Villains: The “Bad Guys” We Love to Hate

Gone Girl. Who’s the villain here?

Ben Affleck, 2008, by Gene Bromberg

Ben Affleck, 2008, by Gene Bromberg

Gone Girl, the movie starring Ben Affleck and based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, hit theaters on October 3. I knew it was coming and couldn’t wait to see how the novel would transfer to the screen.

If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, we could hold forth on the relative strengths of each. Or we could discuss the ending—whether we loved, hated, or simply accepted the way it ended.

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)But what interests me is how the story (especially in the novel) yanked my feelings of sympathy and hatred first in one direction and then the other. As I switched from her point of view to his and back again, first I felt such sympathy for the poor wronged wife and hatred for the villainous husband. Then I ached for the poor wronged husband and hated the villainous wife. Then the other way around, and then … I couldn’t put the book down. The villain (whoever it was) was so despicable.

Villains. We love to hate them.

Come to think of it, there aren’t many villains in my everyday life. The occasional motorist cuts me off or yells at me. And even though I hate being yelled at, that hardly qualifies. So why am I attracted to stories with hateful villains?

The simple answer is that the hero needs to prove him- or herself. A fire-breathing dragon or cruel, crafty banker gives him that chance.

Dobryna by Ivan Yakovlevich

Dobryna by Ivan Yakovlevich

The other theory about why we love to read about or watch villains is that inside every human heart there’s a conflict between good and evil. The hero and villain exemplify the hero we want to be, but also the villain who acts on all those terrible urges we have to suppress in ourselves.

I like the way Ryan Lambie explains it:

“We may want to see light triumph over dark, but not before we’ve enjoyed the thrill of seeing evil throw off its shackles, run riot, and maybe smash up a few cars for an hour or two. In a strictly ordered world, villains are everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure.”

Villains in groups vs. up-close-and-personal villains

The American public didn’t care much about ISIS, despite the thousands the group killed, until one day they beheaded an American journalist. Almost immediately public opinion turned against them. A second journalist was decapitated, and we were ready to go to war.

We saw, up close and personal, the victims’ faces and the executioner’s black hooded form.

This blog isn’t the appropriate place to discuss the intricacies of politics and war and international relations. So let me hop, skip and jump over to the literary implication of the drastic change in American public opinion.

The victims (two journalists) were our countrymen.

The evil act (decapitation) was dramatic.

And the villains were seen as represented by an individual, not simply a crowd.

This is the kind of villain we love to hate.

Japanese Army, 1938

Japanese Army, 1938

In my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, I had built-in villains, the invading enemy army and navy. But like ISIS before the beheadings, my villains were impersonal. The victims were countrymen of my heroine, and the evil acts were sufficiently dramatic. But the villains needed to be seen as individuals.

anti-Japanese war poster

anti-Japanese war poster

To that end, in one scene I brought individual Japanese sailors into the house of my protagonist. The squad leader was “a little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and a stopped-up desire to run wild.” He growled and threatened and sucked air through his teeth while his men ransacked the house.

my cover, 5-27-14One of my favorite characters in the novel is a Chinese villain. Fen is an unpleasant relative I invented who eventually became a collaborator. With his scrawny neck, his hair standing up like a cock’s comb, and his habit of using phrases like “Dog farts!” Fen was a villain I truly loved to hate.

Did you read or see Gone Girl?

Do you like a story with a “good villain?” Who are some of your favorite villains?

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
historical fiction, Second Sino-Japanese War casualties, Tiger Tail Soup, WWII in China , , , , , , , ,


  1. I didn’t read Gone Girl, but someone told me the story.
    I totally agree that the villains need to be seen as people. I like a story with a compelling hero and an equally compelling villain. What I don’t like is when the villain runs amok for 98 percent of the book and then gets his or her comeuppance in the last couple of pages of the book. That’s not very satisfying. Yet I’ve seen this a lot in books and on shows and movies.

    • In many stories with criminals, they run amok for 98 percent of the book because they’re so intelligent. But have you ever read the police blotter? There are lots of stupid criminals out there. If hero and villain are equally matched, I suppose there will be battles won and lost on both sides until the final showdown.

  2. Nicki, you are an incredible writer–I love getting your blog! Always interesting subjects with such insight and point of view. If I didn’t enjoy it so much, I might be jealous!

  3. I think most stories have some sort of conflict between good and evil, the good guy vs. the bad guy, the villain vs. the eventual hero. I haven’t read the book, Gone Girl, nor have I seen the movie (it will not hit the movie theaters in Taiwan until 10/9). However, when I think of heroes and villains, I guess Spiderman is the first that comes to mind vs. the green goblin or sandman (fictional characters, I know!).

    • The first villains I think of are in fairy tales. Unfortunately, many of them are women: Hansel and Gretel’s evil witch, the witches in Snow White, Rapunzel, and the Wizard of Oz, and Cinderella’s evil stepmother. The Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk is male, but then he’s also a giant.

  4. Scoundrels are fine, but I don’t care for villains. If I keep watching, it is only to see them “get their due.” I haven’t read Gone Girl.

    • You may not have enjoyed Gone Girl, Nancy. It was cleverly written, though, and realistic in many ways. The natural desire to see the villain get his due is ramped up because the reader doesn’t know who is telling the truth–as is often the case in criminal trials.

  5. I read Gone Girl but haven’t seen the movie. Since Ben Affleck plays in it, there is a good chance that I will go see it! Although I almost always favor a book to its movie version. Gone Girl is a strange book that left me with mixed impressions. I would be curious to see how the movie director managed to translate a difficult plot and story telling into a movie.
    As for villains, yes, they are important to most books. I write mostly for kids so my villains are not as bad as villains in adult literature, but I still create people who are trouble since they add to the plot. For your book I can see why you needed them and how important they are in the story. Thank you, Nicki, for another good post.

    • So far the reviews of Gone Girl are really good. They must have pulled it off. My friends and I are looking forward to seeing it this coming Friday.

      Despite the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China, my novel concentrates more on the family than on the invaders. The people behind the front lines usually suffer more from disease and hunger than from actual contact with the enemy. Still, the reader wants to see the face of the villain, so he had to show up.


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