I’ve run into this question a lot, both in trying to explain my love of DBZ to non-fans, and in commiserating with fellow fans. Vegeta is a very popular character. It’s rare to see promotional material without him, and he’s one of the characters that is most recognized by people who aren’t familiar with the show—even among those who don’t watch anime. And there are good reasons for this.
Of course, he has his haters. There are people who legitimately don’t like the character, and those that have been pushed into hating him by his sheer popularity. And they have their reasons. Despite being one of “the good guys” for most of the show at this point, it wasn’t until the later part of Z that he really showed any regard for human life, or even the life of his family and friends. He can get kind of one-note (“defeat Kakarrot!” “My pride!”). Although he’s softened a bit by Super, many feel like that’s been a bit out-of-character. But his popularity definitely isn’t an accident, and if you’re a Vegeta fan, you’re in good company.
First off, if you’re attracted to men, Vegeta checks a lot of boxes as a male character. He has a dark, tortured past. He’s full of machismo surliness, and gives absolutely no fucks (until he does, when your heart breaks). He definitely fits into a type that I myself am guilty of enjoying: reformed baddy who still walks that grey line between good and evil.
I assume these are also the reasons your “typical” Dragon Ball fan (heterosexual boys/men) like him; he’s badass, gives no fucks, and is just generally pretty cool. He’s also written with a lot of snarky one-liners, which always makes for good tv.
These are all perfectly good reasons to like him, whether or not you consider yourself a “fan.” But I don’t think they’re the most interesting reasons, so lets dive right in.
Dragon Ball is one of those series that had an odd release in America, but it weirdly worked. Instead of starting from the beginning with Goku’s childhood adventures, they went straight to Dragon Ball Z, beginning with the appearance of Raditz and the kidnapping of Gohan. Why this worked is a conversation for another time, but basically it got us very quickly to Vegeta as a compelling villain–small of stature, and yet stronger than anything previously seen on the show, including Goku at his strongest yet. He also represented this fascinating new, alien culture.
This way of presenting the show also kept the focus off of Goku. He was around, training in Other World, but mostly the show followed Gohan. When the focus shifted to Namek and the search for the other Dragon Balls–and, subsequently, Frieza–this distance grew and grew. Through most of the time on Namek, you don’t follow Goku; you follow Gohan, Krillin, and Vegeta (incidentally, I realized as I typed this that those three happen to be my favorite characters…hmmmm…). The pattern continues through most of Z; Goku is less of a POV character as he is a trump card, and that leaves a bulk of the narrative following Gohan or Vegeta.
(To be clear though, he’s also very popular in Japan…but I can only really speak to my own experiences with the American version of the franchise)
Everyone loves to root for the underdog. It’s hard to think of Vegeta as an underdog when you know he’s one of the strongest characters in the series, but for the arcs on Namek, that’s exactly what he was. Once Frieza enters the scene, all of our heroes–which, thanks to a tentative truce, includes Vegeta–are horribly outclassed. Vegeta is fighting for what is essentially the losing side, and since it also happens to be the righteous one, he gets bundled up as a sympathetic character pretty quickly. He is also one of the few characters who has any idea of what’s going on. There’s a good part of those early episodes on Namek where Krillan, Gohan, and Bulma are just wandering around with no real sense of the danger they face, while you see Vegeta getting increasingly desperate about the approach of Frieza and the Ginyu Force.
By the way, this is also one of the reasons Goku works as a main character; despite being ridiculously powerful, he’s often pitted against villains that are even stronger. So his wins usually come after a great deal of trial, injury, and near-defeats, and they end up feeling like they are not only hard-earned, but partially tied into his righteousness and purity of heart (this is played up in the dub, since Goku is much less righteous and pure of heart in the Japanese version).
Despite having a large cast of characters, many of which are very recognizable and memorable, Dragon Ball isn’t so great on the character development. Goku himself has had very little development over the coarse of the show. It has happened, but mostly the show focuses on the development of his power level rather than his personality.
Vegeta, however, get globs and globs of character development. He begins as a pretty standard villain–incredibly powerful, and heartless enough to kill his own underling once he is no longer of use. We get to see him feel real fear and remorse through the events on Namek, culminating in his death at the hands of the very person responsible for the death of his father and the annihilation of his entire race. Through the Android and Cell sagas, we see him go from blatant disregard for his son, to actual sadness and anger over his death. And in the Buu saga we see him willingly give himself over to his evil side, sacrifice himself to atone for his ego and hubris, and ultimately work with his rival to save the universe. We get silly moments with him, and serious moments of sadness and regret.
Vegeta also carries the weight of the whole Saiyan culture, which is fascinating and mysterious even hundreds of episodes later. We only ever get glimpses into his early life, when Planet Vegeta was still around and kicking, and that keeps this level of fascination among fans high.
Vegeta’s character has been built up gradually from the first moment he appeared on screen, and his shades-of-grey morals and obsession with power make him a perfect foil for Goku, who has both those tendencies in a different flavor. His development has been slow and rewarding, and even when he’s more of a background character, he’s hard to overlook. His popularity isn’t an accident, and it doesn’t mean his fans are overlooking his murderous past—far from it, in fact. Good for good’s sake is kind of boring, but good that started bad and passed through various stages and hundreds of episodes to come out on the other side? That makes for a compelling character.*
*also why Piccolo and Tien are interesting, though they don’t get as much love or screen time.