I was reading a conversation on social media about people who complain about problematic (Gods I hate that word) characters and why those people need to move along. Basically, villains, bad people, awful people, exist in entertainment media for a reason. That guy’s a jerk because it’s necessary for the story, not because the writer wants to be a jerk to people. It’s true. When people complain about, say the awful relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn, they’re right to find that to be a problem. There’s a reason it is, and there’s a reason it exists. But, you have people that find that sort of thing interesting, even appealing. There are memes out there showing those two characters with the caption: “Relationship goals”. No idea why anyone would want to be in that sort of relationship, but it’s out there.
The point of the original conversation was that this is not the writer’s fault. It’s not. If you have an issue with seeing evil characters in entertainment, you may need to reexamine your hobbies. But, this did make me think about why we are fascinated by villains, or often find them more interesting than the heroes. It’s often true, but why? And, I don’t think it has to do with a failure to make the hero interesting.
Take Star Wars as an example. The hero, Luke, is definitely a popular character, if the reaction to his story in The Last Jedi is any indication. But, in the entire trilogy who seems to be the most popular characters overall? Darth Vader and Boba Fett. Boba Fett, a throw away character with hardly any lines is arguably the most popular character from the original trilogy. Why? This guy looked cool, sure, but we know nothing about him. I think that’s part of the draw though. This guy we knew nothing about spawned some of the most valuable action figures, popular cosplay, and interesting mythology in the entire saga.
I think part of it has to do with how we are as people. It’s easy to relate to a hero. I think, in general, when faced with a choice between good and bad we’d go with good. It’s normal, expected, and frankly not that interesting. We are drawn to things we don’t understand, scared by them, intrigued by them and we find them interesting. Look how popular true crime shows, and documentaries about serial killers are. We don’t get why they do it, so it intrigues us. Why does an evil guy or gal do what they do? What drives them? We can’t wrap our brains around what would cause someone to do it, so it fascinates us. Oh, that guy over there saved some kids from a burning bus? Sure, that makes total sense. Who wouldn’t try to save some kids. That jedi there took his light saber and murdered a whole class of kids? What? How the hell? I can’t even imagine how someone would be capable. So we want to know more.
So, I guess the point is, for the sake of being a writer don’t get discouraged if your readers like your bad guy more than your hero. As long as they don’t hate your hero, you’re probably doing something right. If you make an intriguing villain, that just means you’ve written a character with more depth than, “Hey look at me, I’m the evil bad dude put here so the hero had something to do.”