Villainy and Agency: The Appeal of Active Evil in Narrative

Protagonists may be our narrative stand in, but we certainly root for the forces in their way more than we would for ourselves.

There are many forces we might root for in a story. There are many reasons we might root for our hero. There are many ways to write a hero. There are many circumstances in which we recognize heroic acts, but heroes are not always our favorites. Individually, many of them seem unique, having their own lives and powers, some as stand-in average joes, others as grand nigh unstoppable forces.

Sometimes we root for the forces that stop them.

That would be a villain as obstacle, and we ordinarily don’t find them as appealing. Part of it has to do with the fact that you don’t characterize a hurdle. The other part — a part I find central to the appeal of most of the greatest villains, is that those villains lack agency. They’re often relegated to being a stepping stone for heroes, as a means to gain some greater power or knowledge of themselves.

Agency and motive are integral to the development and viability of a character. Villains almost always tend to have both of these, while protagonists often have one or the other. You may not know the villain’s reasoning (as they save it for a big reveal at the end when their plan is explained), but you want to. As I will discuss later, motives for villains have shifted towards being either more grounded in reality and human desires or in being (almost) morally good — only problematic in their means.

The weakness of a world that posits a “good” and “evil” stance is that it doesn’t tend to allow for perspective. Most of the villains that end up having motives we empathize with, in this model, are then recast in a “but-was-he-really-evil?” sort of way. I mean, all he wanted was to save his dying wife. I mean, all she wanted was to stop her country from suffering. I mean, all they wanted was revenge for a perceived wronging or slight. This is the simple version of providing moral grayness, often thrown in at the last minute to humanize a character. I would argue it as a cheap trick.

Real morality (like real poetry) has to be inspired by feelings that go beyond ourselves. To claim a moral center because you want personal revenge or because you want closure in some way depends on the scope of the narrative. But I argue that unless we are thoroughly charmed by the villain in a story where the only conflict and only consequences exist between a wronged protagonist and a violent antagonist, we won’t like them. If all the villain has done is murder a family (but only because he needed their life essence in order to save his dead wife, not out of malice, of course), maim or rape someone, or bring destruction to a village out of fear or desire for personal gain, we tend to enjoy their demise — we tend to seek poetic justice in some way. But those stories are often the ones that center agency away from the villain. The villain is being hunted down in those and the protagonist is actively motivated to find them.

And yet many stories about heroes are framed as stopping some evil person with an evil plan. Those are the stories where villains have the agency. It’s a different kind of chase. The villain is always actively changing the pieces on the board, always one step ahead, always the force of change in the world. The hero, in those cases, is always a reactionary. Their motive can be external, to some capacity, but it’s often weakly offered up as, “because it’s the right thing to do.” Sometimes they are given additional characterization via trauma like they once watched their own friend die at the hands of the (or a similar) villain, and they don’t want anyone to suffer that way they did — but this is still with the base assumption that even without that pain or lesson, the hero would still act in a morally good manner. Their tragic backstory only motivated them away from a normal life — it did not provide them their moral center. The hero stumbles on scenes of destruction and tries to mitigate the damage, or is forced into conflict with some minor force — sometimes by a sense of moral obligation — but they don’t pick the fight. These are the stories where we find villains more evocative.

Blade Runner is a great example of this (one I will not belabor, nor spoil, for the sake of those who have not seen it). The protagonist is, in essence, a hunter sent to track down someone — he’s a detective. And sure enough, he’s always on the trail, but that means he’s always following. And his motives are weak to some capacity, he does it because he’s good. The villain sees additional characterization in every scene he has, sometimes alongside cruel behavior, sometimes through it. The last scene sees an inversion of the story, and the notion of who is chasing who gets murky.

We also tend to find stories that get playful with moral perspective, with who is the villain and who is the hero, or that position our hero against an ordinarily “good” society to be evocative, often for reasons relating to agency. We can like the hero that, from the perspective of the world at large that the narrative takes place in, is the villain.

Depth in villains is a somewhat recent trend, possibly borne out of the lack of a clear antagonist force in Western society. Of course, we still tend to posit ideology as an enemy in the form of terrorists/extremists, but I think, even without realizing, our media tends to acknowledge the lack of totality in their threat: that there is no continent spanning society of terrorists, realistically. But Blade Runner existed before the collapse of our easy antagonist ideology found in the Soviet Union and communism. Many things with evocative antagonists have. I would argue that it’s not the rise of depth in villains so much as the downfall of comfortable simplicity. We no longer live in a world where it’s easy to cast an individual or collective as “the enemy” and deserving of no mercy, and I think that extends into the narratives we create, but I imagine this could be a topic all its own to explore.

In short, we like villains because, and when, they are their own protagonists. Calling them antagonists implies they are in someone’s way, when really the hero is the one who’s only goal is to get in the way of the villain’s dream.

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