We Bond With Fictional Villains Who Resemble Us

Bad guys in fiction allow us to explore our shadow self.

Posted Jun 20, 2020

What does it say about us when we fall in love with a bad guy? Compelling villains can have a powerful appeal and are often more popular than the hero. But one person’s favorite villain may disgust someone else. This is the question researchers from the Kellogg School of Management sought to answer with a recent study published in Psychological Science.

Photo by Illumination Marketing on Unsplash
When a character is fictional, we can enjoy their “badness” without risking our own self-image.
Source: Photo by Illumination Marketing on Unsplash

What’s indisputable is that we do enjoy bad guys. Even when their behavior is something we might revile in real life, we cheer for their crimes in fiction. Why? The researchers say we like them because we resemble them.

It’s all about exploring our dark side. Psychologists have long believed that we cannot become fully mature until we understand our “shadow selves,” the parts of us that carry forbidden emotions and urges. But that’s hard to do because we are often socialized to believe these parts of us are unacceptable. We learn to ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.

That’s where fiction comes in, say the study authors. When a character is fictional, we can enjoy their “badness” without risking our own self-image. By connecting to villainous characters who share our traits, we can safely indulge our shadow selves without feeling threatened.

People relate to characters who resemble them.

The researchers proved that people relate to characters who resemble them by pulling data from CharacTour. The online platform is designed on the premise that viewers become “super fans” when they make an emotional and personal connection to a character at the heart of a story. When users join, they take a 23-question personality quiz. Based on their answers, the platform matches users with characters who are a good fit for their personality.

To design the quiz, CharacTour started with the Big Five Personality Traits and then went deeper. They believe that “people want to be the heroes of the stories they read and watch.” While media companies commonly believe that people like certain genres, CharacTour believes it’s more about the characters. For instance, among fans of The Avengers franchise, those who consider themselves to be cocky, fearless, and social love Iron Man, while the honest, optimistic, and polite prefer Captain America.

What attracts people to villains?

Once the researchers realized that people are attracted to villains with traits they share, they wondered whether those had to be positive, desirable traits. Study author Rebecca Krause-Galoni, a Ph.D. candidate at the Kellogg School, told me this: “Even the most sinister villains tend to have some positive traits, such as intelligence, power, and strength. We thought perhaps it was only these traits that users felt drawn to and preferred to share.

“Interestingly, we found this not to be the case. Compared to non-villains’ fans, villains’ fans on CharacTour are more likely to rate themselves as dishonest, rude, and manipulative, suggesting that villainous characters may hold a particular draw for fans with ‘villainous’ traits.”

The study authors were surprised to discover that people would admit to these traits. But it tracks with the data. For example, fans of Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones describe themselves as brainy and sometimes dishonest.

I wondered if it would be possible to infer personality by a person’s favorite villains. I asked Kim Foerster, CharacTour's founder and CEO, about it. “Think about your favorite fictional characters and what that may say about your own personality,” she said. "If the Wicked Witch of the West is one of them, our data shows that you are likely to be brainy and detail-oriented but also somewhat self-involved and neurotic. But rest assured you’re not alone if you’re on the neurotic side: Over 33% of our users call themselves that.”

But what she found most exciting was the way we connect with characters. “The study suggests that a perfect hero is not always what attracts viewers—some people may find empathy by bonding with darker characters who share their flaws and challenges.”

Personality traits associated with popular villains

With 350,000 users, the data set is vast. If you are anything like me, you are wondering what personality traits are connected with your favorite bad guys.

Do you like Gus Fring from Breaking Bad or Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada? You might be “anal.” Or are you “quirky”? Then Catwoman or Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons may be your favorites.

Here are few more examples, just for fun:

  • “Smooth” users like Don Draper of Mad Men or Jeanine Matthews from Divergent.
  • “Chatty” users like Regina George of Mean Girls and Sue Sylvester from Glee.
  • “Solitary” users like Emma Frost in X-Men and Victor Frankenstein.
  • “Free-Spirited” users like Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad and Frank Gallagher from Shameless.
  • “Hotheaded” users like Kylo Ren from Star Wars and The Governor from The Walking Dead.
  • “Determined” users like Bane from The Dark Knight and Lady Macbeth.
  • “Crude” users like Tiffany Doggett from Orange is the New Black and Eric Cartman from South Park
  • “Cynical” users like the Man in Black from Westworld and Lisbeth Salander from Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.