There’s just something infinitely interesting about evil.
Heroes are all well and good, but let’s face it, if they are merely heroes (and not anti-heroes existing in a story of skewed morality or reformed villains themselves) their one layer of goodie goodness can appear a bit flat. They may be the most lovable, honourable character to ever set foot upon a page, but that doesn’t make them intriguing. Also, the story will often be told either from their own perspective or centring around their workings. The bad guy looms on the edge as a menacing shadow. They’re a mystery.
And people love mysteries.
Like, why is this guy such an asshole? Was he/she made this way by some trauma of their childhood? Or is he/she merely inherently evil? What inspired them to want to take over the universe and/or cause the general unhappiness of other people? Or are they just an unthinking agent of chaos? Or perhaps an Eldritch Abomination?
If you look into the fandom centre of the internet you will no doubt see a swarm of Loki lovers on every surface. A la The Avengers, the God of Mischief has become, in the eyes of many, not simply a bad guy in a sweet helmet that calls on ‘horny’ jokes, but a tortured soul driven to wickedness by desire to be accepted. Norse mythology’s greatest trickster has been given daddy issues and suddenly, he is no longer merely The Bad Guy, but a sympathetic individual.
He’s still an asshole, but the viewers, instead of simply booing him and his black side of the black and white morality spectrum, are looking at him in a sympathetic light and trying to understand how and why he got like that.
While, hopefully, still being willing to accept that he is an asshole and debatably evil. Among my favourite characters are a psychopathic computer with a penchant for sarcasm, a basement-dwelling musician who kidnaps and occasionally kills people, and a smooth-talking people manipulator who may or may not be Mephistopheles. They can be good characters without being good people, which is something adoring fans are subject to forgetting.
The entire point of interest in these figures is that they are not good. They do terrible things. They wreak havoc and torment. But what lies beneath their dark and shadowy surface? What are their true motives? How did they get to where they are? Will we ever know?
A flat villain is boring, which is why a good writer will endeavour to make their baddies layered and complex rather than just stating “THEY’RE EVIL OKAY? THAT’S ALL THERE IS TO IT.” Let’s talk about the first character on that list, GLaDOS from the Portal games, who is programmed to test her subjects in a never-ending parade of puzzle-solving and fling witty and snide remarks at them as they go. Is she merely another example of why we in the real world should run screaming from all research into artificial intelligence? Or is she more complex than that? Even before revelations in the second game (SPOILERZ) about her being human before being uploaded into a murderous computer, she is still a character that is very easy to love. Even when she’s cruel to you. Especially then! You can appreciate her sass, if nothing else, and find her engaging to work with.
In the case of the second character, the Phantom of the Opera himself, his growth into the villain that torments the opera house is not one of nature but of nurture, being cast out and demonised by society because of his facial disfiguration. This led him to be not only socially-awkward (in the most literal, bare-bones sense) but understandably angry with the world and so he exacts his revenge, at the same time only wanting someone to love him. He falls into the same sort of category as Loki, and others like Harry Potter’s Severus Snape and Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Zuko, a sympathetic villain whose evil is owed to a tragic/sad/neglectful past. Really, the guy just needs a hug.
And then there’s the third aforementioned baddie, Sebastian, real name unknown, as he is in fact a demon (not just demonised by society but literally from Hell) who strolls around our plane of existence making contracts with people and collecting damned souls to play with. This particular asshole interests me greatly. First of all, he isn’t set up as a shadowy force in the distance but almost the main character of the manga series he resides in, Black Butler, and with the right twist of circumstance can be seen to be The Good Guy.
But are the good guys really that good, or just less evil than the various foes that they come up against? Is he helping his contractee out of affection, or just because he’s protecting his investment? What is the measure of monster and man? Can we trust this suave dude with our emotions as readers or is he going to screw us all over in the end? We just don’t know. It makes for a fascinating character study, mostly because the reclusive bastard doesn’t want to be studied and will conceal himself in layers of complexity and development. These are my favourite kind of villains, and are very interesting as anti-heroes.
Villains are fun, that’s the bottom line, even though they shouldn’t be; they become a guilty pleasure like peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and trashy reality TV. Also, as the billions of trees slaughtered to bring you the Mills & Boon franchise and droves of paranormal romance novels will tell you, there’s something attractive about badness. And within that the idea that badness can be reformed by love and tenderness. Or perhaps not. Perhaps wild spirits are the most tantalising of all… (I don’t know, actually, I’ve never opened a Mills & Boon in my life, but it’s food for thought)
We can understand good because we’re trained into a moral and ethical system of living from the moment we’re born, most commonly known as not being an asshole. Characters that subvert that interest us because it’s foreign, it’s sensational and it’s shocking. How could they do that terrible thing that we know is terrible because we’ve been taught it? Well, a good villain will not only provide a good opponent for the heroes but provoke thought in the audience.
And then there’s the question: what is evil? What is heroism? Maybe the baddies think they’re doing the right thing. Ethical and psychological arguments abound!
Then again, maybe they are just a monster from space, and that’s still cool, but much less to think about.