Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why Are Villains So Popular?

A villain is supposed to be…well…bad.  They’re the antagonist of any story, and they’re supposed to be made so that people will instinctively root against them and for the hero.  So why has it become in vogue for people to root for the bad guy?

Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Voldemort, Negan - these are the supremely evil beings that were designed to give the hero a challenge, yet lots of people seem drawn to them.

I think the first point of this is what I identified above – in order to give a hero a challenge, we have to give that hero an opponent worthy of the quest.  And since most stories are told from the point of view of the hero, with all their initial weaknesses meant to be obstacles to overcome, the villain appears so strong at first.  In order to present the necessary challenge, we never give the villain’s weaknesses right off the bat, and people are naturally drawn to strength.  Think about it – every sports team has bandwagon fans who jump onboard as soon as that team starts to win.  Villains are no different since they’re winning at first and look to be invincible.

Also, since we rarely see things from the villain’s point of view, we’re never presented with the villain’s insecurities, so the bad guy looks supremely confident.  Confidence is also another natural draw, as people want to be led by someone who is sure he knows what he’s doing.  If we saw Darth Vader from the beginning as a whiny child throwing a tantrum, his appeal would’ve been immediately curtailed.

The few villains I’ve read about that didn’t draw people in were those I’ve seen through their own eyes, like Jake Featherston.  Jake Featherston was a Hitler knock off in Harry Turtledove’s Great War saga.  Unlike many villains, where we see little but their successes and rarely touch on true atrocity, Turtledove does an excellent job making us hate Featherston from the beginning.  We see how nasty he can really be – racist, anti-Semitic, petty, and cruel beyond belief – and we also see his insecurities over his rise to the top of a Confederacy that continued past 1865.  It allows us to get onboard the Good Guy Train without ever being drawn towards the bad.

Great villains can be iconic, but I don’t think we want people rooting for them.  Maybe this happens because people want “gritty,” but I think a lot of it stems from our own failure to understand human nature and create bad guys no one loves.

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