caught (at least until Alicia learned that Kalinda had slept with her husband. But that’s such a big deal that it’s become a whole story-arc). Kalinda is so shrewd that she somehow always manages slip away unscathed.

Likewise, Maryann on  Cybill was always drunk and spouting the most vicious one-liners to one and all. But did she ever pay any kind of price for her bitchery? Nah.

Christine Baranski as Maryann on Cybill

In other words, a big part of the appeal of these characters is their “fantasy” aspect. They’re selfish, and through them, we get to live out our own selfish fantasies. And by virtue of their brilliant Machiavellian thinking or simply their unparalleled wit, they almost never face the consequences for their actions that we would surely face in the real world.

It may be a fantasy, but it’s a very, very fun fantasy.

They leave us wanting more.

A big part of the secret to these characters’ success? They’re almost always supporting characters.

That means two things: they always keep their mystery intact. And we never have to spend so much time around them that we get sick of them, or start to truly appreciate their very real flaws.

With almost all of these characters, someone has eventually said, “That character should get their own show!” But would we really watch a show called Jack & Karen? After a while, wouldn’t we think, “Why did I never see just how incredibly stupid and superficial Jack McFarland is? Why didn’t I ever notice how mean and selfish Karen Walker is?”

Indeed, whenever a morally ambiguous character has gotten his or her own show, like Flo or Fish or Rhoda, the character has changed and become much less outrageous, much more “mainstream.”

That’s because most writers understand that, at least in popular entertainment, “outrageous” really only works in small doses, in counter-point to the leads on a show, who ground things and create normalcy.

Prior to last season’s finale, Stefan the “good” vampire was easily the most boring character on The Vampire Diaries: always earnest, always doing the “right” thing. But Stefan absolutely had to be there in order for “bad” vampire Damon to make sense. Just as Damon is pushing Stefan to loosen up, Stefan is pushing Damon to, well, stop killing people.

Paul Wesley as Stefan Salvatore and Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries

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