1. I think that’s partially true, but not in every case. Who the audience hates or sympathizes with is going to depend on a lot. Many times, people will root for the main char simply because that is the character the story follows, and maybe a certain level of camaraderie tends to develop between readers and the main char. But, also, a lot of people will sympathize with chars they agree with or identify with. And they’ll get very emotional and justice oriented about it too sometimes. Like, it won’t matter what the char’s been through or why they’re doing something and what the results will be. If the char disagrees with the viewer, then the char is a big meanie and deserves every bad thing that happens to him. Conversely, people will also have a bias toward chars that they agree with/identify with.

    In a lot of cases, when someone roots for a villain or thinks they’re cool, it’s because the villain hasn’t done anything that would actually make a lot of viewers hate them or think they’re truly an evil that needs to be destroyed. Yes, Gru came across as a bit of a jerk and like he could be a problem, but after a while at least he was portrayed in a way that played on the audience’s sympathies and as if he were a guy that was secretly sad and chasing his dreams, not necessarily someone that wants to do anything truly heinous. Yeah, snatching the moon would be a very horrible thing in real life (from what I understand, the moon influences tides and whatnot) and maybe a lot of people would die if the moon disappeared, but the audience isn’t going to feel in touch with that reality and is instead going to root for Gru’s dream(though in a way I think a lot of people were invested in his redemption or at least kinda loved him more for it). As for the minions…they delight in following bad guys, but did they really actually do anything that would make the audience hate them?

    I don’t even think the Despicable Me series necessarily made villains seem cool. In some cases it kinda did, but after a while the veil was pulled back on the other villains and we see that many were kinda lame, incompetent, clownish, etc. Also, they had silly childish motives often enough.

    Usually I don’t find myself rooting for the villain. I might want them to succeed for plot reasons, but that’s about it. That said, due to my personality type and life experiences, it’s very easy for me to be like ‘I care about this person and understand what they’re doing and why, and they have legitimate reasons to want to solve this problem in their lives. But the person’s methods are wrong and I don’t support their behavior.’ And then I think about what that person could have done instead.

    • Thanks for sharing. You bring up a good point, about villains who have legitimate goals they’re trying to achieve. One of my favorite villains is General Zod in Man of Steel. His chief goal –– the survival of the Kryptonian bloodline –– is certainly valid. Of course, he ends up being a genocidal supremacist in the way he goes about it. But he almost convinces us that we should join his side. That’s always an interesting moment, when we feel sympathy.

  2. Villainous competence does definitely cause a kind of vicarious thrill in many readers, as V.E. Schwab discovered from readers’ enthusiastic response to her VICIOUS and SHADES OF MAGIC series. There’s something magnetic about watching a really efficient, clever, ruthless and determined villain execute his master plan (see also: Hans Gruber in DIE HARD), even if part of that visceral thrill is also tied up with the much healthier and more understandable reaction of wondering how the hero can possibly defeat such a deadly enemy, and being excited to see how he does it.

    Which has made me realize, interestingly enough, why so many fans of Darth Vader and other ruthless Star Wars villains have had a conflicted or downright hostile reaction to Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. They wanted and expected a cold-blooded and seemingly unstoppable villain who would pose a major threat to the heroes, and at the very beginning it seemed like Kylo was that kind of character. But as the first movie went on he started to show all kinds of cracks of weakness and self-doubt, his air of cool command dissolved into fits of impotent rage, and finally he ended up gut-shot by his father’s henchman, sliced up by his uncle’s (and previously grandfather’s) lightsaber, and kicked flat in the snow by the newly Force-empowered heroine before she escaped in his father’s ship. So a lot of fans then felt robbed of their expected Villainous Thrill and decided that Kylo was a weak, wimpy, unsatisfying Vader-lite and THE FORCE AWAKENS was a dramatic failure. They were even more disappointed when instead of levelling up in villainy in the second movie and becoming a truly daunting foe, Kylo continued to vacillate between the Light and the Dark Side and failed to achieve any of his desired ends. Curses, foiled again!

    I’ll be very interested to see how those fans react to the third movie when the real villain of the trilogy and his long-range master plan are revealed. Will the thrill of that and the threat he now poses to the heroes be enough to satisfy viewers’ longing for villainous competence? Or will those fans still be frustrated that Kylo Ren wasn’t Darth Vader 2.0, and in fact was never meant to be?

    • That’s great insight about Kylo Ren, and yeah I’ve certainly felt disappointed in him as a bad guy. You’re totally right about a story being more exciting the more difficult it is for our hero to defeat the villain. We don’t want heroes to have it too easy.

  3. notleia says:

    TL;DR: I find this theory questionable.

    I wouldn’t call it evil that we’re fascinated by, more like the buried charm of tricksters and villains is in the tension between selfish motivations and pro-social motivations. All of us are a little selfish, and within a certain extent that’s not even a bad thing. Plus I always admire competency, even in a villain.

    • notleia says:

      Plus there’s usually aspects of power and control built into the thing. What kind of person has an overwhelming need to control everything? Someone with a deep-seated sense of insecurity. And insecurity is a very relatable thing.

      • Very true, at the heart of villainy is a good desire we can all relate to. Obviously it’s something that’s become twisted or else achieved with twisted means. You mentioned Control as one of those needs. No one likes insecurity, you’re right. I’ve heard it said that Comfort, Power, and Approval round out the other fundamental needs. But all 4 can be turned into idols, too, can’t they? Things we’ll pursue at all costs. Thanos would be a good example of a Power villain.

        • notleia says:

          Should we count control and power separately? I can’t really think of how one would be separate from the other. And usually approval comes to be subordinate to power. And comfort is usually the end goal for control anyway.

          But not all of us pursue those at all costs. If we can get our needs met sufficiently, we usually don’t feel the need to go to the effort of doing much more. Domestic abusers and garden-variety narcissists are usually content (or “content”) having just a few people sufficiently under their thumb. Even in psychopathy, evidence suggests that if they feel their needs are met, they don’t go to many extremes.

          (It’s your grasp of psychology I’m questioning, to sum up.)

          • Maybe we can think of control as a specific type of power. Either that, or control as the implementation of power. Physical strength is a type of power, for example, but having it doesn’t automatically put someone in control. Someone else with authority or strategic skills might have control instead. Authority and strategic skills are different types of power, but they only have control when the person is able to use them to steer the situation as they see fit.

            In some cases, narcissism is partly about seeking a thrill, rather than being solely about comfort. Like, comfort is part of it, but narcissists are addicted to narcissistic supply and part of that might entail instigating uncomfortable situations to curate their false self and whatnot. And sometimes they seek more because they get bored after a while. So no, it’s not a matter of getting one’s needs met once and then stopping right there.

            • notleia says:

              Except getting your needs met is an ongoing deal rather than a one-and-done thing. Tho, true, I am stretching the definition of “comfort” a bit to accommodate the urge for stimulus and novelty.

              But while narcissists may have ambitions of being big fish in bigger ponds, they’re usually only willing to do the work of being a sufficiently big fish in whatever small pond they can find (even a church. Heck, especially churches desperate for volunteers where they can be in charge of a thing with no experience required [ie, youth groups]).

              But I guess part of what I’m trying to get at is the scope possible for a certain type of person — within a certain system. Incompetent losers already have some kind of privilege that they leverage to inch themselves up to power (like, the Spray Tan in Chief is one, but he was already rich and he could leverage the Republican culture of unbridled privilege and toxic masculinity because he is basically the poster child for both those things).

              But the competent types who can come from nothing usually have different flavors of motivations than mere egoists. I’d say that to be competent in a system like ours is to need some degree of emotional intelligence in order to be able to deal with people. That creates a different dynamic.

              • notleia says:

                Oh, oh, I know, it’s like the difference between Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. Anakin was actually effing competent, if kinda dumb. His “chosen one” junk only got him so far on its own — he had to actually be good at Jedi junk to get in Palpatine’s orbit in the first place.

                Kylo Ren isn’t competent and only got where he was by trading on the Skywalker name. Which is why I understand why a lot of people think he sucks in the interesting villain department. He doesn’t do interesting sh*t, he does petty sh*t.

              • Yeah, it is on going, but in a way people’s ‘needs’ are a ravenous monster that says it will be sated at a certain point, but then just sets the bar higher after arriving at that point for a certain length of time. In a lot of ways, that’s why it can be so dangerous for someone to stay married to someone with NPD. Like, even if the person has a pretty good idea of how to provide narcissistic supply and figures out how to satisfy the narcissist, it probably won’t be enough eventually. In a lot of ways, their ‘needs’ are probably a constantly moving and escalating target. So, like, I dunno. In a lot of ways, it’s not always good to say ‘meet their needs and they won’t get any worse’ because their needs aren’t necessarily something people can keep up with. To an extent, that’s probably the case with regular people too, though. Like, we should try to meet people’s needs, but in a lot of cases that’s not truly all they want.

                With comfort and stimulus, that can get interesting in terms of how to classify everything. Like, from what I’ve noticed, there’s two types of boredom. One is the kind that happens when a person doesn’t like their current task and wants a different one. The other tends to come when people don’t really have anything to do. The second one can be complicated because, on one hand, it can occur because we are wired to do things. If we aren’t busy, we run the risk of dying because we aren’t seeing to tasks that contribute to our well being. On the other hand, though, we could say that boredom is what happens when we have too much comfort. And that we seek thrill because we are tired of feeling comfort.

                In terms of the cognitive functions, though, thrill seeking and comfort can often be part of the same function. Si (introverted sensing) has to do with things like the past, duty, loyalty, one’s personal pleasure and experiences, etc. That probably doesn’t necessarily mean that thrills and comfort are actually the same. It’s probably more like they’re all under the same banner of wanting to have a good experience and placing importance on the good experiences one has had.

                Speaking in terms of specific cognitive functions, though, people have different levels of desire for comfort, relative to the rest of their cognitive functions. I’m an INTJ, so Si is my lowest cognitive function. I care about being comfortable and having good experiences, but it’s definitely my lowest priority and often the first thing to fall by the wayside if there’s something else I deem more important. Usually, if someone asks if I’m comfortable, I might say yes, but it’s not actually because I’m noticeably comfortable. It’s more like I probably wasn’t thinking about being comfortable at all, but since I wasn’t noticeably UNcomfortable, I figure that must mean I’m comfortable.

                But if someone wants to speak super generally, we could say that everybody wants to be comfortable, but will only be comfortable for different reasons. Like, Se is my fourth function, and it’s dedicated to giving other people a good experience. I usually worry about that more than receiving a good experience. Buuuut, that’s partly because it’s harder for me to feel ‘comfortable’ if other people are uncomfortable. Like, if they’re uncomfortable, they might blame it on me or start to think less of me, which tends to feel uncomfortable. But then that ‘discomfort’ has more to do with my other functions, not necessarily Si. So, again, that would be comfort in a very general and almost roundabout sense. Or, at the very least, comfort in the sense of an absence of pain, rather than the presence of something one enjoys. But, different personality types engage with comfort differently, of course.

              • notleia says:

                Because I grew up in the sort of culture where they told us that smoking pot once would turn us into homeless, diseased druggies and a lone one-night stand would cause us to get AIDS and die, I have a hard time with other people’s sense of escalation without a sense of their expectations for that escalation.

              • Hm…I’m not entirely sure what you mean by ‘expectations for that escalation’.

              • notleia says:

                I didn’t phrase it well. Basically, I want to know how close to reality their expectations are, whether they go from zero to apocalypse doom in .875 seconds.

                With narcissists, escalation isn’t linear. With anything, really, I suspect escalation isn’t linear. There are honeymoon periods where they cast themselves as the star of a play about them as the dashing lover or the affectionate parent or what have you.

              • Ah, I see. And yeah, from what I hear, that kind of stuff goes in cycles, depending on how the narcissist feels and what they think they need to do to manipulate people. Wouldn’t surprise me if the cycles got progressively worse, though, in a lot of cases. Like, shorter idealization periods. Or more heinous abuse between the idealization.

                Sometimes people seem to take something that can be a legitimate issue, but don’t explain it realistically. Like, a parent could be super adamant about not drinking (or at least not while driving) because it could cause a wreck that kills the driver or someone else. That’s technically true. But if the parent is super adamant, they might come off like they think a wreck is the immediate result of drinking at any point.

                Obviously, that’s not how it actually is. If someone drives drunk, they might get into a wreck that ends tragically, or they could drive drunk a hundred times before anything bad happens. No one knows what will happen, but there is some risk involved in these things that parents definitely should warn kids about.

                It’s up to the child (and somewhat the parents) to develop discretion on these things. And like…annoying and overbearing as parents can be sometimes, it’s not necessarily because they think driving drunk once(or whatever else) will immediately result in a bad consequence. Rather, they worry since technically, it only takes once. And sometimes the consequences are inescapable, and they want to shield their child from that even if the chances of those consequences are small.

    • If the villain is good looking, charming, and funny we can admire those characteristics since they are all good things. But they really are only surface characteristics.

  4. Rachel says:

    I find it troubling that we are so enamored with Evil as a society. The “Evil is sexy” trope.

    I realize Minions is meant to be goofy. But why the adoration of villains?

    In real life most villains are neither corny (Snidely Whiplash) nor cool (Joker) but banal. Think Adolph Eichmann at the Nuremberg Trials. Nothing cool or sexy about him.

    As Christians we want to humanize the villains–at least the human ones. But it’s their humanity or not-evil characteristics we like. We should make the audience yearn for their redemption even if it never is attained.

    Quit thinking Evil is Good for crying out loud!

    This dates back to Paradise Lost. Milton wound up falling in love with his bad guy, giving him all the great lines of the epic, and making Satan more sympathetic and interesting than Adam or God Himself. Pretty creepy.

    C. S. Lewis pointed this out in the introduction to his Screwtape Letters. Laughable as the POV villain is you never would want him to be your BFF and are glad when he is thwarted at the end.

  5. Tyrean A Martinson says:

    I think you’ve made some excellent points and so have many commentators, but I am going to throw in another curve: are you sure we aren’t really rooting for a redemption arc? I love Gru because he has the possibility of being good. There’s a tension alive in him between good and evil, and the same can be said for the minions and who they are attracted to for a leader. I think this is why audiences like Loki – is he mischievous, misunderstood, or is there a glint of good lurking under all of his tricks. Thanos is a truly despicable villain, yet he “loves” his daughter. It’s a twisted, broken love but it makes him both more and less of a monster. I think we do want to excuse the bad because we are sinners, we understand it and the motives behind those bad choices. Yet, I think we really want the bad guy to get redeemed – God’s story is written into us in a way that goes beyond our sinfulness. Even though we are born into and live in a broken world, God knit us together in the womb. We long for him to make us whole so we long for the villains in movies to find wholeness – I don’t know if I would want a villain to succeed but I would really like to have some of those movie villains find peace and wholeness. So I think our sympathy with villains is rooted in our own sinfulness but it’s also rooted in our longing for grace, which comes from God.
    BTW – loved this post! It made me really take a moment to think.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tryean! I know what you mean about rooting for a villain to find redemption. I felt that quite often towards Arvin Sloane in Alias, and with Walter White in Breaking Bad. You bring up a good point about how we excuse the sins in others that we see in ourselves. It’s interesting, too, how this is often easier to do with fictional characters.

  6. notleia says:

    Ooh, had another thought. Somebody reviewed The Promised Neverland at some point, and at some other point I watched a review talking about how (SPOILERS) Mama Isabella is a nasty type villain we don’t usually get anymore. I mean, she’s raising human children for slaughter.
    The show kinda ruins it at the end by trying to make us not just understand her motives but also sympathize with her. Nope, show, that’s a bridge too far and I’m erasing it from my headcanon.

    That’s something I think that even show writers miss, that understanding something and sympathizing with something are two different things, and I want to see it more explored.

    • Tragic backstories where we feel sorry for everyone’s kind of an anime staple. I haven’t seen Promised Neverland, so I can’t comment on it in particular. But, I dunno. I agree that understanding and sympathizing are two different things, and sometimes it is interesting to see villains that are completely evil. But, it’s very easy for me to sympathize with someone without agreeing with them or rooting for them, so a tragic backstory doesn’t usually bother me from that standpoint unless it feels out of place.

      I kind of wonder if giving everyone a tragic backstory can kind of erode people’s sense of mercy, compassion, etc, though. Like, in some ways it can make people more merciful in the sense of trying to understand others and not hate them. But, it could also go the other way. Like, people might start to figure that compassion doesn’t matter anymore if even the most heinous beings have reasons and tragic emotions and whatnot. If people get to that point and hate someone or feel motivated by justice, nothing will move them toward mercy, not even understanding the person or seeing how much pain they’re in. In fact, seeing that could make them even angrier because they might feel like such things are an attempt at manipulation.

  7. […] of their unashamed propensity to use force—whether mystical or material—to achieve their goals. And as I’ve previously explored, we may feel drawn to villains because of their overindulgence in … They serve as a form of wish […]

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