“Mummy, which one is the naughty one?” A question my daughter regularly asks when referring to the character more commonly known as the baddie or the villain. Whilst watching a film, or a performance on stage, or reading a book, her attention is drawn to the anti-hero. The questions which ensue relate not to the hero or the heroine in the story, despite good undoubtedly winning over evil, instead, her focus is on the “naughty one”, their characteristics and role. Why is this? I ask myself. Posing the question is much like asking why evil itself intrigues us as adults, but that is a topic for another article!
My daughter’s interest has led me to examine the reasons behind a child’s fascination with the anti-hero.
The villain of the story is often portrayed as being a strong character, even though his or her actions are not based on moral grounds. Perhaps children admire or respect the villain because he or she demands it of their reader or audience. They are a force to be reckoned with.
The villain often acts against rules and is unconstrained by the ties which bind us to morality and therefore to children, they might seemingly enjoy an usual sense of freedom.
Socio dramatic play
Recognising the differences between characters can be an important part of social and moral growth. In their early years and beyond, dramatic play is often centred around themes of good and bad, friends and enemies, power and vulnerability, particularly as young children learn the difference between right and wrong, to understand rules, and to control their impulses. This type of play helps children to make sense of these confusing issues and gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
A villain might show strength and determination in a situation which would scare a child and so, instead of having to face a fear head on, the observing child feels empowered. By watching the villain confront whatever the child’s fear might be, the child might start to believe that they too can overcome it themselves.
During the early years, children are still very much exploring the division between reality and the pretend. Children possess an innate curiosity which allows them to wonder about everything around them. By exploring the realms of the imaginary, children encounter the improbable and the fantastical, experiencing emotions they might otherwise not feel.
In addition to addressing matters of morality, story lines containing heroes and villains often touch on big events in our lives, such as death and destruction. These elements are fascinating to early years children who are beginning to encounter these themes, possibly through the death of a family member or news of fighting or of an injustice in the media. By focusing on the villain in these stories, a child might be attracted to the character’s confidence which the child might later seem to emulate in dealing with their own real life tragedy or transition.
Not like us
Villains are generally not like us, perhaps that is why we like them. They allow us an opportunity to explore a desire within to be naughty, to be selfish and to do what is unacceptable. The villain allows a child an insight into doing something they could not do in real life; something which is both exhilarating and frightening.