Why People Love to Root for the Bad Guy

Posted by Labyrinthian in ,

Darth Vader, the Joker, Sylar, Sephiroth, Magneto, Voldemort, Dr. Doom. 

What do these villains have in common?  People love them. 

Over the last ten years or so I've noticed a big increase the number of people who seem to root for the antagonist over the protagonist. This is really strange because it is contrary to the writers intent. If the antagonist was supposed to be loved, then he would be the protagonist, albeit in antihero form.

Antiheroes are certainly as popular as ever. I myself love Kain, from the video game series, The Legacy of Kain. He isn't a good guy, and he himself is the antagonist in the series' second installment, Soul Reaver, but I found myself rooting for him all the same.

Strangely enough it wasn't Kain that got me thinking about this. I was actually watching a particularly strange (and to be honest pretty bad) cartoon from my childhood called King Arthur and the Knights of Justice.  I had ever seen the end of the show when I was a kid and working on my Caliburn game kind of got King Arthur on my mind so I went back and watched the whole series from start to finish on DVD.   

Just to give you a quick idea of what the show is about, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (Called the Knights of Justice in the show) get trapped by Morgana in a place called the Caves of Glass.  Merlin, knowing that the Kingdom is doomed unless he finds others to fight in their places searches through time for men worthy enough to take the place of the real Arthur and his Knights.  Fortunately for Merlin (though arguably unfortunately for the audience) Merlin finds just such men in the form of a college football team called the Knights led by their noble Quarterback, Arthur King.  

No I didn't make any of that up.

The football takes the place of the Knights and their King with no one except Morgana really noticing, and she only seems to notice because she checked to make sure the real King and his men were still trapped in the Cave of Glass.  Arthur and his team battle Morgana's Warlords, warriors she has crafted from stone using her magic.  The Warlords are led by a man who is unfailingly loyal to Morgana, is a great warrior, and is Arthur's principal rival.  You'd probably say he is Mordred, right?  Wrong.  His name is Lord Viper.  

No I didn't make that up either. 

Anyway the Knights battle the Warlords over the course of two season trying to get the magical Keys of Truth they need to free the true King Arthur and his Knights and return to their own time.  Along the way they learn valuable lessons about teamwork, loyalty, and sacrifice.  This makes it a great kids show, but the terrible two dimensional characters mean that it doesn't hold up when watching it years later.  

King Arthur and his Knights are good people who almost never make a mistake and are never really tempted to.  They have some very predictable flaws, but someone just points it out to them immediately and they get over them without a struggle.  These kinds of character struggles are what make interesting characters and great stories, so as you can imagine all the ones from this show kind of blow. The only ones who were truly flawed in this show were the villain Morgana and Viper. 

Which brings me back to my original point, why people love to root for the bad guy.  After about three episodes I found it hard to root for Arthur and his football team.  Honestly, they were just boring.  You knew all you wanted to know about them from the very first episode (and in some cases more).  The only characters that interested me were Morgana and Viper.  Why were they rebelling against Arthur?  Had he done something?  Was their some sort of legal dispute over succession like in many Arthurian tales?  Morgana just kind of seemed crazy a lot of the time.  It is never stated, not even by Merlin who also sucks as a character, but I got the sense that Morgana's magic had driven her crazy.  She certinaly laughs manically at very inoportune times.  Viper is obviously extremely evil based on his actions throughout the show, though he is unwaveringly loyal to Morgana.  Shouldn't someone so evil be trying to usurp her power as he is trying to usurp Arthur's?  Is he is love with Morgana?  Why did he join her cause?  Sadly none of these questions were ever answered. 

The fact is that the villains in this show were just as bad as the heroes in terms of character depth.  Just as Arthur and his Knights would unfailingly do the right thing Viper and his people would unfailingly do the wrong thing.  Yet the fact that I had so many questions and so much interest in the villains and virtually none in the heroes is an inequity I find very telling. 

As stated above, one problem I have with the heroes is that they are too good.  It just isn't realistic and get's annoying and preachy after a while.  I have no problem with a character struggling through temptation and finally coming to a tough choice that they know to be the right one.  Viper always makes the wrong choice, but at least you can understand why.  The guy seems bitter, constantly get's his ass kicked, is frustrated with how the war is going, and has Morgana yelling and belittling him every time he loses a battle.  The guy clearly has plenty of pent up frustration and anger to take out on anyone he meets.  That I can understand.  He isn't making the right decision, but at least I understand and can sympathize with him making the wrong one.  

Viper also has an air of mystery about him.  As I said, they never answered any of the questions someone might have had about him.  They don't know where he came from or why he is doing what he is doing.  It is easy to imagine that Viper was once one of Arthur's best Knights and was seduced to the cause of Morgana, but this is never stated or hinted at.  Still Viper provokes the imagination partially because, like many villains, their is a shadowy past full of mystery and unanswered questions.  We often fill in those blanks with answers that we think are great and thus make the character out to be better (to us as least) than he really is.  

Finally, Viper and his men, like most bad guys in fiction, get kicked around constantly.  They almost never win even the smallest victory which gives them a real underdog vibe.  People love underdogs.  They love pulling for the "little guy" because that is the role that they are most likely to relate to.  So often in life we face an uphill battle over what seem like overwhelming odds so we like to see someone facing those same kind of odds pull through.  Deep down I think it gives us hope for our own situation. 

There are many lessons to take out of this, both GMs and Players.

For players, your PCs are the main characters of the show that is your campaign.  Remember that, and remember that great characters are not defined only by their strengths but also by their weaknesses.  Give your character a flaw or two, one that will likely create some tension and great story opportunities in the future. 

For GMs, recognize that just because the players will be pitted against your NPCs doesn't mean that can't respect them or even be friends with them.  Look at Professor X and Magneto, they are best friends but constantly find themselves battling against one another because they don't see eye to eye on what is best for their kind.  These kind of enemies can be the most memorable and create a different kind of obstacle than a standard monster in a dungeon.  X never really gives up hope of Magneto seeing the error of his ways and using using his powers for good.  The battle to convince a bitter enemy to stop their dastardly deeds may not require any dice, but it may be the greatest battle any player at your table has ever fought. 

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 08, 2011 at Tuesday, March 08, 2011 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


This is an excellent post. Congratulations on making it through 2 seasons of that show.

March 8, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Thanks C... It wasn't easy!

March 8, 2011 at 2:12 PM

I am assuming that this is the reason that everyone loves the Christian Bale Batman films but hate the Val Kilmer ones.

Or why superman appears to be a bit of a camp loser, he already has everything.

great post

March 10, 2011 at 8:44 AM

Cool story, bro.

No really, it was a cool story.

January 30, 2012 at 7:49 AM

7 years later but kinda just found this looking up something unrelated.

The reason people root for the villains is complicated and you can't really take a shitty TV from the 90's as an example of this. Magneto, however, is the perfect example of a villain people would root for and even favor by and large over their heroic counterpart.

In the 90's and early 2000's the X-Men kind of ended up being a touchstone for civil rights (and gay rights especially with their "cure" storyline) with most of their background lore being about the oppression of mutants mostly for being different. This is major connecting point for any kid or even adult who for whatever reason doesn't feel accepted or that they fit in. Same old story, everyone basically knows and understands this already, however...

Bring in a figure like Magneto who has had it with everyone's shit and is the only figure to actively fight back against the bigoted establishment and you have the only person giving people a feeling of release and empowerment. Magneto was a holocaust survivor who saw the same kinds of bullshit going on in his fantasy modern world as went on in Nazi Germany and stood up to say "no more" and while, depending on the writer, Magneto is certainly prone to cartoonish poor writing and pointless villainy he is not only a sympathetic villain, but a villain that a lot of people can identify with over the X-Men who largely fought to defend the "innocent" and the establishment despite trying to peacefully work to make things better. Most people who feel oppressed or different for any reason wouldn't see the X-Men trying to take the "right" path to change; they'd see them as ineffectual protestors where as Magneto is willing to give the evil that people can identify as existing in the real world a black eye.

In terms of modern politics, the X-Men would be the John McCain figure standing up to Donald Trump with words and be as effective as a wet noodle when it comes to change. The X-Men are the people who defend the police who are shooting minorities for no reason and arresting people for trying to get into their own apartments or sitting in a coffee shop for a few seconds; for not actually committing crimes. Yes the police are mostly innocent and good people doing an underappreciated job; but if you're one of the people who feels oppressed or has to deal with those bad apples you sure as hell don't identify with the people pointing that out. You don't root for the guy whose defending the person you see as a threat even though they might be in the right.

Magneto would be the guy who would go up and knock in Trump's teeth...sure nothing might changes but most people would get a hell of a lot more catharsis from the guy knocking in some asshole's teeth than his same-party contemporary pointing out his childish megalomania.

May 2, 2018 at 9:40 AM

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