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Why Do We Root for the Anti-Hero?

We're often most drawn to a story's most villainous character. This is why.

Key points

  • Anti-heroes, villains, and even the most unlovable fictional characters nevertheless have passionate fans.
  • Villains and anti-heroes are often complex characters with richly detailed psychological backstories, which helps fans connect to them.
  • Dark characters act on impulses many of us have but cannot act on, which allows fans to explore what that might be like in a safe way.
  • Connecting to what Carl Jung called our "shadow sides" may be necessary for us to be our best selves
Professional_designers on Pixabay/Walt Disney Pictures
Professional_designers on Pixabay/Walt Disney Pictures

It’s easy to understand why many of us are fans of heroic characters, which provide inspiration and hope that sometimes the “good guy” really does prevail. But what about the characters who are not the “good guys” and instead are the villains of the story?

Even those characters have fans—very passionate fans—from Dracula to Darth Vader, Severus Snape to Walter White, and Disney’s Maleficent to Thor’s incorrigible brother Loki. Fans have a long history of loving anti-heroes like these. Why are villains, who inevitably wreak havoc and carry out evil misdeeds, nevertheless popular?

"I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Drawn That Way"

One of the reasons may be in the way these fictional characters are written—or drawn, in the case of that famous Jessica Rabbit quote. Villains are usually complex, with detailed often tragic backstories.

The new series "Interview With The Vampire," based on the dark horror novels of Anne Rice, has garnered a passionate fandom even though the main characters, especially the vampire Lestat, are, well, vampires. Lestat is cruel and vindictive over and above his unrepentant consumption of humans, but he’s also a fan favorite.

Actor Sam Reid, a fan of the book series himself, portrays Lestat. In a recent interview in Schon Magazine, he said that the challenge of playing a dark character like Lestat is to bring some humanity and empathy to the character. One of the ways Reid mentions that the show accomplishes this is through a detailed backstory, which provides many clues to explain why Lestat is the way he is.

This is one of the reasons fans are often attracted to fictional villains. When characters are richly detailed psychologically, that helps fans connect to them. If a character is complex enough, it challenges viewers’ capacity for understanding others’ beliefs and desires, known as theory of mind.

That challenge can be a pleasant one for fans who like to think deeply about media. Characters who are not black and white, but morally and ethically gray, can fuel fans’ fascination as they try to make sense of them. (Also, let’s face it, the villains often have the snarky, witty dialogue that makes them the most fun to watch.)

Connecting With Our Shadow Sides

In the same interview, Reid also said he understood that watching a villain like Lestat get away with things on screen is cathartic for the audience, who develop an attachment to the character because they’re doing the darkest things imaginable—in a way, doing them on the viewer’s behalf since the viewer cannot. That identification with anti-heroes is another reason they are often popular.

Research suggests that viewers are not necessarily attracted to the characters themselves, but to the things they do which are socially forbidden. Dark characters act on impulses we all have but cannot act on, which allows viewers to explore what that might feel like.

Carl Jung theorized that we all have "shadow sides" that contain those forbidden impulses, and we need to confront and understand those shadow sides in order to be our healthiest, most complete selves. Carrying out some of those socially unacceptable things in real life would bring negative consequences and damage our self-concepts, but watching safely from the sidelines as fictional villains do that can be satisfying. Dark characters can do what they want, unconstrained by social norms, much like Freud’s idea of what the id part of our psyche would like to do. There’s no threat to maintaining a positive sense of self, so identifying with fictional villains is a safe way to acknowledge those darker impulses.

Unlike Reid, some on the creative side are both surprised and confused about fan reaction to the darker characters. When "House of the Dragon" aired, many fans enjoyed the character of Daemon Targaryen. Ryan Condal, the series showrunner, admitted in a New York Times interview that while he worked hard to ensure Daemon was a complicated character, he didn’t expect fans to be so fascinated by the anti-hero. In contrast to Condal’s assumption, while fans recognize that in real life these dark characters would not be anyone you’d want to invite over for dinner, in a fictional world it’s safe to love them anyway.

"It Must Be Exhausting Always Rooting for the Anti-Hero"

That, of course, is a line from a currently popular Taylor Swift song, but there has been criticism of fans’ tendency to sometimes make excuses for villainous characters they enjoy, especially when that leads to interpreting their complicated backstories as a reason why their actions are OK instead of an explanation for their very not-OK behavior. That can result in fandom infighting when some fans revise the character to turn them into less of a villain or demand a redemption arc that might not be forthcoming.

This tends to happen most often when fictional villains are portrayed by attractive actors or illustrated in that way. In the case of Daemon Targaryen, showrunner Condal was confused by some fans’ recoding of the dangerous and dark character as someone heroic, something he confirmed was not intended in the writing.

Communities of fans that form around villains must constantly negotiate appropriate boundaries in order to avoid feeling like “bad fans” or even “bad people.” This is especially true when the villains are not fictional, but real people who committed real crimes.

A recent study of true crime and serial killer Reddit fan communities by researcher Judith Fathallah found that fans tried to ensure that other members of the community had the “right kind of interest” in true crime, coming together to police boundaries and exclude fans who seemed too obsessive about real-life criminals. While that study found that sometimes, the policing has more to do with keeping up gendered norms and expectations within the fan communities, the notion of “good” and “bad” fans does include frequent disagreements among fans about which fandoms are legitimate and which are not. The recent Netflix show about Jeffrey Dahmer drew controversy, for example, because the portrayal of Dahmer by an attractive actor seemed to blunt some fans’ horror surrounding his actions.

Fictional villains, however, will always have fans; these complex and nuanced characters are written and performed to fascinate and provide a safe way to get in touch with our own forbidden impulses without acting them out. We can safely enjoy the anti-heroes of "Despicable Me" and "Wandavision" and even the vampire Lestat, and all the other complicated dark characters the media is happy to offer up—while they continue to be the snarky, witty, entertaining but ultimately villainous characters they were meant to be.


Fathallah, J. (2022). ‘BEING A FANGIRL OF A SERIAL KILLER IS NOT OK’: Gatekeeping Reddit’s True Crime Community. New Media & Society, 0(0).

Krause, R. & Rucker, D. (2020). Can bad be good? The attraction of a darker self. Psychological Science, 31(5), 518–530.

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