Every Villain is the Hero of their own story.
From a very young age, we are taught to admire the hero and despise the villain. From fairy tales to Disney movies, the world seems to be divided into good and evil, and everyone is brought up expecting to root for the good person. However, that isn’t always the case. Especially in recent years, there have been many beloved bad guys on the big and small screen. Characters like Darth Vader and The Joker (clearly made to personificate a vicious purpose in their stories) or others like Loki and Draco Malfoy (that match the anti-hero persona rather than the villain), have been and still are so beloved although they were not created with that intention. Why is it then that we sympathize more with the ‘evil’ rather than the ‘good’ characters? Are we beginning to see that they aren't so horrible after all? Or are we on the verge of succumbing to the evil side?
A more general primary reason why this might be the case is unpredictability. Let’s be honest; when we pick up a Batman comic or go watch a Captain America movie, we know deep down that the hero will overcome all the obstacles he/she will face, emerge victorious and (most probably) alive. But when the villain of each story comes along, the possibilities are endless. We don’t know if they will capture the hero and all their allies, mess up their whole plan and act spontaneously, have a heart-warming wholesome moment or if they will turn the main characters against each other. With heroes, there are lines that are generally never crossed, but with villains, there are no lines. The writer’s freedom is apparent here; The motives, appearance, ambitions and reactions can change in the blink of an eye and that element of surprise is what keeps the audience hooked on the bad guy.
Deriving from that line of thought, we can undoubtedly agree that the villains are very multidimensional, having many aspects to their personalities. In contrast to the commonplace motives that can be found in most of the heroes, the villains’ motivations are more self-centred and usually circle around their trauma or weaknesses, making them unique in each case. Revenge for a loved one being unjustly taken, change of a flawed system that damaged them as a kid, being lied to or just a desire to mess with people for their own sadistic pleasure are a few reasons that might activate a villain. Additionally, by having weaknesses and being fueled by them, they appear more realistic, as they frequently act on emotion rather than reason. The very causes of their defeat are what makes them feel closer to the average viewer as most of the time it is apparent that they are individuals with idealistic views for the world that took a twisted turn along the way. Heroes have a very fixed way of acting, usually for the “general good”, while deeming their personal elements as obstacles to completing their missions; villains base their purpose around their diversity.
Another shared characteristic of most of our beloved villains is that they were outcasts. Despite the fact that society rejected them and that people despised them, they were nevertheless able to force their will on the world. Outcasts are normally helpless in real life, but villains defy that idea. This visualisation of taking their fragilities and turning them into a purpose, of taking the qualities they were ridiculed and alienated for and making them their powers gives us a sting of compassion. Also, by adoring villains we feed our belief that no matter how hated you are by the world, someone will find a way to love you. That deep-rooted belief makes it all more painful when we see a character acting wickedly because they have been deprived of love from their social circle (i.e family, friends, mentors). Watching them being fueled by their lack of affection & support, makes us sympathise with their aspirations even if they seem corrupt because we see the pure, hurt, damaged person underneath.
The reasons we adore the villains of our stories go on forever; their aesthetic, their design concept or their strategic nature are merely some additions. I think that what makes villains so attractive in a sense, is that they frequently depict the worst aspects of humanity, or, better yet, the truthful ones. The realities that are often difficult to swallow, but are true nevertheless. A good villain is essentially somebody that isn't intrinsically terrible but simply gets in the way of whatever the protagonist believes is right. By blurring the distinctions between right and wrong, stories and characters become more ethically ambiguous and hence more engaging. At the end of the day, perfection can be boring. It’s the antagonist that pushes the boundaries of a story and a hero to its limits, while keeping us connected to our dark side, the one that very often makes us feel the cool bad guys of our own stories.