I've been thinking about villains lately. I just finished a show called Black Sails where arguably everyone is a villain- so who do you root for? Everyone has shades of grey, even the so- called good guys- and yet I often found myself rooting for the bad guys. I also got to thinking about Game of Thrones and the books that inspire it- some of those characters could be called villains as well, and yet we find ourselves rooting for them. So what gives?
This post will contain some spoilers for both Game of Thrones and Black Sails.
Let's start with Black Sails. It's a show about pirates, so you know not everyone's a good guy. Flint and Vane are the two most notorious pirates on the show and Eleanor runs Nassau where the pirates are based. It's a raucous place where most of the action takes place in a tavern and a whorehouse- the pirates are based on real figures but taken in fictional directions. You also have Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, two other real life pirates, and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) shows up in S3.
Flint in particular does some bad things, but Charles Vane is no Boy Scout either. They regularly kill for the sole reason that they don't like the restrictions of society or feel like they want to live free. In real life of course pirates are romanticized (see Pirates of the Caribbean) but we generally don't kill people and take stuff because we want to be free. The pirates here are portrayed sympathetically and Eleanor became hated among fans for being on the wrong side at one point. Or... could it just be that the characters are attractive and that's why we like 'em? If the villain is eye candy do they get a pass? If all the pirates were ugly maybe we'd care less.
Jaime Lannister is another example from Game of Thrones. Initially a villain (he throws a boy out a window) he becomes a POV character and it's fair to say he is a favorite for many people. Why? The guy has children through incest with his sister and stabbed the king he was sworn to protect in the back, too. And by the end of the third book I loved the guy. How is this possible? Well, he's also sardonic, confident and has hidden depths of honor that become apparent- but still, what about the bad stuff? I would argue that George RR Martin skillfully makes us reconsider his character through good writing, but he never actually apologizes (or shows much remorse) for throwing a kid out a window. He regrets it a bit but that's not the same thing.
Is there something about villains that appeals to us? Are we easily manipulated by good writing or good acting? I'm curious what you think. Do you ever wonder WHY do I like this character?