Why do we like villains?

I recently read this article in the New York times by Anna Gunn, the actress that plays Skyler White in Breaking Bad about how much hate her character gets. It was surprising to me how obsessive people can get about a fictional character (death threats.. really??), but, not surprising to me that people tend to like the character of Walter over Skyler–and it has nothing to do with misogyny (though that may be the reason for some people).

We like active characters.  We like characters who are trying to do, or achieve something, more than we like reactive characters. In the show, the conflict is framed as Walt trying to do something, and Skyler (and Hank, the police etc) trying to stop him. We identify more with the person trying to do something, especially when they are the focus of the show. The others are seen as opponents, obstacles to overcome. So even though it is clear that Walt is a dangerous and really morally empty, violent and selfish person there is still that part of us that wants to see him succeed, because he is struggling to achieve something.

Its all a matter of how the story is framed. If instead we were shown the story from Skyler’s point of view, as she slowly realized who her husband really was, and made plans to escape him only to be stopped at every turn by the manipulative, egotistical Walt–we would certainly root for her to succeed and identify more with her, because she would be the one trying to do something (escape) and Walt would be stopping her from reaching that goal.

This is why in so many stories, the villain ends up stealing the show. Writers often get so caught up in the villain’s plans and efforts and how resourceful and determined they are, that the evil things they are doing stop mattering to the reader/viewer so much, and they only see that the villain is working hard to do something, and the hero is just there messing everything up.

Give it a try next time you are writing a conflict. Decide who you want the reader to cheer for, and make that character the active one, with their opponent trying to stop them from achieving something.  I think you’ll find that readers will love your active characters, despite whatever odious flaws you give them!

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