All News and events

We might recoil from people with unappealing traits in real life – but in fiction we love them and want to be associated with them. What does the latest research tell us about the way in which we use stories to make sense of the world and understand other people?

Everyone loves a good villain. Most actors, it’s said, would rather play a baddie than a goodie. Darth Vadar, Mrs Danvers, Daniel Cleaver and even truly evil types such as Hannibal Lector or the shark in Jaws have a horrid fascination for many of us. Why is this? One theory is that exploring and analysing people who represent a threat in stories helps us to identify and defend ourselves from similar potential threats in the real world.

Generally, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that reading a book or watching a film – in fact, just engaging with fiction in anyway – helps to develop our emotional intelligence. We don’t just see fictional characters in action, in a good story we gain insights into their motivations and begin to understand what makes them tick. We can apply this learning to real life, often subconsciously.

Stories help us to see the world from different perspectives. This process of entering the minds of other people is what psychologists call theory of mind (ToM), and it’s at the heart of all emotional intelligence.

Story processing and Theory of Mind

According to research by Professor Raymond Mar of the Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto and published in the Annual Review of Psychology: “Story processing overlapped with many regions of the core mentalizing network, and these shared regions bear some resemblance to a network implicated by a number of other processes.” In other words, there’s a close connection between stories and ToM.

Anyway, back to villains in particular. We obviously like people in the real world who we believe have the same positive, appealing character traits as we do. We’re particularly repulsed by those who have some of the positive aspects of our character but also exhibit some unpleasant ones too. This might, for instance, be someone who, like us is a good judge of character but then uses that ability to manipulate people. Our feelings about someone who is unpleasant and nothing like us are pretty straightforward. But when we encounter someone who is similar to us and unpleasant? Well, that’s quite unnerving.

But is the same true of fictional characters? To find out Rebecca Krause, Doctoral Candidate in Marketing and Derek Rucker, Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at Northwestern University, analysed data from a company called CharacTour. The team at this entertainment website had classed thousands of characters as heroes or villains.

We like a villain who’s like us

They also rated these fictional heroes and villains for characteristics for such as extroversion or introversion and being cultured or not. CharacTour’s 232,000 users could also evaluate themselves on these characteristics, using the same scale. They could also become fans of the characters that they liked best.

Looking at their findings Krause and Rucker discovered that there was a strong correlation between people identifying themselves as fans of those fictional characters who had the same traits as them. This is not surprising, perhaps. However, the traits correlation was even more notable between fans and villains. Unlike real life, it seems, we actually like fictional villains who have some of the same personality traits that we do. Not only that, but fans of the villains were more willing to admit to their own faults – they confessed to being rude, sarcastic and corrupt among other failings. Conversations with 100 participants in an online study confirmed that it felt more comfortable to be compared with a fictional rather than a real-life villain.

A safe haven for villainy

“Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves,” says Krause. She and Rucker suggest that this fictional element allows us to explore darker elements of our personalities that we wouldn’t otherwise like to consider.

Evolutionary psychological theories have often looked at why as a species we seem to have inherited a mental module for story. There are likely to be a number of reasons, but for a social species, whose survival depends on interacting with others, stories help allow us to hold up the mirror to our flaws in a safe way. How we then react to what we see in that mirror is up to us.