Loving a Villain

By Laura Vivanco on

'[...] you aren’t going to let me out of it.’

‘Like Pearl White tied to the railway lines?’ He gave his rather grating laugh. ‘Always at the last moment she is released from bondage, eh? I may not be a hero in a white stetson, moiya, but I’m not altogether a villain – won’t you believe that?’ (Winspear 65)


Romance heroes certainly can't all be classified as "villains" but there's no shortage of those who, to put it mildly, could be described as "not altogether a villain": such a hero may use a heroine as a pawn in a subtle plan to gain revenge, he may be an assassin or a morally ambiguous paranormal creature, he may rape or "forcibly seduce" the heroine. So why would a reader be drawn to such a character? Richard Keen, Monica L. McCoy, Elizabeth Powell have some theories about why

rooting for the bad guy is not as difficult to understand as it appeared at first glance. There are a plethora of reasons among psychological theories to explain why normal people occasionally find themselves rooting for the villain instead of the hero. (144)

1) The fundamental attribution error:

If a mysterious stranger appears from out of nowhere and attacks a character we know and love, it is likely that we will make the fundamental attribution error. We will assume that he is a bad man. However, the villains we root for are generally not strangers to us; we know a great deal about them—from narration, from flashbacks, or because they talk to themselves and we get to listen. [...] We know a great deal about how the situation is influencing him. It allows us to be as kind to him as we generally are to ourselves. (131)

Given that it's common to find romances in which the reader is expected to be "kind" to the hero, but relatively few in which the heroine has the same villainous tendencies, I wonder if female authors and readers are actually "kinder" when thinking about the actions of heroes than we are to ourselves. Some of the theories outlined later in the essay may help to explain this imbalance.

2) Mere exposure effect:

According to the mere exposure effect, the more often you are exposed to a stimulus, the more you like it (Zajonc 2). This is true for everything from what letters we prefer to our perceptions of other people. [...] Especially relevant to the question at hand, Bukoff and Elman (134) reported that photos that were rated as likeable, neutral, or unlikable, and linked with either positive or negative trait descriptors all received more positive evaluations after participants had been exposed to them repeatedly. Therefore, the original stimulus did not need to be positive for repeated exposure to make the image more appealing. Repeated exposure increased the ratings of all stimuli – even those that were rated as unlikable originally. We would then predict that a villain who becomes familiar to us through repeated exposure would be seen as more favorable. (134)

I can see this effect being a greater influence on the perception of characters in long-running series. The authors give Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as an illustration of how these two effects might work together.

3) What is Beautiful is Good:

The repeated use of physically attractive people to play the role of the villain taps into another basic human tendency—the association of what is beautiful with what is good. In numerous studies, beautiful persons have been given higher ratings on measures of social desirability, intelligence, success, happiness, persuasiveness, and potency, than their less attractive counterparts (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 285; Gross and Crofton 85; Kassin, Fein and Markus 346). In a study by Hoffner and Cantor (66), physical attractiveness, along with strength and humor, was one of the best predictors of which characters were liked.

In traditional media, the protagonist is portrayed as more physically attractive than the antagonist, leading audiences to prefer him (Sanders 147). In current media, the protagonist of the story is also often the bad guy, such as in the popular Godfather trilogy and the Ocean’s movies. Thus, when attractive villains are cast, we assume they possess more positive qualities than the less attractive good guys in the show, so, unsurprisingly, we prefer them. (135)

To put this in the terms Kyra Kramer and I used in our article about bodies in romance fiction: "As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an 'expectant canvas of human flesh' [...]. Social beliefs are inscribed on the 'expectant canvas' of the body."

The authors add that:

According to a meta-analysis by Eagly et al. (119), physical attractiveness was most strongly related to ratings of social competence, adjustment, potency, and intellectual competence. On the other hand, it was not related to integrity or concern for others. This works out well for the bad guys we root for. Their good looks lead viewers to think of them as smart, socially skilled, and powerful while not necessarily expecting them to be nice. (135-36)

Given that "concern for others" is a common feature of romance heroines (see Vivanco and Kramer for heroines' nurturing behaviours), while intelligence and power are more commonly coded as "masculine" attributes, it would seem likely that beauty would more strongly benefit villainous heroes than villainous heroines. Indeed, quite a lot of "Other Women" in romances are beautiful and their beauty seems to be used to underscore their shallowness, vanity and/or promiscuity. The latter, thanks to the double standard, is judged negatively in women but, depending on the context, may in men be considered an indication of virility.

4) Schemas:

Schemas may have some influence on why we root for bad guys. In most movies, the protagonist is the good guy and usually good prevails in the end. When we have repeated exposure to this type of storyline, we will start to form a schema of this. The schema can then influence future movie experiences due to certain expectations deduced from the schema. Thus, if the good guys are usually the protagonists, then we should root for the protagonist. (136)

It's easy to see how schemas could affect frequent readers of romance novels. We know that the heroine is going to fall in love with the hero and they are going to have a happy ending, so even if a hero initially behaves like a villain, the schema of the romance form encourages us to "root for" him.

5) Aggresive Tendencies:

We propose, at least according to Freud’s approach, that vicariously experiencing aggression and violence in movies, television, and books may serve as an outlet for our aggressive tendencies (i.e., catharsis). In fact, since many violent movies also have sex scenes, you may be meeting both aggressive and sexual needs. (137)

6) Revenge:

Many of the bad guys we love are motivated in one way or another by revenge. [...] Revenge seems to be a stronger motivator for men than for women. [...] Taken together, these studies illustrate why we like bad guys who are seeking revenge. In part, we may identify with and understand their motivation. (138-39)

Romance heroines, on the other hand, seem to have a tendency to make martyrs of themselves and they often readily forgive those who have treated them badly. If revenge is not only "a stronger motivator for men than for women" but also one more closely associated with men, a villainous hero's revenge may make him seem more manly whereas a heroine who acted in the same way might be more likely to be considered devious and lacking in compassion.

7) Bad Boy/Nice Guy:

studies have shown that women seeking long term relationships valued niceness as the most salient characteristic, but niceness was devalued and other characteristics, such as physical attractiveness, became more important if the women were seeking more casual, sexual relationships [...]. The bad guys we root for in movies and on TV are almost universally attractive. Further, most (sane) people probably do not consider fictional characters when making long-term relationship plans. Thus it is easy to see how the driving force behind a fantasy “fling” with a bad guy is his attractiveness and swagger, rather than his niceness. (140)

8) Psychological Reactance

Psychological reactance is an emotional response to restricting rules and regulations. In general, psychological reactance results in increased desirability once that object/person becomes unobtainable. For example, [...] psychological reactance is observed if parents tell their daughter not to date a certain boy, a prohibition which results in the daughter fi nding that boy more attractive.

Psychological reactance can be easily applied to rooting for the bad guy. If, by societal standards, we are not supposed to root for the bad guy, then your freedom to choose whom to root for is constrained by others. Thus, by the definition of psychological reactance, one would find the bad guy more desirable. (140-41)

This presumably means that the more romance readers are criticised for liking to read about romance heroes who are nasty, brutish and anti-feminist, the more those heroes will become a "guilty pleasure."

9) Media Villains Versus Real Villains:

Before closing, we also want to stress that the villains we see in popular culture are often not reflective of real-life villains. Media villains tend to be good looking, intelligent, witty, and sexy. If you ever watch real-life villains on the news or on court television, you will be struck by the fact that they tend not to be at all attractive or charming. In fact, when a real-life villain is appealing, it is almost always given a great deal of media attention because it is an anomaly. It has also been pointed out that the villain in many romance novels and movies attracts the female with their swagger and dangerous persona, only to morph into devoted loving husbands and fathers by the end of the story. Therefore, the woman gets both the excitement of the bad boy and the security of a good man (Pelusi 58). In other words, many of the popular culture villains are more like misunderstood good guys than truly bad guys. (143)

Here, as in 7), the point is made that there is a difference between fiction and reality: it would be unwise to assume that a reader's preferences with regards to romance heroes are an exact match for her preferences outside the pages of a novel.


Keen, Richard, Monica L. McCoy, and Elizabeth Powell. "Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives." Studies in Popular Culture 34.2 (2012): 129-148.

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies In This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

Winspear, Violet. Bride's Lace. London: Mills & Boon, 1984.


The black hat was "Made in the USA by Resistol" and the photograph was provided by Miller Hats under a Creative Commons licence. It features a "3/8" diamond back rattlesnake band with buckle."