In the past ten years or so, if not longer, an idea has taken hold in storytelling circles. The idea is that the villain should be sympathetic. Well, maybe not sympathetic, exactly. Rather, the villain should be relatable and realistic. The reasoning goes, no one is the antagonist in their own story. Therefore, readers or viewers should be able to connect with the villain. To some extent, I understand and agree with this. After all, mustache twirling villains grow tiresome right quick. However, I also hate the idea that a villain has to be complex or sympathetic, or relatable. Villains are villains because they have chosen a path that leads to harming others in order to gain their objectives or get revenge. This is not something to cheer for. Don’t root for villains.
It is not difficult for me to understand why people see the need for well rounded villains in our entertainments. As I wrote earlier, one note villains are boring. Single note heroes are boring too; there needs to be more to the characters. Where I take issue is the idea that a story is better if the villain wins, or that it’s more interesting if the bad guy obtains victory. Should the bad guy be clever? Yes. Should they be a match for the protagonist? Of course. Does that mean we need to hope they win? No. Don’t root for villains.
Is a story sometimes better when the hero suffers, or even loses? Yes. Such things go against audience expectation, which is usually a great thing. Furthermore, it sets up the idea that the hero is fallible, which is not something that is always clear. Nevertheless, if the villain wins we shouldn’t feel good about it.
Don’t Root For Villains: They Don’t Deserve It
Look at Game of Thrones, for example. (The TV Show as I haven’t read the books.) That is a show where there are very few straight up heroic characters. It is also a show where the villains tend to win more often than not. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as there is some hope that good will prevail at some point. Does it have to be all roses and rainbows for the heroes? No, but it would be nice if they somehow managed to overcome evil and win the day. But should we be rooting for Cersei? Or the Mountain? Joffrey? The Night King? Are those the characters we really want to see win? And if so, why?
(Note: I started this post before the new season of GoT started, and now I add Dany to my list. To be fair, though, I have never really considered the Mother of Dragons ascending to the throne a good thing.)
Generally, the structure of stories go something like: hero is big and bold, faces villainy, villainy wins for the moment, hero wins the day. Many people find this formula boring, and I admit it can feel routine and silly. If the hero always wins, it seems like there is no reason to tell the story.
Victory at a Price
However, just because a hero wins, doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer. In fact, some of the best stories are the ones where, yes the hero, or protagonist if you prefer, wins, but also suffers. A victory that comes at a great cost to the hero is the most interesting to me. In the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Batman achieves victory over the three adversaries he faces. Each coming at a cost. The mutant leader bruises his body.
Then, the Joker murders a bunch of people and stabs Batman repeatedly. Batman beats Joker within an inch of his life, but doesn’t kill the Clown Prince of Crime. Even at the end, he fails to take action that would ensure Joker never hurt anyone again. Then Joker manages to break his own neck, rendering Batman’s code pointless. Here is a two-fold example of failing while succeeding. Bats failed to save the bystanders, and then he failed to stop the Joker. Joker did that all on his own.
Additionally, this scene provides us with a glimpse of Joker’s triumph. He failed to goad Batman into killing him, but he did murder a bunch of people that Batman wanted to save. A win for a Joker, and a loss for Batman.
Finally, still in the Dark Knight Returns, Batman fights Superman. He has a plan, and he wins, but again at a cost. Not only does bats get some broken ribs for his troubles, but he also has to fake his own death. Essentially, after this, the Batman is no more. (Until Dark Knight Returns 2, that is.)
We don’t root for the villains in this story, but their successes make Batman’s failures, and ultimate victory, more meaningful. He faces adversity and overcomes it.
Why Root for the Villains?
The real world is scary enough and is full of enough real assholes and villains . Do we need our entertainments to reflect reality so much that we watch the bad guys (or antagonists, if you prefer) win? Have we become so jaded that a heroic victory is boring and predictable?
I am not arguing for boring stories. I am, however, arguing that a story can still be interesting and entertaining, even when we know the heroes will win, most of the time. Heroes win, and they should. People read stories to escape, and a happy ending helps.
A good story about a villain you want to see reach their goal can work. I’ve read and seen a few. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, I enjoy stories told from the villains’ perspective, as long as they still fail and get their comeuppance.
The Americans is a good example. Elizabeth and Phillip are villains presented as protagonists. However, they are evil, murderous liars with few redeemable qualities. I wanted them to live, but I didn’t want them to win.
My issue is the idea that a story is boring or uninteresting if the heroes win. The journey matters more than the ending. If you need the hero to fail and the villain to win for the journey to be fun for you, then we have distinctly different ideas about stories.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.