On November 2, 2011, Rina wrote, I need motivations for my villains, you see. If anyone has any good motivations for villains…?

This is a perfect companion question for last week’s post about backstories. Motivation can be backstory, or front story. Let’s put front story up front and take it first.

Here’s an example:Training in alien communication at the Starship Academy begins with a placement exam, part of which is a chess game. First-year student Anthea intuits the meaning behind the game and intentionally loses to her opponent, Bennett, whose triumph twists into rage when she’s assigned to a higher study group than he is. Thereafter, he’s her enemy, the villain of the story.

Lots of front-story events can motivate a villain. Chuck can inadvertently witness something that no one was supposed to see. He can accidentally say the wrong thing. He can be new in town and just be his adorable, outgoing self, which may threaten Dava, the reigning popular kid.

Going back to Starship Academy, now we know Bennett’s motivation: anger at Anthea for divining what he failed to understand, and fury at himself for being used by her. But we don’t know why he responds with rage. Instead, he could concede with good grace. He could even admire Anthea and ask her to explain how she understood the test when he hadn’t. The writer can provide backstory. We can learn that Bennett’s father, who was constantly passed over for promotion, called almost everyone else a loser. Or his mother used to beat him whenever he brought home less than an A on his report card, or, for you homeschoolers, whenever she found fault with one of his projects.

The writer can put this information in, and the knowledge may enrich the story or may make interesting reading, but it doesn’t precisely explain Bennett; we all respond uniquely to our histories and our circumstances.

Motivation doesn’t always matter. Think of Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He’s simply bad to the core. There’s a chilling moment in the wonderful old movie, The List of Adrian Messenger, when Kirk Douglas says, “Evil is.”

The motivation can be lost in history. Think of feuding clans. The parties may not even remember the reason they hate each other, but the hatred is carried forward from generation to generation until something breaks the cycle.

Power is a frequent villain motivator. Villainy itself requires a degree of power. The villain doesn’t float in the river of time; he puts his oar in. Real-life historical villains, many of them, are motivated by power.

Indifference can be a motivator. The villain wants what he wants and doesn’t care who’s hurt.

Prejudice can be your villain’s goad to action. Inga hates everyone in the Yunnu tribe. When a young Yunnu boy enters the village she behaves despicably toward him.

Lack of empathy, even solipsism (look it up, if you don’t know – it’s a great word) can cause a villain to act as he does. Georgio doesn’t necessarily mean to do ill, but he doesn’t believe that Helena will feel unhappy if he kidnaps her. He just wants the ransom.

As important as motivation, in my opinion, is consistency. Bennett is going to be a certain kind of villain. He’s gotten into Starship Academy so he’s smart. Is he patient or impatient? Does he enlist henchpeople who do his villainy for him, or does he work alone? Does he pretend to be Anthea’s friend to get under her guard? Whatever you decide, he should always be that. Moriarty will always be subtle and clever. Hattie in Ella Enchanted, not so much, and Olive, never. The ogres in Ella are sneaky and crafty; in The Two Princesses of Bamarre they’re brutish and doltish.

Complexity in a villain is nice but not necessary. The decision may rest on how close or how distant he is. In the Sherlock Holmes stories again, he’s distant. In the Starship Academy example he’s close, and the reader will probably need to know him well, so he should be well-rounded. You may want to give him a good quality or two. The pirate Smee in Peter Pan is lovable, at least partly due to his spectacles. Captain Hook is lovable too, I think, even though he kills without mercy. Maybe it’s because he’s pathetic. After all, his ambition is to kill a little boy. And he has good manners.

What good quality might you give your villain? I’ve known a few baddies (not many). One was very generous, and another had a great sense of humor; the others had no redeeming qualities that I could discover.

An element to consider may be the power relationship between the villain and hero. Anthea and Bennett and Chuck and Dava are equals, but Edwina could be Fred’s horrible boss. Or Fred could be the horrible one, undermining everything that Edwina is trying to accomplish. A powerful villain can exercise his villainy out in the open, not always, but often. An underling villain has to be sneaky. The need for subterfuge can be part of Fred’s motivation.

We look for motivation in a villain, but I’m not sure we do in a hero. Anthea does her best in the chess test. Her goal is to show her skill in nonverbal communication; she isn’t out to defeat Bennett, even though he sees it that way. We don’t generally ask, however, why the good character is good. Interesting.

Sometimes the villain motivates the hero and shapes her actions. Edwina, as the good boss, has to learn how to succeed in spite of Fred. She has to become the kind of supervisor who knows how to deal with subtle insubordination. She can become better or worse because of Fred.

And sometimes the hero shapes the villain. Peter Pan is unchanged by Hook, but Hook is profoundly affected by the sort of enemy Peter is. He becomes a tragic figure (in a lighthearted way) because of Peter.
Here are three prompts:

∙    Anthea’s mentor, who sets her course through the academy, assigns her to use Bennett’s enmity. For training purposes, he’s her alien, and she has to manipulate him through understanding. Write the story.

∙    Bennett’s mentor sets him up for repeated failure. His task is self-understanding. He’ll never succeed with an alien until he understands himself. Write his story.

∙    June’s cousin Kyle comes to live with her family for the summer. Kyle is a year older than June, bigger, and a bully. June, however, has inner resources. Decide what they are. Write what they do to set each other off. Tell the story of their summer.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. My villains are collective (thousands on one side), so they all have the same motivation. I don't know if that is easier or harder…but to make my story work I had to have my villains have their motivation early on.

  2. "Or, for you homeschoolers, whenever she found fault with one of his projects." HOMESCHOOL REFERENCE!!! 😀
    My villains usually form accident by disliking someone and slowly moving it up to different levels until it becomes hatred. And most of my villains have several good qualities and can easily become the good guy from another perspective. I love perspective change in stories….:)

  3. Okay, so here’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can the villain be just an annoying person? There is a certain person I know who I absolutely do not enjoy being around. She is terribly inconsiderate, frightfully clingy (to the point of stalking people), rude, and hostile if she feels that you've offended her. However, she is also desperately friendly, ridiculously helpful, and even well-intentioned, I think. She's caused me a lot of problems before, even though she's not evil. Can that type of character count as a villain? Or would they be more like minor annoying supporting characters? Just wondering.

  4. She could be maybe a secondary character who roughs it up for the MC. I's your view on things…if you don't really have a 'villain', then you could call an annoying character a 'villain', I guess.
    Sorry, not an expert on these sorts of things!

  5. Love what you said about how we don't as often question the hero's motivation. I think it's that we only look for motivation when we don't understand why someone would do something–and I suppose it says something good about humanity collectively that we as writers have to justify our villain's nasty actions more than our heroes' good ones. Although I do think sometimes have to be justified. The story I'm writing features a wandering adventurer who makes a living rescuing people from monsters. It's a bit beyond just being nice, and I do feel like I have to explain WHY he's doing this.

    Anyway…fascinating discussion, as always!

  6. Thanks for a fascinating and helpful post! I bet I'll be using this one for a while. And I like the prompts too.
    My last villain was motivated by jealousy, mainly – his resentment of my hero grew over many years, and eventually he took action.

    Writeforfun: I would think yes, of course. If anyone's ever read THE SCORPIO RACES (one of my new favs), there's a "villain" in that who's really more of an annoyance. It works very well into the plot: the fellow isn't really evil, he's just petty and selfish, but he's still the villain even though he's not morally depraved or anything.

    (I recommend that book highly, too. There's a bit of strong language but nothing else to worry about in those quarters.)

  7. I agree with marveloustales that I found this interesting "We look for motivation in a villain, but I’m not sure we do in a hero." Hmmm… maybe we want to discover a reason that a villain is bad, so that we can understand them and fix them and put an end to the badness?

    @writeforfun – Your friend sounds like she is practicing what I have heard called emotional blackmail, often very hard to detect because it is cloaked in niceness and traits that under other circumstances can be considered good. So that makes for a very sneaky type of villain!

  8. My Dear Gail! Something is preventing me – this is the 3rd time I'm trying to send you a message! I sincerely hope that you're too nice to behave as a villain so I believe you'll help my dream come true! My name's Anastasia Skripnik, my 1st languge is Russian and the thing is – I'm 'enchanted' immensely by your 'ELLA ENCHANTED' and I want to translate it into Russian! May I? And how to do it? Please! I beg you! I beseech! I'm ready to cry and scream and shout about that! Please!!! my e-mail ( can't wait to recieve your answer!!! Thank You!

  9. This is an really ironic post, since I just wrote a short story (my second!!!) where the protaganist is the villain! His motavition was that he was simply insane, no backstory, except that he had started out low, and had done some pretty shady things to get to where he is now.
    On another note, I FINALLY was able to find a writting partner! I've been trying for a LONG time to find someone to trade writting with, and almost everyone I shared anything with would just say "Oh, I love everything about it!" She's been having the same problem, which is almost as annoying as having writters block!

    @writeforfun- I agree with Erin, she'd make a pretty good antagonist! And a sneaky one at that. Add a horrible family (or something else that makes her less likely to be a villian) and she'd make the perfect backstabber!!!

  10. Thanks for the comments! When I think of villains, I think of people who blow up cities or eat children or beat kittens to death. But I guess you all are right – a villain doesn't have to be "evil." I think I'll be using her as my villain in my next book (by a different name, of course) to experiment with creating a completely different type of villain than I've used before. Ooh, I'm getting excited already!

  11. Anastasia Skripnik–I'm not sure if there already is a published translation of ELLA ENCHANTED. You can certainly translate the book for practice but not for publication without a publisher and a contract with me, which would go through my agent, whose contact information is on the website. I'm glad you like ELLA!

    • Aw, my dear Gail, thank You so much for your answering me back! You're amazing) You wrote that passage for me personally and I feel terribly glad about it! I think there isn't a Russian translation ( I'm glad because that's my chance!) however there should be! And the Ukrainian one! ELLA'd sound so sweet in Ukrainian! I could do it!I really can't think of anything ELLS! Hope Your agent doesn't bite, as I'm a bit afraid. But I know You love to d e a l with the young and daring, so You won't mind m a k i n g a d e a l with one of them!
      And You left me no choice – I'm bound to like ELLA! Magical world You've created is somehow similar to my own imaginary world. I listen to the audiobook as I haven't yet found a way to get the printed copy, and the words get inside me and become a part of me, really! I want to draw it, and I do! Good luck with all you're planning to do! Ana Skripnik.

    • Hello again, Gail! Forgive me for my constant disturbing you on your blog about things that have nothing to do with what you post here, but this seems to be the only way I can get in touch with you, so, you see, 'I mean to do it'!
      On your website there are only mail addresses and I don't know how many centuries it can take to deliever a letter from Ukraine, Europe to America! Is there no e-mail address? And I have only just got to know that first you were planning to be an artist! I'm 16 and I LOVE drawing!I hope to get an opportunity of illustrating your books officially some day (actually I have already begun that)! But 1st chapter of your 'WritingMagic', that I've read on your site made me feel very like writing in English! I even somehow succeed in making puns, I guess! =) Help me please, if you have time, but better go on creating your tales! Ana Skripnik, yours truly)

  12. writeforfun… I would put your friend in as a supporting character, but not as the "main" villain in the beginning of the story. I really enjoy it wen the person you least expect to be the villain– either because he/she blends into the woodwork or is just too non-villainous– ends up being the bad guy at the end. That might work, and you could work in her backstory, too– like why she's so clingy (she never got the love/discipline she needed as a child) and then, by the end of the story, morph that into the need of love and admiration from, like, the world. Or you could make her being used by or a partner to the "villain", but really, it's her that turns out to be evil. Just a thought.
    marveloustales– You said that he fights monsters for a living. is this meaning he's getting paid to do it? Because money is an extremely common motivator to do something, whether good or bad.
    I just had the pleasure of reading Peter Pan by JM Barrie in it's original wording, and the Disney version just does not encompass the full magnitude of it!! It was really violent, too– more than I would have thought. Peter was a brat, and quite frankly, the children were too– I ended up taking the side of the narrator. (That's also a good way to sway the reader into thinking your villain is bad beyond belief– their view is already tainted of him/her and the narrator can really make them sound nasty. Such is the case with the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins– we've never met President Snow, but already we think that he's the most evil guy EVER.)
    Thanks again for a great post, Gail!

  13. This is sort of unrelated, but my WIP has two POV characters, both first person, both present tense. I don't know how to make sure the reader knows who's talking, because I, for one, always skip the titles of the chapters. It wouldn't make sense to put them in different tenses or fonts, or make one third person. Right now, I've just been putting their name at the top of each page in BIG RED CAPITAL LETTERS. Please help!

  14. @ capng – I've read a book like this before and it *is* hard to tell who's talking. (I skip the chapter titles too.)

    One way to do it might be if they have *very* different ways of talking; very distinct voices like one uses lots of slang or special pet words, or a foreign sentence structure (I heard an example of this once but I'm not familiar enough to give an example.)

    Another idea is if the speaker kind of introduces herself at the beginning of each section. Maybe kind of like you would do if you called someone on the phone? Or if they start out by referring to something unique to them and when you last left them, like, "Remember how I told you about the trouble I was having in English? Well, it get's worse." Or maybe they refer to the other speaker, something like, "So Rhonda thinks she has problems? You won't believe what happened to *me!*"

  15. Capng, here's a suggestion: Imagine 2 of your friends, of the same gender and similar age, are talking in a dark room. How do you know who's speaking? Besides the actual sound of their voices, what do they talk about, and why? Is one very nervous, often pausing and stammering and turning her statements into questions? Is one sullen, answering with single words that sound like they were pried out of her with a crowbar? Does the one who's pretending to be a boy assume that boys shout and swagger a lot, so that everything she does sounds exaggerated? The way you write what they say will reveal their character, and who they are will influence what they say and how they say it.
    Ex, pretend that you're starting 2 chapters where Anna and Betty each took the same really hard History test:

    Anna: I think I passed the test. I mean, I studied until I fell asleep on my books. Every night! But all those kings…why did England name so many kings Henry, anyway?

    Betty: I don't want to talk about that stupid test. Yeah, I studied. I don't care if you believe me. I don't care which stupid Henry had six stupid wives, either.

  16. Gail, I'm interested in what you think about the difference between a "villian" and an "antagonist". Do you think there's a difference, or do you not bother making a distinction? Also, what do you think about "minor antagonists?" I was watching the audio commentary for Disney's "Mulan", and the creator's said that while Shan Yu (the Hun leader) was the main antagonist, Chi Fu (the Emperor's advisor) was the minor antagonist, the one who created problems for Mulan in her everyday life, even though he was technically on her side. Do you have any suggestions for creating minor antagonists? Thanks.

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