“Likeable villains” – it almost sounds like an oxymoron. After all, shouldn’t we find villains despicable? Even irrevocably evil? Yet somehow there are antagonists, villains, and bad guys that we just adore. The Internet lost its mind over Loki and there’s a huge community of devoted Lannister stans. For some, that’s shocking. How can people love Loki when he tries to enslave the human race? How can anyone love a guy who shoves children out of towers?
It boils down to three things: backstory, morality, and personality.
Backstory: A huge factor in how an audience receives a villain is their backstory. Creating sympathetic circumstances surrounding pre-villainous actions allows the audience to see where the character is coming from. Thor‘s Loki is a good example. Many people like him because they can see how he went wrong. Outcast as a child, denied the throne because of his lineage, and having a good relationship with his mother allows the audience to trace his path and see how he got to where he is today. Of course, this doesn’t excuse current behavior, but it allows the audience to feel some pangs of sympathy and see him as human (or, you know, Frost Giant).
Morality: A villain with ambiguous morality can also garner audience affections. Sometimes what the villain is doing isn’t necessarily evil, it just goes against what the hero or protagonist wants. In fact, a villain’s motivations might not even be evil. She may have very good reasons for wanting to destroy the world. After all, Marvel’s Galactus devours worlds because it’s how he has to survive. He needs to eat in order to live, and it’s not so much different from humans eating other animals. So while we may not agree that eating earth is A-OK, we still understand why he’s doing this, which makes it a lot harder to hate him.
Personality: Despite all of this, the thing that really makes an audience go from understanding to love is a great personality. There are even some villains that can have no redeeming morality or backstory, but they’re so much fun to have in the story that you have to love them. Compare the different Lannisters from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, who can be considered villains if we call the Starks the story’s heroes. There’s a reason no one likes Joffrey – not even his mom. It’s because he’s a giant shit lord. He has zero redeeming qualities, he’s entitled, he’s murderous, and he’s no fun to be around. Jaime, on the other hand? Or Cersei or Tywin? (I’m leaving Tyrion out of it because many argue him to be a heroic character) People enjoy these characters because of the wicked things they do, their history, their relationships – and ultimately their snark. Who didn’t feel a little giddy when Tywin told Joffrey to go to bed? Or what about Jaime’s sharp quips? We enjoy these as an audience, and it creates an atmosphere that may be tense but is also enjoyable.
The bottom line is that likeable villains aren’t ones who necessarily do good things. What really makes or breaks whether your audience loves your villain is if they’re fun to read about. Characters that we enjoy – no matter how evil – we want to keep around. If you’re looking to make a villain like that, then focus on their morality and backstory, but most of all, give them a damn fun personality.