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Villains often are motivated by power, that’s no secret. And some of the things they’re willing to give up for power, whether that power is immortality or a macguffin or just plain old power, always seem to be something in the range of “anything”.

That’s fine, I suppose, for someone who just really wants power. And there are those who are so purely motivated by power that they’re willing to become a lich or pull a Faust or some other crazy thing to get it. But if your villain is motivated by power, you might take a moment to ask if there’s something behind the desire – if the power itself is a motivation or a means. The difference between the two is huge, and realizing that your villain has a totally different motivation than “get power”, and “get power” is just a means can mean understanding your villain on a level you couldn’t manage before. I think a lot of times when our villain feels austere to us and just won’t talk like our heroes, it’s because we don’t take the time to truly understand them.

Sometimes it’s just because they’re a huge jerk.

But consider wealth, which, if you ask me, is a type of power. Plenty of people are motivated by money, but why? I mean, I like to have money, and I’m willing to bet you probably like to have money. Why? The assumption goes that money gets you things. I can’t go buy some delicious, delicious pho or delightful sweets or a couple hundred games from Steam if I’m broke. Usually if someone says “they’re motivated by wealth”, it’s pretty well assumed that they’re not motivated just by having the  dollar bills themselves, because that’s pretty pointless. I mean they smell interesting, or if we’re going with gold or jewels, they’re shiny and pretty, but it’s the value of those items, the purchasing power, that matters. Motivation of wealth is generally assumed to be motivation of having things. You could break it down into why someone wants those things – I’m motivated by purchasing power for food because yum, or games because who doesn’t like to have fun? (Pft, I’m a 90’s kid, I want to get rid of student debt more than I want pho or games.) Determining what a person would buy is great for understanding them, but why they want to buy those things tends to be more self explanatory.

But power itself isn’t necessarily obvious like money. The assumption is that one wants power because power allows one to do things, like money allows one to buy things. But while buying things is more obvious in its motivation, “doing things” isn’t. What things do they want to do and why they want to do them are both important. If the character wants to have god-like powers, why is that? Is it just because they want the thrill of being all-powerful, able to shape the world to their will?

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That’s cool and all, if not a bit manic.

Or do they want something more than that? Do they want to make absolutely sure they’ll never be out of control again? Make others who looked down on them suffer? Attract someone? Remember that villains are people and people can be both simple, attracted to the shininess of money, attracted to power for power’s sake, but more often, they’re complex. And the complex ones are almost always more interesting.

So if your villain is motivated by power, double check to find out whether or not they’re actually motivated by power, and if they are, why – and if it’s just any power they can get their hands on, or a specific type, like money.

Consider also what your villain is actually willing to give up for power. I for one would not actually be willing to give up my eternal soul for power, though granted I’m not hugely motivated by power in the first place. I wouldn’t give up my kid.

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Xanatos (Gargoyles) wouldn’t give up his family either.

Villains are evil but that doesn’t mean that they are all that it means to be evil. They’re people. They have limits. It’s possible they’d be willing to give up absolutely everything for one thing they want, but it’s just as likely that they realize there are other things they want more. It all depends on the character, but never assume that just because they’re a villain, they don’t value family, friends, or other things of immeasurable value for something like power. It’s possible that power might mean to them retrieving a lost loved one, in which case it’s giving everything up for the loved one, not the power. That goes back to the means.

Power is a basic, common, and obvious motivation for villains for a reason, but make sure if that’s your villain’s motivation, you do have a reason.

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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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