A villainous antagonist is a common driving force behind conflict in stories, so it makes natural sense to write one in. But villainy requires performing villainous acts; a villain who doesn't really act on those is difficult to root against.
The result is a character who is treated as a bad guy by the principal characters, despite never actually doing anything to justify that amount of hate. They might even be sympathetic by virtue of their social position. Any astute arguments and observations by this character are to be dismissed by the audience, because they are Evil.
Naturally, this can boomerang back onto the protagonist and make them a Designated Hero — a character regarded as "good" despite having no significant virtues — as often, the "villain" is only considered such because they dislike/oppose the "hero". Works with Designated Heroes tend to have Designated Villains. Conversely, Protagonist-Centered Morality isn't a case of having weaksauce villains; it's a personification of being an ass for its own sake, and being lauded for it. In both cases one has to be certain about the creator's intentions about who's sympathetic and who is right. Particularly bad attempts to avert this may include having the character in question Kick the Dog in a completely unrelated situation, which proves that no, they're not a good person, but still doesn't prove that they were wrong in the main conflict that they participated in.
Please note that Tropes Are Tools, as this can sometimes appear to happen, but it's actually done on purpose to add more shades of grey to a story, or to show that the heroes are not completely perfect. When an antagonist is not intended to be a villain but a genuine good guy, they are a Hero Antagonist or at least an Anti-Villain. Keep in mind that antagonists and villains are very different things. Also do not confuse with Unintentionally Sympathetic, which is where a villain does do bad things but gets audience sympathy despite this, or Offstage Villainy, which is where the bad guy did bad things... but not on screen.
Compare and contrast Rooting for the Empire, Poke the Poodle (this trope Played for Laughs), Villain Ball Magnet, Hate Sink (a character the show wants you to hate just as much as other characters in-universe do), Unintentionally Sympathetic (how an audience typically reacts to such a character), Villain Has a Point, Informed Wrongness, Felony Misdemeanor (something minor being treated as horrific for drama or humor purposes), Draco in Leather Pants (when the fans think a character is this but the facts say otherwise), and Villainy-Free Villain (a villain who would be a Hero Antagonist were it not for being a complete Jerkass). May be the result of a failed attempt at making someone Villain by Default.
(As an aside, it's worth noting the origin of the word 'villain'. It comes from villein. The villeins were pretty much the lowest of the low in feudal Europe. The scum of the earth. The serfs. Peasants, tied to the land. And they were in the majority. As time went on the word came to mean "uncouth person", and then "mean/rude person", and finally morphing into "evil person" as it is today. In effect, this trope is Older Than Feudalism: the oppressed and persecuted were often depicted as baser and nastier than anyone else and were held to a higher moral standard.)
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- This Greek telecommunication company Wind ad suggests that no matter how good you have been otherwise, going to Hell is a perfectly justified punishment for overpaying for business communication. Obviously, youre supposed to root for God at the expense of the guy who He promptly condemns to Hell.
- The South Korean marketing campaign for chocolate Chex was guised as a democratic poll between chocolate and green onion Chex. The green onion mascot, a Gonky green Chex named Chaka, was made out to be a Hate Sink, but didn't really do too many things to warrant such a reputation. Much to the advertisers' shock, Chaka won the voting over his opponent, Cheki, but Kellogg's refused to acknowledge Chaka as the winner. As such, Chaka's voters outcried against this and turned him into a symbol for freedom and justice, until green onion Chex was eventually brought to store shelves.
- Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Wolffy. He's very devoted to his wife Wolnie and only tries to catch the goats so that they can have something to eat.
- The early Doctor Who audio drama "Doctor Who and the Pescatons" treats the Pescatons this way. The Pescaton leader is using Mind Control, but its goal is to use the Doctor's powers and time travel access to help him find a new home, as a fish-creature from a dying planet with seas evaporating as it follows its dwindling orbit around its sun. This is exactly the sort of reasonable desire that the Doctor would normally help aliens with, at least if they promised good behavior. However, due to extremely out-of-character writing, the Doctor repeatedly declares them the most evil race he has ever known, and he and Sarah commit genocide against them without showing any remorse.
- Thanks to the crossover comic storyline Avengers vs. X-Men, Cyclops is positioned as one of the most hated "villains" in-universe. The problem with this, other than the very idea of Cyclops going from X-Men's Jerk with a Heart of Gold leader to a villain, is that he killed Xavier while being controlled by the Dark Phoenix. No one in-universe brings up the fact that he was under the powers of a force strong enough to defeat Galactus in favor of just being a dick to him. This includes Wolverine, a guy who killed another member of the X-Men (Northstar) while brainwashed. Before anyone asks, yes, Wolverine is being a Hypocrite to Cyclops in front of Northstar (Death Is Cheap).
- Cyclops reenters this post-Secret Wars (2015) where we find out that, despite uniting the mutant populace and bringing a level of peace through his (rather unorthodox) actions, the time skip has somehow made him a monster on the level of Adolf Hitler (and yes, he was actually called that). For over a year, readers wanted to know just what exactly he did (especially since an early story seemed to paint the mutant Sunfire as just as bad), only for Death of X to reveal that Cyclops wasn't even alive when he acted! It was Emma Frost, who somehow convinced the world that he led a group of mutants to alter the Terrigen Mists so that they would be safe for all. And he was disintegrated by Black Bolt for his actions! Much of this owed to the fact that Marvel, being overzealous in protecting from leaks, hadn't told the writers what Cyclops did aside from it apparently being really, really bad. Writers naturally assumed it had to be something seriously awful, hence the comparisons to Hitler, when the actual bad thing turned out to be kind of neutral.
- A minor example sees Hellion punished by Cyclops for killing an out of control Karima. Even though she was attacking Utopia, there was absolutely no one else able to stop her from killing everyone there, and the entire crux of Cyclops's side during the Schism was that the kids needed to be trained to fight and defend themselves. He ends up being shipped off to Wolverine ( An unrepentant mass murderer ) at the Jean Grey School, who goes so far as locking him up. Pretty much every book Hellion appeared in at the time attempted to drive home just how horrible and wrong his actions were.
- Chick Tracts: Numerous antagonists. Chick seems to believe that not being Christian automatically makes you a Jerkass, at least in private (which, when you think about it, kind of flies in the face of the "faith not works" message). A good example is Dr. Westhall in "Reverend Wonderful," whose only "crime" is preaching that all religions should live in peace and who immediately does an about-face to a "HAW HAW HAW"-ing douche when the protagonist of the comic tries to convert him.
- The Sirens in My Little Pony: FIENDship Is Magic. The way the issue is told, they don't come off as much as a threat as the legends told in Rainbow Rocks implied. Particularly, their singing doesn't cause strife or arguing between other ponies, it makes ponies adore them, and it's implied the Sirens do this as a way to get fame and attention, not to purposefully create trouble. If any harm was caused, it was Offscreen. Enter Star Swirl who, after repeatedly failing to best them in music to stop their spells, just banishes them to another world to get rid of them. At the very best it makes Star Swirl look like a petty jerk who hurled them into another world because he lost a music contest, and some fans go so far as to say Star Swirl is the villain of the comic and the Sirens were victims Driven to Villainy after their banishment. Worth noting this only applies in the comics canon; their appearance and subsequent banishment in Shadow Play clearly depicts them as villains spreading a Hate Plague that compels victims to violently beat the crap out of each other as they engage the Pillars of Equestria with Projectile Spells.
- John D. Rockerduck from the Disney comics acts as The Rival to Scrooge McDuck and is typically depicted as a villain. Often, he shows his villainy by cheating or otherwise using underhanded tactics. However, in some stories (such as "Zio Paperone e lo slogan invincibile") he competes with Scrooge while doing nothing particularly villainous (or at least, no more than Scrooge himself does in the story), yet the audience is still supposed to cheer at him losing and getting humiliated at the end, simply because he happens to be in competition with the hero and is a villain "by default".
- Johnny Turbo: FEKA is treated like deceptive scum seemingly because they aren't advertising how awesome their rival's gaming console is while trying to shill their own products. And even if they don't advertise the fact that their CD console needs their 16-bit console to work, it's more the fault of the customers for randomly spending hundreds of dollars on a product they know nothing about.
- Marshal Law: We're just supposed to take it for granted that the superheroes in Pinhead Vs Marshall Law are the same hypocritical perverts as the rest, but they don't do anything evil, demonstrate self-sacrifice and bravery, and actually try to stop the threat of Pinhead and the Cenobites (and are even trying to rescue Law). But because they are seen as a disgrace to the "real heroes" who fought in war (which is in of itself the comic contradicting its earlier message about how the army was a tool of a fascist state) the comic decides that they all deserve to be tortured forever in Hell while Marshall Law not only gets to go scot-free, he also takes a known serial killer with him as an ally in his campaign against the heroes. Law never has any epiphanies about his experience, and practically brags about how much he loves hating superheroes. All in all, everyone involved - perhaps even Law himself - would've been better off leaving him in Hell to rot.
- Therese in For Better or for Worse. Her crimes include...marrying Anthony, agreeing to have a child mostly because he wanted one, expecting him to do most of the childcare like he promised, going back to work after birth, eventually getting divorced (giving Anthony custody) and moving to Toronto, all of which is serious gossip fodder for the residents of their small town. It is fairly clear that the author hates this woman and wants everyone else to hate her too.
- The Romantic False Lead in Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" is apparently supposed to be a bad person for being more popular and more feminine than the narrator and dating her best guy-friend who she has a crush on. It's implied to be a not-entirely-stable relationship, but that doesn't necessarily make her an Alpha Bitch like the song implies.
- The same sort of situation is handled rather better in "The Girl Next Door," an earlier and nearly identical song by Saving Jane, where the narrator admits she's turning the other girl into a villain in her own mind to justify her jealousy of her.
- And yet another similar situation occurs in "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne. The song's lyrics outright state that the narrator wants to break up her crush and his current girlfriend because "I don't like her"; she also states that the boy clearly likes her better, even though we never get his opinion on the matter. (Though he's grinning like an idiot over having a hot girl try to steal him, and doesn't seem to care about his initial girlfriend getting abused by a stranger.) Lavigne has stated that the message of the song is that doing this is wrong, which is not the message most viewers receive.
- "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood has the protagonist thinking that her boyfriend is cheating on her so she trashes his car as revenge. Although the lyrics make it clear she's acting on unfounded suspicions, the boyfriend is still painted as being on the receiving end of justice even if he hasn't done anything wrong.
- Most of the "monsters" in Classical Mythology are never actually shown to do anything evil, and a lot of them are treated horribly anyway. Medusa is a particularly prominent example to modern observers, as one version has her turned into a monster by Athena for being raped in the wrong place by a far more powerful being (in this case the god Poseidon, generally considered to be an okay guy). The reason for this is that being classical mythology, they are using the original definition of "Hero", which is very much a Designated Hero: someone who does great things in the name of the Gods. The monsters weren't necessarily to be killed because they were bad (though some of them were), but because they were tough, and thus killing them would be a great feat.
- Loki and his children in Norse Mythology are designated villains for taking part in the doom of the gods, despite the gods being somewhat morally ambiguous figures anyway (although Loki definitely has some of their dodgier behavior on his hands too). However, Jörmungandr is alone among the children of Loki in being treated this way before the Ragnarök. Odin tried to drown him for... well, being a snake. Hel was put in charge of Hel and given control over 9 realms. Sure, she was separated from her family and was not allowed to live among the other gods but she was given an important job. Fenrir was taken to Asgard and only chained up after he grew enormous and wreaked havoc.note
- In The Kalevala, Louhi first appears on screen helping out a lost traveler, who turns out to be Väinämöinen. She sets the heroes standard mythological quests for her daughter's hand, and ends up marrying her to the one the daughter actually likes. When her eldest daughter dies, she quite reasonably refuses to marry her second daughter to Ilmarinen, which prompts the heroes try to steal the bride-price. She wakes up and chases them down to get her property back, and when that's unsuccessful, Louhi then continues to fight the war the heroes clearly started through other means. Why is she evil? Because she opposes the heroes.
- The Bible:
- Many of the antagonistic factions in the early books of The Bible come off this way to modern readers, as they tend to be either not really guilty of anything except being enemies of the Israelites (the Midianites, the Canaanites), or are legitimately nasty but don't really do anything particularly out of the ordinary for a Bronze Age society, including the Israelites (the Egyptians, the Amalekites) - and yet we're still supposed to cheer when the Israelites, and sometimes even God Himself, subject them to Rape, Pillage, and Burn. In later books the Israelites mellow out considerably, and villains that truly go beyond the pale such as the Babylonians and Haman are introduced.
- The New Testament doesn't get away scot free either. Pontius Pilate's job was to maintain peace in a fractious and distant corner of the Roman Empire, and the locals were doing everything they could to drag him in to their local squabbles. To Pilate, the Pharisees and other sects being angry at Jesus was them being bratty about someone who had dared to challenge them. On the flipside, much of the rhetoric and villainization of the Pharisees and Jewish leadership was written to attack them as a competing religion to Christianity in the first few centuries CE.
- In the year 2000, WCW tried to turn Goldberg, the most popular wrestler whose star was built in the company, into a heel against the founders of the nWo, who had long been seen as overstaying their welcome. You can imagine how well that didn't go over.
- In the same year, WCW rebooted itself and turned the roster into two stables, the older wrestlers as The Millionaire's Club and the younger wrestlers as The New Blood. The idea was good in theory, since it could help get the younger talent over. The problem? The New Blood were the heels of the storyline, meaning that the audience were meant to support the older, complacent wrestlers who always pushed back the younger talent.
- Sting as leader of the Main Event Mafia. He wanted respect from the younger members of the TNA locker room, but was so noble in going about it that fans took his side, and the much easier to hate Kurt Angle had to usurp control of the group.
- Most fans who only occasionally glanced at Lucha Underground or had only just started watching it assumed that Johnny Mundo was the babyface during his feud with Alberto El Patron. Even most fans who had been watching the program sympathized with Mundo because he had also been around from the start, while Patron barged in from AAA and acted like he owned the place because he was Mega Champion.
- Becky Lynch, a long time Face, turned heel at Summerslam 2018 after attacking her "best friend" Charlotte Flair following their triple threat match (also including defending champion Carmella) for the SmackDown Women's Championship in which Charlotte pinned Becky when she had Carmella in a submission hold. Becky had been angry that Charlotte had been given title opportunity after opportunity every time while Becky had to work hard to do so after being neglected for almost two years. She even gave a heel speech on how the fans never supported her. Contrarily, Becky was one of the most beloved women wrestlers in the company and the fans had been cheering for her for years, even more after attacking Charlotte, no less due to Charlotte's role as a Creator's Pet who the fans had been tired of her Roman Reigns-like push over the last three years. Fan reactions quickly made this Canon Discontinuity.
- In the first few months of 2018, Bayley has been repeatedly betrayed by her friend Sasha Banks, and returns the favor by either abandoning Sasha during tag team matches or attacking her post-match. The angle tries to make Bayley in the wrong for throwing her tantrum like a spoiled child, but fails to bring up Sasha taking her friendship with Bayley for granted, and not only did Sasha not apologize for her betrayals or even feel any remorse, she talked about them with a smile on her face. Although the feud ended with both of them patching things up, it repeated a few years later when Bayley attacked Sasha following their failed attempt to reclaim the Women's Tag Team Championship. Once again, the angle doesn't justify Sasha's past betrayals, and makes Bayley out as a despicable person who doesn't value friendship. Furthermore, Bayley even brings up the possibility that Sasha would have betrayed her again if Bayley hadn't beaten her to it.
- Vampire: The Requiem:
- The Ventrue are the de facto Designated Villains, although that isn't fair, as all vampires are villainous despite their best efforts. The Daeva, who have the explicit weakness of inevitable moral decline, have far more reasons to actually be the Designated Villains, only the fluff of the manuals and supplements just don't write them that way. The Daeva are sympathetic, as being evil is not really their fault, they're just morally decadent. The Ventrue, however, are always portrayed, every last vampire jack of them, as conniving, cackling, sadistic, and evil sons of bitches who are evil because that's what the Ventrue are and do.
- As far as fluff goes, the Nosferatu and Gangrel tend to get Designated Hero slots, but if an NPC in a supplement is marked "Ventrue Invictus", you can guarantee that the character is going to be portrayed in a villainous light.
- Mekhet, however, are the Designated Morally Ambivalent. They might as well be Vulcans for all the White Wolf writing staff cares.
- In-Universe example; in Beast: The Primordial, the titular Beasts are trapped in a living story in which they have been made to assume the role of living nightmares, incarnations of the fears spawned by the unknown and slapped with a Horror Hunger that compels them to hurt and torment people both for survival and to fill their cosmic role. Being well-aware of their role breeds a certain level of antipathy in Beasts, especially towards Heroes who A: get the "cushy job" as the Designated Hero, B: never try to fight their narrative role the way many Beasts choose to, and C: that "cushy job" is "track down and murder Beasts, without question or compromise. Little wonder the "Good End" for Beasts is the Apex path, where they successfully subvert their overarching narrative and rewrite it to make themselves into the protagonist.
- Similarly, the Technocracy from Mage: The Ascension are largely Designated Villains, by Old World of Darkness standards, given that there are expansion books to play Technocrats and the core books note that the rivalry is somewhat one-sided, with the Technocracy not so much hunting you down as reacting with vague surprise that you're still around when you bust into their laboratory.
- Later books softened them up a lot. While they are crushing human creativity and enforcing reality to abide by their standards, this is actually done in order to prevent all sorts of monsters and other horrible things creeping into the world, while giving the average person access to 'magic', as technology is magic that anyone can study and use. At worst, they could be seen as Necessarily Evil.
- The Old World of Darkness wasn't named on a whim. Like every other playable faction, the Mages are legitimate dangers to the free will and physical welfare of mortals (the majority of sentient beings) in their own right. Every sourcebook got an antagonist faction that was outright stated to be the designated villain because it holds the interests of humanity above other things. Most human corporations in Werewolf are actually reasonable enough, the Technocracy brought on the Enlightenment, and the various vampire-hunting organizations aren't exactly unreasonable in their desire to hunt and slay creatures that have to kill humans with some frequency to survive.
- All that said, the 'villainous' parts also hold true for all the antagonist factions. The Technocracy brought on the Enlightenment, but back then they were the Order of Reason and they were the rebels against the stifling status quo of Hermetic traditionalism and Christian fundamentalism. Over time, as befits the darkness of the WoD, they became the villains, crushing the world in their grip in their goal to keep humanity 'safe', but only on their terms. Similarly, the Wyrm is a very real evil force with no current redeeming qualities, and vampire hunters rarely distinguish between a Sabbat Tzimisce who likes to decorate his living room with the skins of his still-alive ghouls and the Anarch Toreador who only feeds from willing supplicants and never kills. It's more Grey-and-Gray Morality with ample degrees of What Measure Is a Non-Human? and Utopia Justifies the Means. No one is unequivocally a good guy in the WoD.
- Vlad von Carstein in Warhammer borders into this, depending how you look at him. While his successors were defiantly evil, the most he did was try to take over The Empire, which its Elector Counts are trying to do all the time, and if his enemies surrendered to him, he let them live. Though all the undead he kept around would take some getting used to.
- C.H.E.R.U.B. from their eponymous episode in Helluva Boss. Their act of trying to coerce Lyle Lipton out of suicide was presented as objectively wrong because Lyle was an amoral scientist who experimented on children. As C.H.E.R.U.B. pointed out, they were just doing their jobs assigned by the Almighty himself (or in the very least, was approved by God until they accidentally got Lyle killed). They're supposed to be seen as hypocrites for accusing I.M.P. of meddling with humans when they do the same thing. However, that negate their point since I.M.P. are hitmen who will even kill children if the money is good, while C.H.E.R.U.B. at least tries to help people with their meddling. Even though they started the scuffle that led to Lyle's death, it was only because they got fed up with I.M.P. interfering with them and tried to sabotage the opera so that somebody will die, and Cletus fired the shot that killed Lyle because Blitzo fought dirty.
- In the various GoAnimate "Grounded" videos, the person getting grounded becomes this when their punishment comes off as more excessive than needed. Probably the most egregious usage of this trope comes from the full-length movie "Caillou Gets Grounded: A Tale of Two Dimensions", Caillou is first seen trying to evade being run over by his dad Boris, who is indignant that Caillou isn't standing there and being allowed to be run over, which horrifies Caillou. He's blamed for attacking Boris when his alternate dimension counterpart attacks him, despite the fact they looked nothing alike. After failed attempts to capture the evil Caillou, his family blames him for his counterpart existing, which leads to him pulling a FaceHeel Turn and joining the evil Caillou as "Daillou". When his family finds out about this, of course, it's his fault and not theirs. And, at the end, Caillou survives and is grounded anyway.
- Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog:
- The series features a deconstruction of the traditional superhero/supervillain relationship, wherein the protagonist is only evil because the society he lives in has determined that anyone who is too brainy and unpopular automatically becomes a villain. Doctor Horrible tries to do evil, but only manages to Poke the Poodle — at least until the Designated Hero, Captain Hammer, makes things too personal. He only wins because his death ray backfires.
- At the same time, though, some people have taken the opposite view. He's a Smug Super, sure, but Doctor Horrible is every bit as arrogant, if not moreso, and treated much more sympathetically. Hammer's only intentional dickish actions in the story are taken against a villain who wants to destroy the city - an incompetent villain, sure, but still. He also actually pays attention to what Penny wants, even if he doesn't care that much about it, and they seem to enjoy each other's company. Hell, he opens a homeless shelter for her, in comparison to Doctor Horrible, who actively dismisses the idea of trying something like that. As crude as he could be, he does very little to deserve the derision he's given.
- Invoked during The Sharkasm Crew's Mario Party "Let's Play"s. One player tends to get shunned by the others, usually for having a lucky start to their game.
- Invoked and parodied in Third Rate Gamer. If the Evil Rate Gamer didn't point out that he's evil at every opportunity we wouldn't know. This is a parody of "the Evil Irate Gamer", who kinda fell flat because the standard-issue Irate Gamer was already a bit of a Comedic Sociopath.
- Hugo, the clone of Matthew Santoro, is portrayed as a villain for not wanting to be locked up in a cage by Matthew.
- Evil Lady is this in the web video, So You Wanna Be a Princess. She's booed for being evil despite her only crimes consisting of wearing black, acting grumpy, opposing Purity Sue Kayla, and burping after doing the first challenge. She doesn't even bother to cheat at all. At the end, after a blatant Curb-Stomp Battle that Kayla pulls on her when the latter is declared a princess, and subsequently, slimed, all Evil Lady does is leave the show in a huff.
- Oxventure: Discussed. One of the villains the Oxventurers went up against was Vex, a hermit whose crimes originally seemed to be "cutting down trees and killing animals". Merilwen the party Druid was very keen on fighting him, while Dob rightly pointed out that someone who lives on their own out in the woods pretty much has to cut down trees for firewood and tools and kill animals for meat and clothes to survive. However, it soon comes to light that Vex is a sadistic necromancer who killed Merilwen's original Animal Companion and made him into a hat. After that, even the usually happy-go-lucky Dob agrees that Vex has to die.
- In Underverse, Cross just wants to recover his world and is hesitant to hurt anyone not directly involved in hurting him.
- This Vid Chronicles video from December 2021 tells a story about a first date in which the woman unexpectedly brings her best friend along and they expect the guy to pay for both of their expensive meals and drinks. When he is understandably upset at this, the women insult and denigrate him. He retaliates by trying to get out of there before the meal and leaving the women to pick up the tab, but forgets his wallet. The waiter (to whom the guy was not very nice) finds it and gives it to the women, who use the guy's money to pay for their meals and give the waiter a huge tip. The narrative treats the guy as the "villain" of the story and never calls out the women or the waiter, despite all their behavior being much worse than his (and criminal to boot).