(I would like to preface this by saying that this is not a Tropemaster General entry. Rather, it is a general look at the concept, rather than exploring any one of the specific subtropes. And trust me, I'll get to one or two of the heel/face subtropes at some point. Just...not now.)
Wrestling is and always has been entertainment.
Yeah, I admit it. It's true.
Despite its roots in athletics, its athletic nature, and even its history of trying to play itself off as a legit sport with championships and wins/losses, wrestling started out as sideshow entertainment at a carnival, and in this modern age, the entertainment aspects are not only blatantly obvious but encouraged.
Like any form of entertainment, it centers around some form of conflict. Man versus man, man versus the system, man versus society, man versus pyrokinetic hellspawn, even man versus himself sometimes. Wrestling has conflict in spades, and at the core of that conflict 90% of the time is the dynamic between rudos and technicos, good and bad, heel and babyface.
Every federation has a different name for the ends of the continuum of alignments, but in every promotion it is there, from the smallest indy to WWE.
It's tried and true. Usually, it works. Sometimes, though, it does get rebelled against. But it exists.
Why, exactly? And why is it important when the heel/face dynamic works or doesn't?
The answer lies in history. Think of virtually any story involving a conflict. With few exceptions, most stories have someone to root for and someone to root against. God and Satan. The Rebel Alliance and the Empire. Harry Potter fans and Twilight fans (sorry, cheap shot). It's universal, it's been around for ages, and again, it usually works as a basis for a story.
With that in mind, it's no wonder why wrestling would deploy the heel/face dynamic as a central story point. It rarely ever fails.
Many of the greatest storylines in wrestling fall along this line. CM Punk championing a voiceless generation. Sting being a constant foil to the Four Horsemen. Steve Austin rebelling against the over-extension of his boss' authority. (Well, actually, we'll get back to that one.) Look at the most compelling storylines in the history of wrestling, and odds are a large number of them were face vs. heel, favorite vs. rulebreaker.
How is it exactly that the dynamic works so well most of the time, anyway? The answer is simple: personalities. The right people in the right position playing the right role at the right time make angles work. Having someone the audience can relate to gives them something to root for, and for a face to work well against a heel, they need to be able to get you to care about them. Maybe they're trying to push their way to the top after a long history of being stuck in the middle. Maybe they're fighting against an understandable perceived injustice. Maybe they're speaking out against the way a heel has been acting, or the kind of things he or she has been doing. The face should represent the feelings of the fans. A good face knows every audience is different and plays to what will make them believe in him or her. It doesn't have to be drastic tweaks for every different group of fans; in fact, subtle changes are better because the face then does not sacrifice their core values or integrity. They may not be goody-two-shoes, but they are the more sympathetic side.
By contrast, a good heel is a contradiction: they don't have to do much, and yet, they have to do a lot (as evidenced by Chris Jericho). The best heels aren't necessarily always overt (although some, like Mr. McMahon, have been). Good heels can be subtle, doing little things that add up to making the fans want to see this guy get beaten down. Great heels can make you love them at the same time as you hate them, drawing you into the storyline as much for their sake as for the face's.
When a good heel collides with a good face, the storyline works at optimal levels. The audience becomes invested and is entertained. Most importantly, they buy into it figuratively and literally, and everyone benefits, from the talent in the ring to the fans in the seats.
On the other side of things, bad faces either seem way too good to be true (see the Uncanny Valley effect) or hypocritical in their goodness. They bring nothing to the table because there's no meat to them. There's little to relate to and next to nothing worth believing in. You can only watch a bad face do his act so many times before it wears thin, you become bored, and you start to boo. Sometimes this leads to a re-write to try and make the face more likable and relate-able, but more than likely (with a few noted exceptions JOHN FRIGGIN' CENA), it leads to a heel turn.
Meanwhile, bad heels are either too likable or just plain bad, and I mean on X-Pac levels. You don't want to see a bad heel get beat down; you want to see them get a legit pink slip. Or in some cases, you might just want to skip the storylines and bitch-slap them yourself. There's nothing compelling about them or the storyline they're a part of, so why not cut to the chase and cut out the middleman? This either leads to a re-write to try and morph the legit heat into more conventional heel heat, or in drastic cases could lead to time off or being Future Endeavor'ed.
It should be noted, of course, that heels and faces are really subjective designations. What might traditionally be considered a heel move could, given the fans' response, make a wrestler a babyface. Generally, we refer to these "faces with an edge" as tweeners, since they also have the tendency to float over to a more heelish role depending on where their current opponent lies on the heel/face spectrum. The most noted incidence is of course Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose violent nature and alcohol use could turn some people off while others support his battles against a bad boss. Such tweeners are still an important part of the traditional dynamic because of their versatility. If their misdeeds get played up or if they ally themselves with a more traditional heel, they can easily play heel themselves (and usually just as well as a more conventional bad guy). If the ways in which they are "just like the fans" are played up, they gain instant sympathy and fit well into the face role. As I mentioned before, workable heels and faces don't have to be purely evil or good respectively. They just have to work within the nature of the storyline and who they are feuding.
But if the heel/face dynamic is subjective, why is it a universal concept, and who exactly decides which side is which? The answer to the first question basically boils down to human nature: it's universal because it seems that humans always have to pick sides. Ambiguity is something that humans have a lot of trouble with, so we tend to divide everything up into various continua and dichotomies. Time and space, light and dark, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural. It's not necessarily true to life or the universe, but it's how we figure things out. We categorize everything, and when we come up with a system that almost always works, we hold onto it as long as we can, sometimes even after that system is proven to have broken down. It's fairly consistent, and it has shaped humanities' world views for countless millennia.
So who decides which side is which? In wrestling, more often than not, it's the promoters and bookers. Yes, sad to say, we fans usually don't have a lot of say in the matter. Oh sure, we occasionally bring about changes in the order, causing former heels to become faces by cheering for them enough, but by and large, the promotion itself determines who's in which role on any given night. Occasionally, the promoters even go so far as to push the roles regardless of the fans wishes (as evidence, see this). Is this really the way it should be?
My answer to that question is a completely unhelpful "yes and no". Wrestling companies like WWE and TNA are well within their rights to define roles for their wrestlers as they pertain to their storylines. If nothing else, it gives fans a good place to start getting into feuds, and as mentioned before, it's not an entirely broken system. The problem there lies in when the bookers become inflexible in their roles, determined to do things their way despite fan reaction to the negative. Such inflexibility is just one of many reasons why WCW died; they were used to having certain people in certain roles and were unwilling to do anything different. The fans' input should not be ignored, nor should it have total rule. Rather, it should be integrated and respected, allowing wrestlers who are struggling in certain roles to find where they best fit and what kind of character they should be playing. This was, after all, how we got big stars like Austin, was it not?
Of course, this is all just my opinion, and you all may have your own. Feel free to share it (perhaps not in as many words, though). Until the next time, I'm Shadowbird, and I'm neither heel nor face...I'm just me.