SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

There is a certain attraction to a villain in the plot. Perhaps we can relate?


By MANDY WAN: Literature Columnist


We’ve all found ourselves doing it. You’re reading a book or watching a movie where you’re introduced to the big bad villain whose sole purpose is to put a spanner in our beloved hero’s works.

You watch as they throw everything they have against the protagonist. In the end, against all odds, the hero discovers a weakness within their great plan and defeats them, as they were destined to from the very start. 

However, along the way, you may have found yourself slowly leaning towards the side of the villain. Although the crimes they have committed would be atrocious in the real world, you found yourself captivated and eager to discover what they were plotting next. Chances are, you even found yourself rooting for their victory. If so, you aren’t alone. Just look at the enormous legion of fans that the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader have garnered over the years. Yet, this all seems illogical. We’re meant to like the heroes more, right? After all, they are the good guys.


Society disagrees.

Recent research has shown that the more traits we share with a villain, the more likely we are to be drawn to them. Strangely enough, this occurs even when we would be disgusted by real criminals who share similar characteristics as us. Experts theorise this reaction is produced by the fact that seeing antisocial qualities in someone who otherwise resembles us is perceived as a threat to our self-image. Naturally, human beings are inclined to regard themselves positively. Thus, recognising a likeness between oneself and a bad person can be upsetting as it implies that if they are evil yet share the same attributes at you, then you must be immoral as well.

On the contrary, fiction is regarded as a “cognitive safety net” for our brains which allows us to identify with miscreants without damaging our self-image.


In other words, we understand that fiction is separate from reality and so, even if we are similar to an antagonistic character, we don’t have to entertain the idea that this says something about our true selves because they are not real. Their evil is not real. When people feel protected by knowledge, they are comfortable with watching/reading more about these darker characters.

It was also found that people are drawn to villains regardless of what kind of trait they share – negative or positive.

Nevertheless, more research is required before we can determine exactly why likeness to a fictional villain enamours them to us. 

Another possible explanation for our inclination for the dark side is that we have been conditioned to favour the bad guys. For example, when the Joker arrives at the scene, we have come to expect havoc and chaos to descend upon Gotham before Batman ultimately rights his wrongs. Yet, this is exactly what we seek when reading/watching because it is entertaining. It provides the action that we crave when following the hero’s adventures. Eventually, we learn to associate the antagonist with the feeling of satisfaction – as their crucial role in developing the plot comes through their efforts to undermine the protagonist – which in turn, draws us to them.

On a similar note, villainy is synonymous with freedom. Typically, they are either reckless or calculated in their actions but always self-orientated. In essence, they are truly free in the sense they can live however they want without worrying about others or the consequences of their choices. Whereas our wishes and their probabilities of coming true are always constrained by the law, our finances, society’s norms, and so on. Simply put, we are captivated by them because they have what we don’t. It can even be argued that we live vicariously through these characters.

Overall, our unrequited love may not be as bad as the subject of our attraction. After all, without a good villain, there cannot be a good hero.


MACKAYAN: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL