Why Dunnit

Two events to tell you about before the post:

On Saturday, May 18th, from 12:00 until 4:00, I’ll be signing books at the Millbrook Literary Festival, held at the Millbrook Public Library, 3 Friendly Lane, Millbrook, NY. From 1:30 to 2:30, I’ll be on a panel about novelizing fairy tales.

This is a time change: The next day, Sunday, May 19th, at 4:00 (not 2:00), I’ll be among a group of poets reading at Byrd’s Books, 178 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, CT. There will be time before or after to chat.

Hope you can make one (or both!) of these!

On February 14, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have a great plot; great conflict; great evil scheme — but why on earth is the bad guy doing what he’s doing??? I have trouble coming up with motives. I find an evil plan, then try to shift around the pieces of my story to find a motive that makes sense, but I just end up expounding on the plan — making it more “elegant” (to refer to A Tale of Two Castles) — or making a new one, but I still don’t have a motive. For example, in my WIP, there’s this king that turns out to be evil and basically wants to kill off the whole kingdom — but why??? The best I can come up with is that he’s bored with royalty, but who’s that cold that they would kill thousands of people because they don’t like their job?? Help!

Thanks for the shout-out to A Tale of Two Castles!

Villains always seem to fascinate us on the blog. What does this say about us? What is our motive? Mrrah ha ha!

Lots of you weighed in.

viola03: Maybe this evil king’s motive could be that no one wanted him to be king (or thought he had what it takes or something), and now he wants revenge. Or maybe he’s an impostor from an enemy kingdom which wants to annihilate the other kingdom.

Writing Ballerina loved this but still wanted her general question considered.

K. R. Garcia: For motives, I find you have to start with the character. It helps me to find something painful in a character’s past that they either work to improve for the benefit of others (hero) or improve for the worse for others (villain). Here are a few common motives for villains: revenge (my favorite) is a fun one because the cause can be revealed as a twist. Thirst for power can be done very well and make terrifying villains. Stigma or vendetta against a group or population (for example, an evil wizard who despises muggles) can make for a fascinating radical/political kind of villain. In real life, motives are complex, so it’s a good idea for a character to have multiple motives. For example, my WIP’s villain wants revenge on another character as well as power.

Jenalyn Barton: A lot of time motive stems from a character’s background. For example, if the bad guy is a former slave who was treated poorly by the royals, he probably wants to get rid of them out of a desire for revenge. If he was once one of the royals who was banished for refusing to conform to society’s expectations of him, perhaps he desires to change society to fit his lifestyle and wants to expose all the corruption that he knew went on behind the scenes. Perhaps he was bullied and treated poorly as a child and ends up taking out all of his pent-up aggression on his subjects. The possibilities are endless! If you figure out his background, his own personal story in which he thinks of himself as the protagonist, you may find out his hidden motive.

Christie V Powell: I’ve recently discovered the ennegram personality system, which is kind of like Meyer’s Briggs if you know that one. They give a primary want and motivation for each personality type, as well as what a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ person looks like. I find it really useful for motivations, especially for villains. Here’s the long version: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions/
Here’s a quick break down:
Type 1: Idealistic reformer. Basic Desire: To be good. Basic Fear: To be evil.
This is actually my main villain’s type. They believe that the world is black and white and they are motivated to shape the world into the way it should be–in a villain’s case, through inappropriate means.
Type 2: Caring Helper. Basic Desire: to be loved Basic Fear: to be unwanted.
Type 3: Driven Achiever. Basic Desire: Success. Basic Fear: to be worthless.
My love interest and one of my villains both have this type. They struggle to be authentic and can be manipulative. in order to appear successful.
Type 4: Artistic Individualist. Basic Desire: To be themselves. Basic Fear: To be insignificant.
Type 5: Intelligent intellectual. Basic Desire: To be competent. Basic Fear: To be helpless.
Type 6: Dedicated Loyalist. Basic Desire: Security. Basic Fear: Being unsupported.
Type 7: Fun Enthusiast. Basic Desire: To have basic needs fulfilled. Basic Fear: Deprivation and Pain.
Type 8: Dominating Challenger. Basic Desire: Freedom. Basic Fear: Being controlled by others.
Type 9: Easy-going Peacemaker. Basic Desire: Peace of mind. Basic Fear: Conflict and Loss.
It’s really hard to write a type 9 villain because when ‘unhealthy’, they tend to disassociate from the world.

Melissa Mead: A type 9 villain would probably be clingy and try to make everyone conflict-free, even if it meant, say, lobotomizing them. All for the greater goal of Peace, of course.

Kyryiann: When I was struggling with this problem in my WIP, I decided to learn more about my villain. With me, a lot of brainstorming happens when I’m just thinking about the story. I had already decided that the villain was brothers with one of the main protagonists, a king, so I was trying to figure out why he was trying to destroy everything his brother loved.
The king’s wife is an important character, and as I was thinking about the three of them, I figured that she would have come in contact with the villain. The woman had spent some time with the king and his brother because her father wanted to arrange an alliance with their two kingdoms. She would have spent time with each brother individually.
That’s when it hit me: what if the villain had fallen in love with the woman, but she chose his brother instead?
This put a whole new spin on the plot. I eventually decided that the villain thought that his brother had forced the woman to choose him instead of the villain.
That’s basically a step-by-step process that I go through for most of my novels.

I’m struck by the potential for tragedy as well as for villainy in Christie V Powell’s list. Some of those basic fears are very sad and also touching–worthlessness, insignificance, helplessness, etc. A villain may become villainous because the only other option she sees is her deepest fear, as in: At least if I kill everyone in the castle, no matter what happens, I’ll be famous. I won’t be insignificant. Shakespeare in King Lear, if I remember right, rolls both the villainy and the tragedy together. Lear fears being unloved, and everything follows from that.

We don’t always need motive for a villain. I’ve used this example before: Sherlock Holmes’s adversary, Moriarty, the great criminal mind. I don’t think Arthur Conan Doyle ever gives him a motive. We can intuit a motive, though–or maybe Doyle suggests one or two indirectly: greed and the challenge of getting away with his crimes–being smarter than the agents of the law.

Sometimes we can deduce a motive in the results. This happens a lot in murder mysteries. Somebody has been killed, and the detective hero works backwards to find out why, how, and who. The why is the motive. At first our sleuth suspects the heirs to the fortune of the victim. Then she comes to find out that the dead man was funding civil rights lawyers in a totalitarian state. Agents of the state come under suspicion, too. There are more surprises, fresh suspects. The motive isn’t discovered until the murderer is identified. In this case, we, the writers, have to know the victim as well or better than we know the perp.

Some real life villains, like the Unabomber, for instance, write manifestos that go on for hundreds of pages and attempt to justify their acts. In the Unabomber’s case, he was opposed to technology and expected to start a revolution. That was his motive, though lots of people are Luddites without being violent.

So how do we get from motive to action? I think expert opinion is divided about whether one has to have some sort of psychological disability to carry out terrible acts. I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth thinking about as we craft our villain. Is a compulsion operating? Now I’m thinking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is Mr. Hyde capable of not being evil? We get into predestination and free will. This is deep!

We can decide one way for a certain story and another way for another. In one, our villain’s motive can rise out of his compulsions. She doesn’t feel safe unless she’s in control, so she’s controlling. Another can feel dead inside. He needs to inflict pain in order to come to life. Eek! With this kind of reason for villainy, we don’t need much more in the way of motive. Just pity the poor person who crosses this villain’s path at the wrong moment.

We don’t have to go far from here to the question of evil. Terrible things happen to people in fiction and real life. Is there evil? What’s its nature? How does it operate in our story? In our villain?

Writing Ballerina liked Viola03’s impostor suggestion because it helped her plotting. So we can think about the kind of villain who will send our plot zooming in the right direction. In the fairy tale “Rapunzel,” for example, we need a witch who wants a child and then, later, wants to imprison her in a tower. In the fairy tale, her actions are unmotivated. She just does what she does. But for the story to work in a longer adaptation, her motives are key to everything. Who would want a child and than want to jail her? We don’t necessarily need a back story. Basic character will do. She may love babies and hate children, for example.

In my loosely related version, Lady Klausine takes Perry because she wants a child, but she isn’t the one to shut Perry up in the tower. That’s her husband, Lord Tove, whose motive is extreme prejudice. So I divided the two villainous acts (and the reader comes to sympathize, if not excuse, Lady Klausine).

In Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel, the witch’s motives are entirely different-fascinating and unexpected.

So a single fairy tale plot can support multiple motives. To come to the one that we want to work with, we can consider the world of our story and the values of the people in it. We can think about the challenges this villain with his motive will present for our MC. We can make a list! Like this:

Smart villain
Bumbling villain
Resentful
World view that makes him act as he does

And so on. We can elaborate on the ones that appeal to us and see how they will affect our plot.

Fun can come into it. What kind of villain with what kind of motives will we enjoy writing? Because villains are often a delight to write. More than any other character, our villains give us permission to write over the top. They are generally an extreme, so we can be wild writing about them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ The parents in “Hansel and Gretel” abandon their children in the forest. The reader is told that this is because the family doesn’t have enough food, and that the mom is more willing than her husband to leave them. But the witch is cast as the major villain. Come on! Who would abandon children in a forest or anywhere else? Who would go along with such a plan? The parents are villains! What’s their motive? Write a scene or the whole story, revealing the real motive.

∙ Your world is a dystopian bureaucracy with a jillion departments . Your villain is the Minister of the Department of Transportation, whatever kind of transportation is used in this world. And he, deviously, makes transportation a misery for everyone. Goods are late getting where they’re going. People’s commute quadruples in length. The tiniest aspect of everyone’s life in this world is disrupted. Write a scene in which you show the reader how he operates, and why.

∙ The sirens of Greek mythology sing sailors to their death. Pick one and make her the villain of your story. Invent her motive and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I love this so much, especially your inclusion of Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes, who we respect and fear because we know that Sherlock himself fears almost nothing… yet he is sincerely afraid of this villain.
    You’re so right… there are so many well-crafted villains, some with motivation disclosed and others that have a mysterious reason for their evil, or they are simply selfish and power-hungry. Yet, they are all so well crafted.

    I think I most enjoy reading about villains in whom I sense a bit of myself because then the tragedy of their life choices, and their likely eventual demise, is real.

    I enjoy the dragon Vollys as a villain because she grows so attached to her guests. I feel sorry for her when she loses them… even though she horrifies me in many ways and I’d rather not meet her unarmed!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you! Yes, best not to spend time with Vollys unless you have heat-resistant body armor and an arsenal of 21st century weapons!

  2. Writing Ballerina says:

    Thank you so much! This really helped!
    You’re welcome for the shout-out!
    I’m so glad I found this blog or I would have given up on my WIP ages ago! It’s now been five months since I started it — I’d warrant that’s the longest time I’ve ever spent on a story! I’m almost done the first draft, too, which is really exciting!

  3. Can a villain be motivated by love? Not like they lost someone they loved to another person, but like the villain is trying to save the person they love, but they’re going about it in the wrong way. Maybe that’s more of an anti hero thing, though?

    • Cersei and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones (high school and up) are perfect examples of this. They’re in a whole forbidden romance thing that they have to keep secret at all cost, and they do some pretty horrible things to protect their relationship and each other. Cersei also loves her children fiercely and will do terrible things to protect them. (Though it should be noted that as the series progresses, Jaime turns into more of an anti-hero and Cersei turns into the “seeking revenge because she lost the people she loved” category of villain.)

      Tamlin from the YA series A Court of Thorns and Roses (also high school and up) *spoiler alert* turns into a villain in Book 2 because his love for the MC makes him overprotective, to the point of possessiveness. Whether or not this is actually love (he’s the love interest in book 1, and the two are still in love at the beginning of book 2, but she leaves him once the relationship turns toxic) is debatable, but at least HE is convinced that he’s doing all this for love.

      Finally, Fernand Mondego from The Count of Monte Cristo takes part in the plot against Dantes because he’s in love with Dante’s fiancee and seeks to get rid of him so he can marry her.

    • Definitely. Here’s an article on TVTropes about love being a motivation for evil: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LoveMakesYouEvil
      Most of the examples I can think of are high school and up: Lolita comes to mind, though I haven’t read it, just plot summaries. Same with Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina. Frollo’s infatuation with Esmeralda in Hunchback of Notre Dam. Anakin Skywalker in the prequel Star Wars trilogies. The villain of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

      I have a villain who does this in my first book. He’s heard stories about the main character from her brother and conjures up an imaginary version of her. So he has her kidnapped, punishes her if she acts differently than his imaginary version, chases her across the kingdom, tries to keep her captive, tries to turn her into a garden statue when he can’t have her alive…

    • I think about Evly/the Evil Queen in The Land of Stories (middle school?). The man she loves is trapped in a mirror and she’s trying to save him before it’s too late, but she’s so heartbroken that a witch removes her heart so she can’t feel anything. Everyone thinks she’s evil because she’s trying to save the love of her life but she hasn’t told them why or how.

  4. Ainsley E. Zirkle says:

    My WIP has multiple POV characters, and I’m struggling with how to make their voices unique. They all just seem kind of the same. Please help!

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      future_famous_author asked a question like this in a previous blog post (I forget the name but I think it had like 120 or 102 comments). You can check it out for the others’ answers but this basically what I said, with a few improvements and expoundings:

      “I’m going to assume you’re writing in first person POV, but this also works for third person.

      Mrs. Levine talks about character voice in WRITING MAGIC. As an exercise, she says to pay attention to speech mannerisms in real life, and write down the ones that you notice.

      Another simple way to make speech mannerisms is to sprinkle a phrase liberally throughout that character’s speech. For example, Bill can start most sentences with “um… I think…” Another mannerism quite often used in the real world (myself included, unfortunately) is “like.” Everyone, especially teenagers (like myself) pepper their sentences with “like.” It’s annoying, in my opinion, but I can’t really complain because I do it too. And there’s another thing. Two people can have the same mannerism, and one is really annoyed at the other because of it, but is oblivious to or can’t fix it in their self.

      There’s also tonal language: the ups and downs in our everyday speech. I’ve heard some people who end every sentence like a question, even if it is a perfectly rational statement. So they’ll be talking like this? And they share their opinion? And they say something funny? And every sentence is a question? If you were going to give one of your characters this mannerism, you would have to establish, maybe through another person’s POV, that they do this, because if you put question marks at the end of every sentence of that person to show the tonal language, the readers would get confused. Keep in mind that Jane, if she had this mannerism, probably wouldn’t notice that she did it, so you don’t have to question mark her sentences when writing from her POV. Other people might not notice either.

      There’s also the “thoughts” of the character; and I don’t mean the italicized physical thoughts, I mean the non-dialogue parts in each chapter. Each character is going to “narrate” their chapters differently. One person can be super observant and notice Jane’s questioning speech. Another can be really ticked off how Bill uses “um… I think” all the time. Still another can be oblivious to their surroundings and daydream a lot. Etc, etc.

      I also agree with what the others are saying, that it depends on their personality. That example for Bill (“um… I think…”) is great, but only if he’s slightly socially awkward or something of the like. The mannerism makes him seem insecure, so we wouldn’t want to use it if he’s a natural leader or something.

      There’s also body language, my favourite! I love it because not only can it enhance the speaker tags, it can be used as speaker tags! We each have our own individual body language, so it can really add depth to the characters.

      To summarize:
      1) notice real life speech mannerisms. Borrowing from real life can make your stories seem more real.
      2) sprinkle phrases or words throughout people’s speech. Examples: “like,” “um/uh/er,” etc.
      3) show tonal language (mostly by other people noticing, rather than punctuation. It’s hard to imply tonal language in words.)
      4) show personality through non-dialogue parts. Someone can have super sarcastic thoughts, and that probably spills over into their dialogue, so this can be a great tool.
      5) make sure the mannerisms line up with/help define their personality. Mannerisms that aren’t connected to the person’s personality can make the character feel disjointed or not real.
      6) body language!

      Also remember not to overuse one type of mannerism. The phrase-sprinkling is great for one or two characters, but give all seven a unique phrase, and your readers will get confused.

      Good for you for tackling switching POVs! That’s really tricky! I tried it once, but gave up after a while.
      Wow, that was a long post! Hope it helped!”

      • future_famous_author says:

        So, yes, I’m the one who originally asked this question, but I’ve read this book that was in third person that actually did a really good job of giving the characters voices. It was called Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World. Anyways, in that book, one character is very outgoing, and when reading the chapters focusing on her, you are bound to laugh at least a little. She’s funny, and doesn’t always process the obvious right away. Another character, actually her best friend, is very cautious. So, when experiencing something new, she would have thoughts about scary it was and so forth. These two characters are opposites, so using characters that are opposites may be useful, because then their personalities are very different, and so their voices will be, too. Also, one character may say (going back to Writing Ballerina’s “like”) “great” a lot, or something similar. Great as in, “oh man” not great as in “this is awesome!” 🙂 Also, some characters may be negative, some positive, some smart, some not so much. Some characters may remember a family member a lot, and everything reminds them of that one person, or a character thinks of a thing they like all the time. Hope this helps!

    • I opened up the multiple POV story I’m working on looking for examples. This story has three POVs:
      Here’s Indra. She’s lived in dreams most of her life, so she’s a bit out of touch with reality. She thinks in incomplete sentences. She’s hyper aware and overwhelmed by bigger sensations, but often misses concrete details. Here’s the first paragraph from her POV:

      Indra sat on a fur sleeping mat, staring into the eyes of a bewildered child. The room was dark with the first hint of morning. Sleeping breaths told her that they were not alone. Dreams pulled at her, invited her to return to the dreamscape, but not yet. Not when she wanted to figure out who the new rover was and why his dreams pulled at her so strongly.

      Then there’s Walker. He is a hunter, always aware of his surroundings, so he notices details everywhere. He doesn’t speak often and thinks things through before acting. He’s not very trusting, so he is constantly alert for danger. Here’s the first paragraph from his POV:

      Walker stood with his boots firmly planted in reality, watching Bridgley stalk a deer. The older man had a simple bow, strung but not held ready. From Walker’s place on a higher slope, he saw the animal, a young buck, grazing near the bottom of a depression between hills. Its movements were jerky and impatient, suggesting youth, and inexperience, and danger. Bridgley wouldn’t be able to see it from his place in the hills, but he was heading in the right direction. Walker didn’t interfere, but he gripped his crossbow tighter. Bridgley could take care of himself, but Walker took no chances. Where deer came, so did their predators.

      And then I have a fifteen-year-old girl who writes in her journal. She’s happy and a bit naive. The voice is a lot different because of the first person writing, but she also has a very different personality than the other two. Here’s her first paragraph:

      Hello! My name is Norma Filara, and I am 15 years old. My dad just bought some new land, and when he was at the office he got this little notebook for me, and now I can keep a journal again! My last one got left behind when we moved. Actually, all our stuff got left behind when we moved. Even my favorite milk cow. My big brothers teased me because I was sad about the cow when we’ve gone through so many sad things. Papa said we might get a new cow in our new home, but he didn’t say it could be mine.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Another trick for multiple POVs while writing in third person, is always have the character whose pov it is in the first sentence so it’s clear you’ve switched. It also helps if you have the character call themself a different name than what the other characters do.
      Eg. of that last part: I’m reading a book set in a world based off of 1300 Germany. In it there is a Duke, and the other characters call him Lord Hamlin, because it’s proper. When it’s his POV, he is referred to as Wilhelm, his first name.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Revising!!! I also like brainstorming conflict because there’s something wrong with me and I like watching my characters suffer.

    • Either brainstorming or revising, but not the first draft. Revising the first draft means jumping back and forth between editing and drafting as I figure out what scenes still need written. I like revising when the bones of the story are in place and I’m just polishing, figuring out how to make it as good as possible.

    • I like writing the first draft, but revising’s taken on a new shine recently as I have a beta who always leaves really thoughtful, nice, and helpful comments I love reading!

  5. This is kind of off topic, but I’ve always thought fairy tales could be interesting if you looked at the villains point of view. What if the “witch” had the child forced on her through a series of events-such as the parents inadvertently poisoning the child because the mother ate the wrong herbs. Because of that, the witch was doing good the entire time. The villain is no longer a villain.

    • Yes. Vivian Vande Velde’s “The Sisters Wierd” has a lot of those. Cinderella’s Stepmom planted the slipper on purpose to get rid of the annoying singing, Hansel and Gretel were creepy delinquents, Rumpelstiltskin saved the miller’s daughter from a neglectful marriage…

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Donna Jo Napoli’s novel, THE MAGIC CIRCLE, a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel,” is precisely about that.

        I also like to turn fairy tales inside out and upside down to find new ways of looking at them.

    • SluggishWriter says:

      I love those types of fairy tale retelling as well!! It’s partly why I liked Disney’s Maleficent so much.

    • I did a version of Cinderella where Ella’s developmentally delayed and one of her stepsisters is trying to help her get someplace where she’ll be happier while at the same time helping her family.

      • SluggishWriter says:

        Ooh that sounds interesting. I enjoy the retellings where one or both of the stepsisters is actually kind.

      • I’m doing a dragon Cinderella. Cinderella, whose real name is Raven, was abandoned when she was just a few hours old. Her adoptive father found her and brought her home, despite his wife’s protests. The oldest stepsister and the stepbrother want to be just like their mom, so they hate Raven too. But the youngest stepsister is more like their father, so she sometimes defends Raven when the stakes aren’t too high.

  6. A note: A lot of real-life villians don’t have some tragic motive, and you can pull off a bad guy pretty well even if they don’t- King Spade from Undertale is a pretty good example of this, as are others.

    I’ve cheated a bit with mine , as it’s based on Greek mythology. The villian is the pre-existing king of the gods, Zeus, who happens to be very defensive of his throne in mythological canon. It happens our protaganist Nikita is part of a prophecy, the son of Metis destined to overthrow him! …Obviously, Zeus doesn’t take this well, and here we have our main conflict, ft. a couple other gods driven by their loyalty to Zeus (Athena’s interesting here, as she’s Nikita’s sister), and Nikita’s non-godly allies- his boyfriend and their roommate/best friend.

    Here his motive isn’t tragic and/or actually good, but it’s still practical and makes sense, (plus a good dose of ‘the gods got corrupted with age’) so I’m rather proud of it!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.