The Bad Guy Always Wins: Why We Romanticize Antagonists

They make us confront our shadow selves.

Fotolia.com | © DesignerVectoros

Fotolia.com | © DesignerVectoros

The first time I fell head over heels for an antagonist was when I read Interview with the Vampire at the wise old age of thirteen. I instantly became enthralled with Lestat in all his robust glory and his snarky, large personality despite him being portrayed as a selfish monster. I’ve always been fascinated by antagonists that don’t quite seem to understand they are the villain in someone else’s story. Eventually as a writer, and as a consumer of media, it became important for me to understand why we love bad guys so damn much.

With the recent release and success of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, I noticed a tidal wave of Tumblr posts asking people to not romanticize Killgrave, the show’s villain, or his relationship with Ms. Jones, the show’s lead. I’ve seen people love all manner of bad guys over the years and yet some seemed to be terribly off limits. Killgrave was just the most recent villain on that list due to his truly abusive and unforgivable nature. He is a predator in the truest form and has such a delusional sense of reality that he sincerely believes he is a victim.

But why do we need to remind our friends not to fall in love with these characters? Why do we find certain antagonists more attractive than others? Why even romanticize villains in the first place?

First, we need to examine three different degrees of antagonists:

The Evil Villain

To quote Darcy Pattison, “He is just nasty. He’s cruel, hypocritical, self-serving—and readers just want to punch him in the face.” This is the archetypical evil villain. They exist simply to be the presence of evil. They have no morals, no regrets, and they are terrible beings to their very core. They probably steal chocolate from babies and feed it to puppies as a jovial pastime. We’re talking characters like Voldemort. Disney’s villains often fit this mold, until a recent turn when they started to become more fleshed out. These are the characters that, when you admit to liking them, your friends will ask if you’re okay.

In my opinion, Killgrave would fall into this category. He is self-serving (literally harming others for his own benefit), cruel (he locked two children in a closet and had countless people kill themselves) and delusional (he can’t understand how he’s the villain). He’s not misguided. When given the option to be good, he only does it because Jessica is there to pressure him. We learn that not only was he raised by parents who tried to instill goodness in him, he truly couldn’t see the merit in their efforts. He’s a brilliant bad guy, but he’s a terrible human being.

Beyond purely evil beings created solely to battle against forces of good, we start to get into a gray area. This is where we start to sympathize with the antagonists. We relate to them more and put ourselves in their shoes.

The Insane/Chaotic Villain

This is Joker from Batman. He’s mentally unhinged and always ready to play. This type is a tornado, a fire, a tidal wave, and they are unstoppable in their energy and madness. We sort of feel bad when we realize they are mentally or emotionally deficit in some way, but we don’t excuse their behaviors. They make us confront those part of ourselves—the darkness that lurks in our own minds. What would it take to push us to the same point? Carl Jung called this Shadow Confrontation.

There’s a sort of freedom in this villain as well. They don’t have the same morals we do. They don’t pretend to be good or evil, and merely by existing, they influence their environment the same way a natural disaster would. They are unforgettable because they are terrifying.

These villains meet the protagonists head on and with a raised chin. They challenge the status quo simply by existing, and they draw the worst out of people because they are blank canvases of amorality. They force us to admit we desire power and dominance, both things heroes typically turn away from. We see our darkest selves in this crooked mirror and sometimes our reflection is a little too clear.

Ethical Villain

The misguided hero. When we see things from their perspective, we don’t actually see a villain anymore. These antagonists are the ones we tend to turn into our problematic favorites. They have good intentions, but their methods are just a wee bit off-kilter. This is Wilson Fisk from Daredevil, willing to destroy Hell’s Kitchen to rebuild a better society, because he wants to better his city. Not because he likes killing. Not because he’s insane. But because he wants to give people better lives. This is Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender hunting for Aang because he was raised to believe that the Avatar threatened his way of life. These are characters with redeemable traits, and we can’t help but root for them.

These characters are heroes in a different telling of the story. From their point of view, they are fighting the good fight, and the rest of the world is against them. In a way, this is the most terrifying antagonist, because this could easily be any one of us if pushed far enough. They are human beings with faults, families, and histories.

So, given all these different types of villain and antagonists, why do we love them? Why do we adore Draco Malfoy, the anti-hero of Hogwarts?

The answer lies in the fact that we see ourselves in them. Psychologically, we benefit from exploring these shadow areas of ourselves in a healthy way. We like to think that actions can be forgiven and explained. We love redemption, and we love to be the ones to offer it. Depending on the story, villains can also be more full and honorable than the hero. As such, we relate to their mission more. As Travis Langley from Wired.com puts it, “Even the more maladaptive reasons for such fascination tend to arise from motivations that were originally healthy and natural — frustrated drives that went the wrong way.”

Be it sympathy, power, a reflection of ourselves, or some sort of psychological wish fulfillment, we find antagonists interesting and enjoy them. They are the juxtaposition to our favorite protagonists, and sometimes that’s just what we need.

About C. L. Foltermann (7 Articles)
C. L. Foltermann is the holder of a Bachelor’s of Psychology from Old Dominion University and has been crafting fanfiction online since 2009. Currently, she works at a preschool full time and runs CynFol Adventures, a blog about her adventures in Maine.

1 Comment on The Bad Guy Always Wins: Why We Romanticize Antagonists

  1. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // January 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm // Reply

    Nice meditation on the appeal of villains. I think there can also be other reasons, besides psychology and motivation, that make villains appealing. For example, their sense of humor—when they have one—their charisma, and if they’re portrayed by an actor, whatever innate appeal the actor brings to the role.

    I liked the progression of villains that you described, from the (1) relatively flat, mustache-twirling, possibly poorly motivated, but overwhelmingly sinister and threatening type of character; to the (2) sometimes flat / sometimes round, motivated by insanity, utterly creepy and threatening type of character; to the (3) always round, usually very well motivated, often rational and morally ambiguous, coolly threatening type of character. All three types of villains have their place, but there’s a noticeable movement from relatively immature characterization (category (1) villians are often found in children’s stories) to more mature characterization (category (3) villains are more often found in stories targeted at thinking adults) in your progression.

    Given that, there’s a fourth category of villain to consider. Possibly they might not even qualify as completely villainous, but more as an equal and opposite antagonistic force. This type of villain character is always round, always well motivated (often to the point that we discover that the hero isn’t so heroic after all), always rational, and definitely threatening. This kind of antagonist provokes philosophical discomfort in the audience, because we can see that the values the antagonist holds are valid. From a certain point of view, in certain situations, we might even hold those values ourselves. Does that make us wrong, too? 🙂

    Ultimately, though, we find villains appealing because if all we had to tell stories about was a bunch of heroes, we’d be bored to tears. Plus, there’s a really satisfying high that comes from seeing a villain we hate be defeated. Once we enter into a story and become caught up in it, we crave that high.

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