Why We Sometimes Love Villainous Characters
With fall on everyone’s minds and Halloween right around the corner, it is likely that you will start getting horror films and other spooky movie recommendations from friends, family, and even streaming services. Halloween is a time when villains are often idolized. Kids dress up as movie antagonists while trick-or-treating and there is a sense of thrill from fearful movies that is almost addicting to audiences.
Villains are necessary for the genre of horror to even exist. There’d be no Nightmare on Elm Street without Freddy Krueger or Halloween without Michael Myers. For the most part, characters like these are supposed to be hated by the audience. They bring evil and chaos into the world. We are supposed to cheer on the heroes and sit at the edge of our seats waiting for the villain’s demise, but sometimes, we find sympathy in the villain’s backstory. Sometimes we find that a villain has righteous reasons for committing their crimes and that may make us root for their victory. This makes me question whether or not rooting for villains, or even just fixating on their character, poses a real societal problem and whether or not there really is a line between fiction and reality.
I have always been much more of a villain sympathizer myself. As a young theater kid, the characters I aspired to play were ones like the witch in Into the Woods—although I ended up playing the wolf instead—and Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. I find that their storylines are much more interesting than those who are embarking on the hero’s journey. Most recently, the villain I’ve come to adore is the character Dabi (pronounced like the house elf) from the anime My Hero Academia. Initially I liked this character for his good looks, bad boy aesthetic, and deep, hypnotic voice. As the series progressed, however, and his reasons for committing acts of villainy came to light, I began to commiserate with him, and every time he and the League of Villains would get a victory, I would cheer them on.
It turns out I am not the only person who has this love for villains. Jonaya Riley, creative director and lead writer for the video game company Studio June, has a lot to say on the matter of why someone is considered a villain. Riley used examples of villain characters in cartoons which in recent years have been used to teach moral lessons to kids.
“A year ago I watched Legend of Korra,” Riley said. “One of the things I found very interesting about those villains is that they all had a point. They all focused on issues of class oppression and had very real issues and real reasons for doing what they did.”
The Legend of Korra, the continuation of the series Avatar: The Last Airbender, is a great example of a show that features villains who have ideologies that go against the society they live in. Characters like Zaheer and Amon have different ideas about how they think the world should look, whether that is an elimination of oppressive world leaders or of the concept of bending entirely. It’s characters like these that both Riley and I gravitate towards.
“The villainous characters I think are interesting are the ones who think they want to fix aspects of their society,” Riley said. “And I want to make society a better place.”
She even mentioned that she uses the ways these characters fail as models of what not to do in her own work trying to accomplish social change.
Riley also has a lot to say on the matter of whether or not liking fictional villains has repercussions in the real world.
“Most people can make that distinction [between fiction and reality] and if they can’t that’s a matter of learning how to consume media.”
I have to agree with what she says. If liking villainous characters does have repercussions in the real world, it is because the people consuming this media do not understand how to be critical of what they are watching. She continues on to say, “I don’t think that trying to sensor works of fiction is a good way to approach the situation as opposed to teaching people how to be decent caring people.”
The video game Riley is currently working on is titled Friendsim 2. It is a simulator where the choices the player makes affect the other character’s storylines, and this, in turn, changes the redemption arcs of villainous characters. Not every character in this game, however, is redeemable, and I am still left wondering whether or not liking villainous characters has dangerous repercussions in the real world.
Research has been done on the science behind loving villainous characters. An article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses how we find ourselves attracted to villainous characters who have traits that remind us of ourselves. This article features an interview with Rebecca Krause, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, whose research claims that when we see bad people who remind us of ourselves in real life, we tend to draw away from them. However, when fictional villains exhibit similar traits to us, we find ourselves fixating on them more.
“People like fictional villains who are similar to themselves,” Krause said. “This is really interesting, or at least it was to us when we found it, because we know from a lot of prior research that generally when someone sees someone bad or has undesirable kinds of qualities, we really avoid them and particularly we avoid them if they seem similar to ourselves.”
This makes sense because, as Krause further states, we want to see ourselves as good people, so seeing similarities between us and real life villains would of course be upsetting.
Krause mentions that when she began her research, she assumed people would have the same reactions towards fictional villains as they do real life villains. However, her research further explains that when we see fictional characters who are deemed bad or evil, we try to hunt for semblances of good within them.
“What we actually find,” Krause said, “is that because they’re in fiction, people feel like it’s okay to have these similarities that would otherwise be uncomfortable.”
Both Riley and Krause agree that when we watch a TV show or consume any form of fictional media, we understand that there is a difference between fiction and the real world. So what does that mean for the consumer? It means that it is okay to sympathize with the bad guys. It is okay to root for the villains. It only becomes dangerous when media literacy is thrown out the window and that distinction between fiction and reality gets thrown out with it.
Nora Marcus-Hecht is a fourth-year writing major who isn’t afraid to root for the bad guy. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.