If you have ever watched a Disney movie, you know that one of the best parts is usually the villain song. In these songs, the villains are at the height of their power, or in the midst of making an evil plan, and are so delighted over how wicked they are that they feel the need to sing about it. What terrible people they are! The funny part is that I and almost everyone else I know LOVE it. I love to see how horribly deplorable these characters are, and how much FUN they have with it! Alternatively, some villains are not as energetic or flamboyant as their colorful counterparts. Some are truly, deeply sinister, with a terrifying presence, committing evil deeds without batting an eye. And some are truly tragic. Their evil becomes more of a cautionary tale than a fun spectacle. Since every type of villain is so wildly different, what is the common thread that makes us love to watch and read about them?
The first reason could be that fictional villains are not real. That may sound ridiculously obvious, but it’s true. When I am watching, say 101 Dalmatians, I know that Cruella de Vil isn’t a real person planning to skin real puppies to make herself a coat. It’s all just a story, so the audience can rest easy knowing that no animals, people, or otherwise are harmed in the making of this production. Another possible reason is that, in many stories that contain bad guys, there is the knowledge that good will triumph over evil. In the back of my mind, I know that Cruella is not going to succeed, and is going to meet with a crushing and bitter defeat. With that knowledge, that means I am free to enjoy how wonderfully wicked she is. With the burden of a bad ending lifted, I can feel triumphant with her in the moment and have a good time loving to hate her, knowing all the while that the rug will soon be yanked out from under her feet at the last second, sending her crashing into her just desserts. Yes, delightfully wicked bad guys are a favorite. But they are not the only kinds of villains that we love.
I know, I know, we’ve all seen the bad guy lose amazingly to the good guys about a thousand times. It can get tedious and repetitive. But, as the saying goes, “A story is only as good as its villain.” Thus, many writers find it advisable to make their villains as interesting as possible, so that even when the audience knows the villain is going to lose, it is still fascinating to watch. My favorite example of this is fourteen-year-old Princess Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender. On the surface, she seems like your typical fun, evil villain. She purposefully goes the extra mile to hurt people, just because it makes her happy. I found her so wonderfully hate-able at first, and I figured that she would stay that way for the whole series. But then, as time went on, the story revealed more things about Azula. She had a horrible, tyrannical father and a very rocky relationship with her absent mother. She was pressured from the cradle to be perfect, her entire identity being built around her abilities, looks, and prowess in war, and she has always felt different from her friends. Even as a little girl, she displayed certain tendencies that scream “psychopath,” but those bad habits were encouraged rather than healed. The story does not reveal this to us to excuse Azula and the horrible things she has done. It is merely there to explain it, and help the viewers understand her character on a deeper level. I was reminded how young Azula really is, and how tragic it is that a little girl was encouraged to be such a horrible monster by her own father. And that isn’t even the best part.
After I understood much more about this twisted villain, I watched her defeat. But her defeat was not a quick, glorious battle at the end. Oh, no. Seven episodes away from the finale, Azula is betrayed by her two best friends, Mai and Ty Lee. Mai betrays Azula to help the boy she loves escape from prison. And Ty Lee betrays Azula to protect Mai from being hurt. In the span of a few minutes, Azula’s entire worldview is shattered. Azula has always ruled by fear. She is confident that she knows how to manipulate everyone around her. Being defeated by two people acting out of love is too much for her mind to comprehend, and she begins to descend into madness. Her illusion of her life, her family, and her friends is shattered forever, leaving her panicked and unable to trust anyone, not even herself. By the time her final battle with her brother Zuko arrives, she is no longer the smug, confident princess who tormented others without so much as shedding a tear. She is a raving, hateful, broken young girl, unable to handle the realization that she has had everything in the world except for love. When she is at last defeated, there is catharsis for the audience at seeing such an awful person fall so far from grace. But it is mixed in with the tragedy of Azula's life, and how horrible it is that a child so young was brought to such a low, horrible state. Evil-doers with depth and backstory can be just as fascinating as simply evil villains — as long as said backstories are not used to excuse the baddie of all crimes.
Villains are such fantastic people to read about and watch. They are also valuable teachers. Whether they are wonderfully evil or tragically evil, they teach the young on the principles of good and evil, displaying where that kind of path ends without the reader/viewer having to go through any suffering themselves. The rise and fall of a dark character also provides a much needed sense of catharsis. After all, in such a world as this, isn’t it comforting to hear a story where good wins in the end?