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Jerkass Dissonance

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"Ha! Now do you understand why so many people love me, even though I'm the biggest dick in this entire show? It's because I'm Seto frickin' Kaiba! Accept no substitutes."

So you've created a fictional character. And they are, to be quite frank, a complete asshole. You're absolutely sure that the audience is going to absolutely loathe them and everything they stand for by the time they read... what's this? A fan website for them? What?!

It seems like in fiction, certain characters can get away with a lot of bad behaviour without losing the loyalty of the audience. Characters whom you would think would be loathed and hated because of their actions can become the objects of the admiration and even lust of the audience. Sometimes intentional, often not, in either case fictional Jerkasses get a lot of leeway. A principle behind many a Magnificent Bastard, Draco in Leather Pants or Misaimed Fandom, Jerkass Dissonance occurs when the audience excuses the behaviour of a fictional character when it would most definitely not condone similar behaviour in real life.

The dissonance can be best summed up thus; where a fictional jerk may possess an intense and devoted fan-base of admirers and may, in-universe, be surrounded by a loyal (if long-suffering) group of friends and followers, in Real Life people considered to be jerks tend to be ostracized, and few choose to willingly associate with them. People in reality are quite intolerant of Jerkass behaviour, mostly when directed towards them or those they care about, and being considered a jerk means that people don't actually like you very much. For instance, the Deadpan Snarker may sometimes say rude or hurtful things to people around them, but the viewer eats it up because they're funny. If someone said equally rude or hurtful things to the viewer however, chances are good that the viewer wouldn't be quite as amused.

Of course, the scale varies. Snide put-downs or irritating practical jokes might be annoying or hurtful, but it's not necessarily unforgivable conduct, in fiction or in real life. The Dissonance really begins to take strange effect when the character who is the subject of the fandom is engaging in conduct which, in Real Life, would see them comfortably identified as one of history's greatest monsters. There's reasons why people such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy are considered some of the most hated and evil figures in history, but there are certain fictional characters who can do the same as them and more besides, but no matter how far they dive over the Moral Event Horizon someone, somewhere, will be rushing to add it to the Moment of Awesome list on this very site.

Some possible reasons for this phenomenon include:

  1. Fiction is, on some level, wish-fulfillment; we live vicariously through the characters and their actions. At some level, almost everyone wishes that they were brazen enough to flout society's rules and conventions and tend to latch on to characters who do so in stories, especially if done in a fashion where, regardless of how offensive their behaviour would actually be, you can't help but be impressed. Similarly, writers and actors tend to have more fun creating and embodying villains than heroes for similar reasons, which can show in the work.
  2. The reader is not affected by the consequences of the actions depicted. Whereas the behaviour of a real life bastard can have a direct impact on you, in fiction it's happening to someone else, and since they don't really exist it's not really happening to them, either. The behaviour is thus easier to forgive or overlook.
  3. We tend to empathize more with the characters who are drawn in more detail because, in a way, we get to know them better. We learn about who, say, the world-killing megalomaniac is and why he acts the way he does; we know his Freudian Excuse and motivation. As such, we find ourselves sympathising with him more. Conversely in real life we may not really know the person who was needlessly rude to us on the bus when we asked them for the time or why they felt the need to behave in such a poor way, and as such feel little motivation to sympathise with them.
  4. Similarly, the Jerkass may be drawn in more detail than the people he's being a jerk to; we learn a lot about Darth Vader, but we never meet most of his victims, so to all intents and purposes they don't exist in the same way that Darth Vader does for us. Similarly, we tend to find actions they commit against the main characters harder to forgive than actions they commit against minor/background characters, because they're affecting people we care about more.
  5. It's said that The Villain Makes the Plot. That is, the villain is the driving force of the story's conflict; the more interesting and dynamic the villain, the more interesting the story. This has the effect that people can gravitate to the villain, especially if the hero is comparatively less interesting.
  6. Notice how most of the characters on the Draco in Leather Pants page are described or depicted in the works they appear in as being physically attractive. Not a coincidence. Evil Is Sexy and people can be shallow. The 'halo effect'—the idea that we tend to excuse the conduct of physically attractive people or imbue them with more inherent decency (justifiably or not) because of their physical attractiveness—can have a powerful effect in fiction.
  7. Comedic Sociopathy plays a part; Jerkass behaviour is funny... so long as it's happening to someone else. As Mel Brooks put it:
    "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."
  8. The character may simply be well-written and interesting; people gravitate to such characters, hero or villain.
  9. In works with a Designated Hero, the character's behaviour may not actually be any worse than the good guys', leading to a backlash among fans who don't see why they're considered so bad while the heroes get a more-or-less free pass.
  10. The Jerkass character may primarily pick on the character(s) whom no one reading likes anyway. Though this overlaps significantly with the point 9 above, it is not limited to it.

Compare Love to Hate, where a character is popular because they're a jerk.

This phenomenon doesn't relate solely to villains; heroes who commit morally dubious actions can also fall here, since we're supposed to sympathize with them from the start. However, the hero is supposed to reflect the reader's values more than the villains, which means that we hold our heroes to a higher standard and expect them to live up to it more than the villains, and can be harsher to judge them when they cross the line than we would a villain (who, being the villain, is kind of expected to do that anyway). This can, in extreme cases, lead to instances where a villain appears to be liked more than a hero, even if the hero's worst actions do not compare to the villain's. What the Hell, Hero? occurs when the writers themselves notice and have other characters call the hero out on it.

Tropes affected include: