Why Have Relatable Villains?

How do you make someone seem like the worst man in the world?

I wondered this as I started watching The Night Manager, a miniseries based on a spy novel I dearly enjoyed. The book follows an attempt to capture Richard Roper, an arms dealer so evil one of the characters nicknames him “the worst man in the world.”

How did the miniseries capture that quality? With a child. The first scene shows Roper posing with Middle Eastern refugees and a foreign aid truck he’s brought. He holds a refugee child in his arms, grinning as the boy holds onto his neck.

It’s a deeply unsettling image. But it captures Roper’s essence so well. He feeds refugees with one hand, then uses the other to sell rocket launchers to the terrorists who displace the refugees. He alternates between planning arms deals and trying to protect his young son. As recent contributor Jori Hanna pointed out, the most unnerving villains are the likeable ones. Roper can be very likeable.

Doesn’t this present a problem, though? If we can easily relate to villains, doesn’t that make their actions seem justifiable? Does their evil seem so understandable we feel they’re not really doing anything wrong? Some stories certainly commit that mistake.

Perhaps as a result, certain genres seem to specialize in unrelatable villains. Instead, we get antagonists a little too self-absorbed or outlandish to truly empathize with. Narcissistic mothers keeping their daughters from finding true love. Emotionally withdrawn fathers disowning the children they can’t understand anymore. Small-time crooks who say everything in angry shouts.

While these characters occasionally work, read too many of them and evil starts to seem too distant. We can’t relate to these characters, so we end up feeling we’ll never understand what messed them up. We conclude the problem of evil isn’t a basic human problem; it’s just that there are a bunch of jerks out there who spoil everything for the rest of us.

As readers, sometimes we need a complex villain to keep us from falling into that trap. To quote Alyssa Roat’s excellent post on antagonistic protagonists, we need “the full expression of humanity in art.” Villains like Roper or Severus Snape fill that need. They make us look in the mirror and recognize the problem of evil is more commonplace than we care to admit.

To recognize evil honestly, we need the occasional relatable baddie.

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G. Connor Salter has had over 200 articles published, including contributions to Aphotic Realm and Area of Effect. His ebook Sunrise Over Beijing is available through Amazon.

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