‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’ - C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The With, and the Wardrobe
After I finished watching Breaking Bad a few months back, my wife - who had watched it here and there, but more so just kept asking me to fill her in - posed the simple, yet vital question, “Why are we drawn to a character like that?” Now, she wasn’t saying that we as humans want to be like Walter White, nor are we drawn to all of the content we're presented with. She was simply recognizing how a protagonist can be so captivating, even if their lifestyle is the polar-opposite from our own.
That got me thinking about other unfavorable characters. There’s Magneto from the X-Men series, whose backstory of being enslaved in Nazi concentration camps quickly pull at our heartstrings. There’s Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, whose stoical countenance demands our full attention. And, there’s someone like Walter White, whose horribly selfish decisions lock in our attentiveness to the episode-by-episode familial train wreck that was Breaking Bad.
But, coincidentally, those are all “bad guys”, and their lack of virtue is not the appeal that I’m speaking of. What about the “good guys” like Gladiator’s Maximus Decimus Meridius? Or, Homer’s Achilles or Hector - depending on the chapter? Or, maybe a more clear example to better serve my point, what about Liam Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, from the movie Taken. And the common denominator in all of these characters, both “good” and “bad”…? Awesomeness. Period.
I actually don’t mean "awesomeness" in a trivially fun way, but bring it up here so to affirm that, as the Chambers Dictionary defines, they all exude something that strikes or influences awe or fear in the audience. It’s this seemingly omnipotent quality that we are drawn to. And why? I think it’s three-fold:
- We lack our own complete awesomeness. And…
- We know of the possibility of complete awesomeness. And…
- We want such awesomeness.
The “unstopabilty” that all of these characters share appeals to us because of (1). We are in want because we are in need, and are therefore going through life with a deficit. We are lacking. We are limited. And these limitations hold us back from whatever it is we hope to be or do. And, so, the combination of (2) and (3) is our current state. Sadly, too often in life we are left only with the ability to perceive what it is we want to acheive, because of these limitations. So, seeing someone break through the boundaries set around us is inspiring. It’s awesome. We want it.
These characters mentioned show one other common denominator: they are fictional characters. We are not drawn to them, but are drawn to what they remind us. God is both awe-inspiring and terrifying, depending on what side of the fence you are with Him. When we see a limited (1, 2, and 3) person comes in contact with just one of God’s messengers in the Bible, they are terrified… and those angels who are in no way comparable to His grandeur. And so--harkening back to the question above--is He safe? No. Well, at least in a certain context. He is the pennicle of unstopability and terror toward that which is contrary to Him. Is He good? Absolutely. He is a refuge for the weak. He is a passionate Father who will stop at nothing to come to our aid and pick us up. As odd as it might sound, He is the awesomeness that characters like Chigurh and Maximus attempt to convey, but are only barely able to hint at.
And so, when you are at a place in life that feels unbearable or undefeatable, and you consciously or subconsciously look toward one of these fictional reminders, don’t forget what unified truth they are actually professing.
One last piece of awesomeness: Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”