Audience Understanding of and Allegiance to Fictional Antihero Characters in Television and Film

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Melissa Seipel, Ph.D.

:classical_building: Affiliation: Cornell University

Title: Audience Understanding of and Allegiance to Fictional Antihero Characters in Television and Film

Abstract (long version below): Qualitative analysis of three studies (focus groups, interviews, thought-listing) found participants used complex processes to understand and develop supportive, unsupportive, or mixed opinions and stances towards an antihero – a character with both good and bad traits and behaviors. Participants considered an antihero’s traits, states of mind, actions, relationships, and contexts as part of these dynamic processes. As story events unfolded and the nature of the antihero developed, participants often reconsidered previous judgments about the antihero. The results explained how audiences can sometimes root for an antihero to be successful and/or avoid negative consequences despite the antihero’s sometimes immoral behavior.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Antihero characters in TV and film have grown in popularity with both audiences and in academic study in recent years. Within the field of communication, antihero research has focused on predicting audience enjoyment of such characters/narratives, most commonly using effects-based methodologies, revisions of affective disposition theory (ADT), and applications of moral disengagement. Film scholars used a more analytical approach to explore antiheros, focusing on why or how audience members can root for morally questionable characters, relying heavily on Smith’s (1999, 2011) structure of sympathy, which also places moral judgements at its center. By triangulating qualitative analysis of three studies (focus groups, in-depth interviews, and thought-listing) the studies reported here explore engagement with and understanding of anti-hero characters as the story and the character evolve. This approach allowed key factors and processes important to antihero engagement to emerge from the data itself, rather than relying upon researcher-driven theories, variables, assumptions, and measures.

Three themes that emerged from the analysis indicated how participants understand the complexities and true nature of the antihero and determine the nature of their (the viewer’s) feelings, attitudes, and allegiances (sympathetic and/or antipathetic stances) towards the antihero character.

One theme indicated that participants drew on a character’s multiple roles to make sense of a character, compartmentalizing contradictory characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, etc., to an antihero’s multiple roles and personas (e.g. mother, sister, queen). Thus, mostly positive characteristics (loving, unselfish, etc.) might be assigned to one role, and negative characteristics (criminal, selfish) to another persona. Compartmentalization allowed participants to support participants in one role while simultaneously not supporting them in others. Similarly, participants reconciled mixed positive and negative character traits by recognizing the different “sides,” “layers,” or “depth” of an antihero’s personality, and evaluating antiheros’ various actions and choices as outward manifestations of the antihero’s inner-selves—with inner self/true nature most important. Participants often looked at the character’s actions and choices over time in developing an understanding of an antihero’s complex nature.

A second theme looked beyond the characteristics of the antiheroes themselves and considered contextual influences including relationships with other characters, context/circumstances, and an antihero’s background/development over the course of the narrative—sometimes allowing audience members to even excuse extreme behavior. These narrative elements that significantly contribute to an antihero’s thoughts, attitudes, and actions have been overlooked in most previous studies. The different dynamics of such relationships contribute to a multifaceted understanding of an antihero, informing participants’ complex expectations, judgements, and allegiances to the character.

The third theme focused on the audience member developing supportive, unsupportive, or mixed supportive/unsupportive stances towards an antihero. These judgements and allegiances appear to be influenced by a complex combination of factors, including an antihero’s actions and choices, how antiheroes compare to other characters or even themselves at various stages of their character arcs, and audiences’ developing understanding of and attitudes about the character as influenced by liking, attachment, sympathy/empathy, and relatability.

Most participants put in a great deal of effort to justify, rationalize, forgive, or forget an antihero’s negative actions or characteristics, especially once an audience member liked, admired, or invested in a character. Notably, audiences were not blind to the negative aspects of antihero characters and openly objected to the antiheroes’ immoral actions while still supporting them overall. The viewer’s desire for the character to succeed, improve, or simply survive allowed them to acknowledge, but work their way past, a character’s negative actions or characteristics. This mechanism that allowed an audience member to root for antihero despite questionable acts is an alternative to a focus on moral disengagement in earlier investigations.

While the findings support many aspects of extant theories and models, including the centrality of enjoyment, liking, moral judgements/moral disengagement, and influences on allegiance, many important new factors and processes emerged. Participants’ focus on understanding a character, suggests that liking and enjoyment – while important – may not be the most significant motivation for engaging with antiheros. Second, while morality was found to be a significant influence on participants’ allegiances, the findings suggest that when it comes to rooting for an antihero, moral judgements can be trumped by other viewer experiences such as liking, attachment, or investment in a character and the character’s story.

Finally, the findings of this project confirm that audience engagement with antihero characters is indeed extremely complex and deserves equally complex attention. The dynamic nature of engagement in particular makes it difficult to capture the full engagement experience as understanding and allegiances change with new information, developments, and audience experiences. While our project does not claim to capture the details of these types of dynamic processes, it was clear from participant discussions that their experiences with antihero characters did change over time, often dramatically. While difficult to conduct, studies that attempt to capture process are needed to better understand these dynamics.

Thank you for your presentation! I am working on a similar study with some colleagues about character fascination and how this fascination might be linked with moral ambiguity–your study gave me several other aspects of antiheroes to consider. I found the desire to “understand” a character very interesting in getting participants emotionally invested. What kind of relationship do you think exists between understandability and likability? I’ve also been wondering if you need to like a character to feel sorry for them, or if the very act of sympathy for a character (a step towards understanding them?) makes us like them a little more as well.

One last comment–are there examples of popular antiheroes that exist in short-term story telling, or are antiheroes from longer narratives (such as in series) the only true antiheroes because of their reliance on curiosity and time needed to understand complex motives and actions?

Thank you @mas29 and Melissa Seipel. I was wondering whether you conducted any “text analyses”, meaning; have you looked further into the anti-heroes your participants mentioned? Using some of the examples you gave in your presentation, there is a big difference between Dr. House, who is always rude and unlikable, but in essence not immoral, and Danaerys Targaryen, who starts off as a likable character, but develops into a murderous tyrant. Similarly, I can imagine there is a big difference between someone with a story arc like Danaerys versus someone who has always been immoral like Loki (because it is in his nature). Have you tried to categorize the antiheroes that are mentioned by your participants into distinctive types of antiheroes, to see what strategies your participants use to understand different types of antiheroes?

We had some long discussions about this.

Our goal was to look for similarities in the ways that audience members processed/resolved these issues over the development of complex characters. In part, to accomplish that we gave the participants considerable freedom to select a character familiar to them guided by our definition and look for similarities in their strategies for dealing with complexity. As you point out, the details of each character differed, and we paid some attention to that. What was surprising was that the strategies participants use to understand the complexities seem to be common to a wide variety of characters.

One advantage of our strategy is that participants familiar with a character knew a great deal about that character. For example, I think you underestimate House’s immoral behavior. House goes way beyond being rude. To quote one description: “He deliberately deceives his colleagues and his boss, and he often bends hospital rules (and the law) to suit his purposes. He self-medicates with booze and (illegally obtained) painkillers.” He often hurtful to friends and patients. He goes to jail at one point. House performs a long list of cruelties that including faking a brain tumor and letting his friends believe he was dying to get into a clinical trial with good drugs. Of course, during the course of watching House we also learn some of where this is coming from. The participants who mention house are aware of these complexities.

On the flip side, Loki’s back story reveals a complex past that doesn’t exactly justify his immorality but explains it. He was lied to etc. Also at times he at least makes an effort to be redeemable. Participants we aware of this and found him surprisingly sympathetic at times.

So the question we are asking is how to audience members deal with these complexities and find there seem to be some similar strategies across characters.

I hope that helps. I will run this by Melissa.
Here is Melissa’s response

The only thing I would add is that there have been past attempts to classify antiheroes into categories, but those attempts have been largely unsuccessful. For example, as I explained in the lit review of my dissertation:

“Some researchers have used an online crowd-sourced website ( which has identified 5 antihero categories by comparing and contrasting thousands of antihero characters and ranking them based on morality. While these categories represent an important step towards capturing the range/diversity of antihero characters, the researchers found that the categories were overly simplistic and inappropriately restrictive given the ups and downs of a character’s journey (Eden et al., 2017).”

Based on our findings, I fully support that perspective on antihero classification. Essentially, it seems that antiheroes are perceived and therefore defined differently by each audience member, so trying to make a uniform classification of antihero sub-types (as tempting as it is) is a very tricky business. Furthermore, depending on where the character is in their character arc (and where the audience member is in their experience/exposure to that character arc), they will be perceived differently and therefore could be classified differently.

I have wondered if it could be possible to categorize certain antiheroes very generally based on the trajectories of their arcs (immoral → redemption, moral → lost cause, consistently back and forth/ambiguous, etc.) but you really don’t know until the very end of that character’s journey (take Snape for example, who has a drastic reveal at the very end of his arc that forces audiences to reconsider 7 movies/books worth of their perception of/feelings towards him). So while audiences are in the process of engaging with the character as the story and character develops, there doesn’t seem to be any point in classifying them. At least not for the type of study we conducted or the insights we wanted regarding audience engagement.

Hope that helps!


I think an audience member’s primary goal is to understand complex protagonists because they are “interesting” “fascinating” “engaging” or whatever term you want to use. We tend to get stuck at liking. That said, as we engage a character, we want to like them. Authors use various ways to help us, for example putting them in opposition to a character that is even worse. As our results indicate, when audience members form an allegiance with a character, they tend to hope for the better angels of the character to prevail—even when they don’t.

I think longer stories provide more opportunities for complexity, but I have seen 30 second ads with somewhat complex characters. I can think of one beer ad with one friend grabbing the beer from his friend to outrun a bear. Not terribly complex but has the elements.

You are probably aware of the supposed story of Hemmingway saying he could write a six-word story.

For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.

People almost always react to it as a sad story. They must imagine all the complexities that might be associated with those six words.

I’m sure if we think about it we can come up antiheros in short stories.

I hope that helps. I’ll be interested in your study.

I wonder how much narrative structure and character roles influence how the audience relates to antiheroes? For example, in Netflix Daredevil season 2, Frank Castle is the antagonist to Matt Murdock. He has his sympathetic moments, but as a viewer, I root for Matt because he’s the main character of that season. But in Frank’s own show, Netflix Punisher, I root for Frank because he’s now the main character. Or in cases where the antihero is not the main character, perhaps the antihero becomes more sympathetic when their goals align with the main character’s goals (e.g., Doc Ock at the end of Spiderman 2). What do you think about the narrative roles (main character versus antagonist as opposed to the example given of social roles Dexter fulfills) antiheroes play and how audiences relate to them?

I believe all our “antiheros” were protagonists. My feeling is that audience members are more motivated to understand protagonists – simply because of their centrality – and thus form allegiances. My guess is that we are less likely to root for members of Tony Soprano’s gang than we are for Tony. Something that might be interesting to investigate in future studies. The kind of situation you describe where a character is a protagonist in one series but an antagonist in another.