Everyone loves a hero. Chivalrous knights and handsome cowboys who ride in to save the day are the stuff of legend. We want to see these lead characters win the day and get the girl, but our fascination with a strong lead isn’t limited to the attractive and the brave. We will also follow, with great enthusiasm, a lead who embodies the opposite of all we embrace.
A negative lead, as defined in Conflict and Suspense, is “one who is doing things that are antithetical to community values.” Why would an audience follow a lead they do not like and cannot respect? Two reasons: redemption and revenge. We either see enough good in the lead to want him saved, or we hate him enough to want to see him pay.
One character in popular culture grants our wish for both. Audiences hated Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. We saw him as the epitome of evil and wanted nothing more than to see him annihilated. Not until the end of The Empire Strikes Back do we learn that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. That revelation changes the direction of the story and the hearts of the audience. Our focus shifts from the desire for revenge to the possibility of redemption. Collectively we begin to ask the question: If this man was once good, can he be good again?
If conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces, what better way to watch that drama unfold than in the battle of good and evil in the heart and soul of the main character? Much of the appeal of Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars saga is the pathos of that battle in young Anakin Skywalker. This second trilogy maps out Anakin’s demise, transforming him from a faceless villain to a relatable lead, and we watch him fight this losing battle, in part, because we know he’ll be redeemed in the end.
Other leads allow us no room for hope. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a man consumed by ambition, greed, and a lust for power. Hidden and contained in polite society, these cravings find release primarily on the battlefield, but a single shift in circumstances unleashes the full force of Macbeth’s diabolical zeal.
Claiming the dark power of the witches’ words and harnessing the strength of his own desire, Macbeth schemes and murders his way to the Scottish throne. More than once Macbeth has the opportunity to choose a different path, but each time he refuses. At one point, Macbeth even admits, “I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on th’ other” (Act I, Scene VII). With this admission, Macbeth sets himself against the good of society and leaves the audience no choice but to anticipate his downfall. We follow his story precisely because we want justice to be served.
Negative leads from Ebenezer Scrooge to J. R. Ewing have kept audiences enthralled for generations. Who would appear on your list of most memorable negative leads? Share your opinions in the comment section. I look forward to hearing from you.