The Five Main Points of Villainy: Motive

I’m typing these after all because the Five Main Points of Villany are the best way to start off a proper discussion of villains, getting down to the craft a la my own personal advice. They encompass the first questions I’ll ask and the first things I’ll look for when someone asks me to look at their villain.

So let’s get down to business (to defeat…the Huns), shall we?

Motive is Everything.

This is the first thing I ask. “What is your villain’s motive?” Honestly, motive is a question for every character out there. Motive is what drives us; consider your own life. Why do you go to school? Because you have to? Why do you have to? Why do you engage conversation with friends or family? Why are you reading this blog? Let’s address that last one. Why are you reading this blog? “I ‘unno” is not a very interesting answer, and it also doesn’t make sense. You must have a reason. “Because I want to be a better writer” is good. “Because Rii is my friend and I’m supporting her” is good. There are lots of reasons that would be good answers. This line of thinking of “action because motive” can work in reverse, too, as “motive therefore action”. This is most helpful when you don’t know what the villain should do next. What’s his ultimate motivation? Take over the world? Okay. What steps must he take to do that?

An important note about motive is that insanity is not a motive. If I ask you why your villain is exhibiting behavior A and you say “because he’s insane!” you’ve said something akin to “My character robbed that store because he’s a criminal!” or “He hit on that other guy ’cause he’s gay!” Notice how none of those are motivations. “Criminal” is not a motivation, and “gay” is not a motivation; they’re descriptions. Those are factors that can lead in to a motivation, but they themselves are not motivations. The criminal robbed the store because he needed money or because he needed a diversion for his assassin friend to shoot the mayor or because he has a grudge against the store-chain owner. The gay guy hits on the other guy because he thinks he’s attractive and hopes the other guy is gay, too. Or maybe he’s just trying to break the ice. Maybe he’s trying to make a distraction. See how these are motives?
So what’s the motive for someone who is insane? I’m sure what one who says “…because he’s insane” means, “my villain’s motivations don’t make logical sense because he’s insane”. But it’s tricky thinking to shorten that to “he did it because he’s insane” because the next thing you know, you’re using it as his actual motive. And as I already stated, insanity is not a motive. Even if it doesn’t make sense, know your villain’s motive. Consider Kefka from Final Fantasy VI. He was insane. But his motive was clear. He wanted to destroy everything. Why? Because he wanted to destroy everything. It doesn’t make sense because Kefka is insane. Hannibal wants to eat people. The Joker (or at least one iteration of him) wanted to “see the world burn”. They have motives, even if others can’t really understand or relate to those motives.

(Aside: Concerning insanity and motive, might I recommend you always give your insane villain a coherent motive? Meaning, don’t make their motive “purple squiblybloop” because “he’s so broken the world doesn’t make sense to him”. That kind of totally insane character will not only be really hard to write but you run the risk of his not being interesting in the first place because he’s so far removed from anything to which the reader can relate. Focus on a motive that doesn’t seem to make logical sense, whether because it seems  foolish or because others can’t relate to the motive due to how demented it is. Things like, “I want to kill everyone who shares my bloodline” or “I want to train circus elephants to target children with cotton candy” or…or, well, “I want to eat people”. )

So consider this rule number one – with all your characters, but especially your villains.

About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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9 Responses to The Five Main Points of Villainy: Motive

  1. Excellent points about motivation! A lot of this relates to acting as well as writing, which I think is pretty cool, too. The points about insanity are especially good. Sometimes it might be hard to analyze an insane character as a reader or audience member, and even the character himself might not know why he acts the way he does. The creator of that character, however, should always, always know why he does everything. Otherwise, not only will you get flat writing, but at some point you will also lose cohesion. A character with motivation might not be easy to analyze, but sometimes that can actually be a good thing because it’s interesting. On the other hand, a character lacking motivation will be neither cohesive nor interesting. His actions will be confusing but not worthy of analysis. The audience will care about a character who is well-built; if he is a villain they will simply care about him in a different way.
    (Another plus is that if your character has good motivation, it means you as the creator know his backstory. And if he ends up being popular you can always go back and explain it. Audiences love learning about a cool character’s backstory. *Especially* with villains. Think: Spike from Buffy, Magneto from X-Men, Syndrome from the Incredibles, or the Forsaken from The Wheel of Time).


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