Chuck Klosterman's theory about why we're drawn to villains

First aired on Q (25/07/13)

In classic narratives of good versus evil, we feel like we're supposed to root for the hero. But often the villains seem just as compelling as the protagonist, if not more. Sherlock
Holmes has his Moriarty. Harry Potter wouldn't nearly be as interesting without his sworn enemy Voldemort. Even those 101 Dalmatians faced off against an iconic antagonist in Cruella de Vil.

Media critic and author Chuck Klosterman has an interesting theory as to why we love villains -- and it can be explained through Star Wars. It's a theory he expounds on in his new book I Wear the Black Hat, a look at the complex factors involved in who we vilify and our fascination with villainous figures.

wear-black-hat-120.jpg"When you're a little kid and you watch Star Wars or The Empire Strikes back, the character that you most sort of relate to or identify with is Luke Skywalker, who is this wholly good individual, like almost naively good," Klosterman said during a recent interview on Q.

"He has a very simplistic view of what's right or what's wrong, and it's very clear to him, and it's also almost unassailable. So when you're a little kid, it's like 'That's who I'd want to be, I want to be the kind of classic hero in this story.'"

This isn't that surprising, Klosterman said, given how much young children are encouraged to think and behave and act "morally." Schools, after-school TV specials, and society in general reinforce to children that things are black and white -- there is good and evil and one should strive to be on the side of good.

But as you move into your teenage years, Klosterman believes that you start seeing things differently. "Now Han Solo becomes the attractive character, especially for, I think, young males who want to be fundamentally good but to appear problematic, to appear anti-authoritarian."

Solo is technically a space criminal, and he cultivates a gruff, bad-boy persona, but the audience knows that ultimately he's a good person who has more similarities with Luke Skywalker than differences.

But then you mature into adulthood, and you understand the world isn't black and white -- it's much more grey, Klosterman argues. By this point, we're no longer compelled to model ourselves after the characters we grew up with or read about now. Rather, we're much more interested in figuring out what makes them tick, and with villains, how they became the way they are. Which is why he thinks that most adults find Darth Vader more compelling and even meaningful than Luke or Han.

"You know, on the outside he's this robot exoskeleton, he blows up planets arbitrarily, he wears a black cape, he has a scary voice ... [but] you know inside there's a human in there somewhere. And you see his acts and you think to yourself, well, this is partially because of the way he was raised or socialized. The world he's in forces him to be this way, and I think many people feel this way because, as I have matured, I have found that I'm constantly questioning my own motivations for doing things, even the good things, and those motives to me often seem somewhat villainous."

We find ourselves drawn to villains as we mature because we realize we're closer to the darkness in these characters than the wholly good nature of the heroes, Klosterman believes. Perhaps exploring them is a way for us to explore our fears, and fantasies, of embracing "the power of the dark side."