Why do people love villains?

So we’ve already covered how, and at the same time why, to create a great villain.

“But Kelsey,” you’re saying, “why do I have to have a villain? My highbrow literary novel about a summer cold season in small town Portugal in World War one is too complex to have a villain! It’s going to reinvent the nature of protagonist and antagonist!”

Well friend, if that’s your style of writing I’m not sure you’re going to find much that you’re looking for here. Secondly, yes, you need an antagonist. An antagonist keeps the story going. Trying not to have one is just going to write you into a corner.

“I think you just like villains too much.” You say, annoyed that I’m underhandedly making fun of your magnum opus. “You’re probably secretly evil.”

Wow you, you’re sure in a snippy mood today. And yes, there is a possibility that I like villains too much. Guess what? So do your readers.

But why? Why do people like these vile, loathsome characters so much?

If you want to get really academic, it’s probably Freudian (but then again, everything is). I know I mentioned the concept of “id” last time, but I’ll explain it here in more detail. Sigmund Freud believed that a person had three levels of consciousness: conscious, subconscious and unconscious. Corresponding with this are three levels of the unconscious: id, ego and superego. The superego is the aspect of ourselves concerned with social norms and social etiquette. The ego is the aspect concerned with rationality, to the point of coldness—the rational way to get what we want. The id is the deep, dark part of ourselves that wants whatever it wants without any concern to society, and damn the consequences. Lots of sex? Id. Eating until you puke? Id. Bashing the brains out of the guy the next desk over who plays polka at all hours of the day? Id. The id is our inner darkness, the unrestrained self. Because we have a superego and an ego, we know we can’t do what the id wants and thus is constantly kept in check.

Look at a villain, though. They do terrible, awful things. They have a lot of sex. They kill people. They do anything and everything they want, and will do it no matter who gets in their way. Oh, there’re consequences. They just don’t care. The villain lives their life dictated by their id in a way that the average reader can’t. Though we know the things the villain is doing aren’t socially acceptable, we can’t help but envy them and identify with them.

Of course, this theory probably doesn’t explain it all. No good theory does. And most of Freud’s theories are best taken with a grain of salt the size of Western Canada.

Stepping away from the realm of academia into more practical literary territory, it could be because more effort is taken to explain a villain’s motivations. This is because, psychologically, most people assume that most other people are inherently good. This assumption was likely very beneficial to our early ancestors, and is still fairly beneficial today. Thus, when readers see the protagonist, someone doing largely good things, we don’t need it explained. It makes sense to us. However, readers are less likely to buy that someone is just born bad because of the aforementioned assumptions. Thus, when a villain is being written, more time is often required to explain why the villain is bad, why the villain is different from the norm. They need to have a reason to be bad. Readers spend a bit more time going into the backstory of this guy, more reflection time with them. Therefore, they could become more attached to the villain.

Both the Freudian explanation and the literary explanation are my academic viewpoint of things. I do think these are decent theories, don’t get me wrong. Like the unfortunate “you” I introduced this post with, I like to think that I’m very intelligent, very academic and very sophisticated. But I’m not. I’m really not.

And this is where I think the real appreciation of villains lies.

The antagonist of most fiction is a being who has been deemed, for whatever reason, “abnormal” by the general population. This is a being that was not born the same as their peers, and was likely ostracized. Look at most villains. Really look at them. Often times they’re animals, women, a different race, or coded to be seen as gay. Sometimes they’re mentally ill.

In other words, the villain is often a marginalized person.

I am a marginalized person. I’m mentally ill. I’m bisexual. I’m a woman. I feel pushed out of and labelled by society at large. I know many people who also feel this way. It’s not that we’re all secretly evil, though that would make the right wings very happy. But we can relate to the way the villain feels pushed out of society. Instead of wallowing in misery, the villain embraces the label society gave them and uses it against them. They have fun with their label. They embrace themselves.

This is why I believe villains are loved. They get to do all the things we think of but won’t allow ourselves to do. They’re given detailed backstories to explain why they’re not like the rest. They stand on the edge of society, an outsider looking in trying to decide if they like what they see.

And if they don’t, oh, will there be hell to pay.

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