The "Misunderstood" Villain
Updated: Feb 24
"He's not evil. He's just misunderstood."
This phrase floated around the internet a lot during the prime of Loki's Army. I've heard it in reference to other villains as well, but as a member of Loki's Army, well, I'm biased.
However, this has become a trope. Villains are becoming less "evil" and more "misunderstood" as if they two can't coexist. There was a shift in the way people view villains. There was a wave of teens identifying with the villain rather than the hero. (And let's be real, if you were an edgy emo or borderline emo kid who felt most at home in an outfit of all black with a hint of leather thrown in, you were more likely to identify with Loki than Thor anyway, given his darker aesthetic and more sarcastic sense of humor. Plus, he's the brains against the brawn of Thor. If you were a nerd instead of a jock, yeah. You saw yourself in Loki regardless of whether or not he was the villain.)
That wave of teens seeing themselves in the smart, edgy villain changed the way media approached creating villains.
This contrast is seen strongly in a comparison of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. We see much of the same symbolism in mutation and appearance, but the natures of Sauron and Voldemort are very different in our minds.
You very rarely find Sauron fans.
You very rarely find people who want to dress as the orcs for a con. You're going to find people dressing as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, or the hobbits.
And, while you may not find people dressing as Voldemort, to an extent he has a fanbase. You find people who identify with the Death Eaters. Heck, Slytherin house is strong and well. (Not to say that all Slytherins are villains, since I myself am a Slytherin, but as a literary parallel, Slytherin house and the Orcs are surprisingly well matched if you think about it just a little too hard.)
So what's the difference? They're both evil dark lords, right? They're both the villain in a fantasy story with magic.
Well, I think this difference stems from their backstories. The backstory we get for Sauron is that he made some intense jewelry which he gave as a trick to the races of the realms and then aimed for world domination. We only see him as a deceiver and threat to all that is good. Plus, can we talk about the appearance he has? Horns and fire and darkness? All things associated with death and Hell and the devil.
And then we move to Voldemort. Or Tom Riddle. An orphan. A lonely orphan who was misunderstood from his grade school years. Any person who has ever been bullied in elementary school (which is probably all of us, in some way or another. Kids are cruel.) will relate to Tom. He kept a diary, for Pete's sake. He wanted to make the world better. His methods were along the lines of slavery and genocide, but he was trying to make a difference. He's portrayed as an attractive young man, up until he becomes a disembodied soul who has to regrow and fails to regrow a nose. But that's what you get for dealing in the dark arts.
If we had more relatable heroes that deal with the dark side of humanity--heroes that reflect the abused, the bullied, the manipulated, heroes that aren't your conventional golden-haired jock or your mentally unstable millionaire (not that there isn't a need for those people as well, but the scales of balance are heavily skewed to show particular archetypes as heroes and other particular archetypes as villains, even down to the colors of their costumes) perhaps we wouldn't have teens relating to villains. Perhaps our stories could become a little more black and white, like Lord of the Rings was. You know who the bad guys are, and everyone is united against them (the only gray area here is Saruman. He's supposed to be a good guy, but even then, you can see he's evil in his architecture).
There's an entire demographic of people who can't relate to the hansom jock type. And the jock is always pitted against the nerd. So when the jock is the hero, the nerd is the villain.
This is detrimental as well. It associates being smart with being a social outcast and a person with evil tendencies, simply because they're more likely to think things through and talk their way out of a situation rather than fight their way out.
All that to say we need more diverse heroes. We need more "good" people for viewers and readers to relate to. People who are "good" in unconventional ways. And yes, the world isn't black and white. It's good and necessary to hear all sides of the story. Because people are people. But some people shouldn't be role models. Some people shouldn't be idolized. Some people shouldn't be emulated.
So let's work to change that, shall we?
J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young, learning to be a literary agent, and working as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. In her free time, she can be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.