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Posted by on Jan 5, 2013 in Aesthetics, Diversions | 7 comments

Why do we love villains?

One my ambitions – perhaps to be saved for a far-off time – is to write a book about fictional villains. What roles do they play in myth, literary narrative, and popular culture? What does the existence, and often the popularity, of these malevolent, yet sometimes charismatic, figures tell us? How has the concept of villainy developed over the centuries and over recent decades, and what does that tell us (perhaps about ourselves or the trajectory of history)?

Surprisingly little seems to have been written on this general topic, unless you count the lovingly detailed work of fans on the TV Tropes site. There are stray books that might be relevant, such as this one, The Oxford Book of Villains, by John Mortimer (which I must get around to reading some time), and this collection of essays about supervillains, edited by Ben Dyer, which uses them as a jumping off point to discuss philosophical issues. That’s something you’ll also be seeing me do in future posts, but Dyer’s book didn’t super impress me (as it were).

Oh, and here are two thoughtful posts by Tauriq Moosa about creating better villains. I’m sure that many writers would insist that they already do what Moosa is proposing, but he has raised interesting issues about it all: about what villainy in narrative signifies and how we should evaluate examples of it. You needn’t agree with all his judgments, but do check out his posts (indeed, you could do worse than check out his Against the New Taboo blog more generally; he’s a smart guy).

I’ve also raised over at Talking Philosophy the issue of why we love (at least some) villains, and there’s good commentary in the thread. I ask what makes some of these malevolent fictional characters not only believably charismatic within the fictional world but actually charismatic figures in the real world – in that they attract fans who cheer for them, buy posters of them, and want to read stories, see movies, etc., that are focused on them. On the face of it, it seems odd that narratives which depict the struggle between good and evil end up generating evil characters who are somehow alluring enough to attract their own large fan bases like this. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with the situation, but there is something about it that seems paradoxical.

All this is interesting in its own right, I hope, but it also provides a lead-in to my first post here at the new site in my long-running Sunday Supervillainy series, where all this and much more gets discussed (or sometimes we just let our hair down a little and talk about something less serious than happened the rest of the week). It’s almost Sunday, so I’ll be finding some supervillainy to talk about in that first post.

  • Vic

    God commits and condones immoral acts. We love supervillains. God attracts a paradoxically large fanbase. Ecce religio.

    I rest my case. 😉

  • I couldn’t find a way to search through the Sunday supervillain series, so I don’t know if this has already been done, but I suggest Deadpool in some capacity.

  • RussellBlackford

    If you go to the old site for this blog (it’s been at this site for less than a week) and search on “supervillainy” it will pretty much do the job: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com.au/search?q=supervillainy
    As for Deadpool – well, he was introduced as a supervillain but seemed so “cool” to the fans and became so popular that he was made into a hero, or at least a sort of wacky, anti-heroic protagonist. So that might tell us something about ourselves, or at least about comics fans.

  • RussellBlackford

    Good point.

  • Thanks.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Is your book going to include supervillains in romance movies?

    The plot of 99% of romance movies:

    Behave badly, hate each other’s guts, fall madly in love, live happily ever after. The End.

  • You must write that book. I’d love to read it. Thank you very much for recommending my blog, Russell. Greatly appreciated. Glad to see you join some of my other favourite bloggers here at SIN.