Let me set a few definitions right away: “villain” does not mean “antagonist”. A villain for the purposes of this article is simply a character with dubious morals or who lacks morals altogether. One final clarification before actually analyzing some villains: motivations are not taken into account at this point for whether the character is morally weak. And one quick warning: I will bring up and discuss two Game of Thrones characters, but try to avoid all spoilers.
Let’s get started.
One of the most popular antagonists in modern day movies: the Joker [of The Dark Knight]. Insanely popular, yet one of the most vicious people with absolutely no morals. Clearly understands what morality is, but completely ignores it. To top things off, he has no justifiable motivations, certainly nothing would justify the actions he takes, but he does not even try to justify them.
Mental health is a driving force behind his actions, perhaps extending from a childhood trauma. However, even his “You wanna know how I got these scars?” speech changes every time he gives it. Yet for some reason people love the Joker, credits to Heath Ledger belong here for a phenomenal acting job, but it is something more too.
Perhaps it’s because the Joker represents something that people wish they could be, but never would be. The Joker is more than just cruelty and malice; he is not obligated by social norms and is able to act the way he truly wants. The Joker (on an exaggerated level) represents pure action; he doesn’t overthink, he doesn’t worry about what will happen in the future, he lives in the present and does anything he wants.
Frank Underwood [of House of Cards] is cut from the same cloth as The Joker, but on a less extreme practical level. Frank has morals; it’s just that he disregards them when convenient. Lying, plotting, revenge, murder, anything that it takes to achieve power and keep it is something he would do.
That is the key difference: he has motivations. One motivation: Power. Nothing sways him from his plan; I’m sure he would discard Claire the moment he felt that he needed to. That’s what makes Frank Underwood a popular villain, that something that people wish they could be. Laser focused. He has his goal, and anything that distracts or hinders the path towards it is removed. Really want an A in that tough class? Being able to know what hinders reaching that and eliminating them is something enviable.
One is the most hated character in the series, and the other is simply the mass murderer and main villain of the series–Dolores Umbridge and Lord Voldemort [of the Harry Potter series]. Yet somehow the Dark Lord is hated less than the professor! Certainly Umbridge is vicious and a wicked person, but she wasn’t plotting the extermination of people she thought were worse than her. Simply because she represents better the fears of the readers than Voldemort ever could. Most readers weren’t afraid of mass genocide, but a teacher cruel and wicked without cause.
While neither her nor Voldemort really have relatable qualities, he is a more popular villain because he doesn’t actively prey on real life experiences. Whenever a reader/viewer can empathize with the victim and sees no palpable justification, the villain will be hated. Certainly Voldemort and his Death Eaters were disliked, but none were as widely hated or cursed as much as the all too real mean Professor Umbridge. [Editor’s Note: Don’t forget that Umbridge actually was evil–under her fluffy pink exterior resided some seriously messed-up beliefs about magical purity. Those centaurs had the right idea. Also, stealing a magical eye from a dead man? Heartless.]
What discussion of morally ambiguous/ wicked characters could go without a trip to Westeros? In this case, both the bully and a frequent victim are morally impure. Like with Umbridge and Voldemort, the wicked one is more liked. In this case, the wickeder one, Tyrion Lannister, is one of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones saga. King Joffrey, on the other hand, is certainly one of the most hated characters in recent memory. The difference this time doesn’t come from so much from a realization of real life fears, but the circumstances of their wickedness.
Joffrey acts out of pure cruelty and for self-amusement: he tortures both Tyrion and Sansa repeatedly with no justifiable motivation. His cruelty is a product of his upbringing and the life he lived. Simply put, (maybe too simply) he is a spoiled brat. He expected everything in life to go his way and would demand it to change if it didn’t.
Tyrion had a vastly different upbringing: hated by nearly everyone in his family, paraded around like a monster, and forced to suffer the constant torture of Joffrey and nearly anyone else who encountered him. (At this point I should make the qualification that in the books he is tortured, more monstrous looking, and a wickeder person considerably more than the HBO series.) Yet all he is motivated by is survival and comfort. Any action he takes (the end of the latest episode, hint hint) is justified by either his need for survival or in revenge for past wrongdoing.
One great villain is actually a protagonist, and a suave one at that: James Bond. Shocking? What other character can you watch kill countless men, sleep with even more women, and be a jerk to anyone else? His devotion to country is a justifiable motivation for the actions he does, killing some to protect many. He is able to get what he wants, while acting in such a way that he is enviable by many. The self-confidence he has mirrors people lack of confidence. Most importantly, he never seems to cross a line into a truly despicable person.
While seven morally devious characters may not be enough to draw full explanation from, it certainly highlights key points that change the nature of villainy in a story. The perfect villain in a story, one that will be both popular and wicked, seems to be determined by a personal connection, motivation, the audiences’ own fears and weaknesses, and justification.