This week: Villain MotivationEdited by: Robert Waltz
More Newsletters By This Editor
1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions
But these words people threw around - humans, monsters, heroes, villains - to Victor it was all just a matter of semantics. Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labeled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.
― V.E. Schwab
People are not born heroes or villains; they’re created by the people around them.
― Chris Colfer
There weren't any villains though. The world was just complicated in various ways, and there weren't any obvious villains to be found. It was excruciating.
― Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Fantasy stories, as we know them, tend to deal with moral blacks and whites.
This is fine, really. Let other genres have their own tropes; we'll (mostly) stick to heroic point-of-view characters fighting some external evil, not least because it's a reflection of the internal struggles we all go through - the ego vs. the id, or the shoulder angel vs. the shoulder devil.
But that doesn't mean there can't be nuance. On the contrary, some of the best stories feature believable villains with realistic motivations - even if their actions involve unrealistic things like enslaving the human race or blowing up the planet. What they do sets the stakes, but who they are, and why they want to do things we consider evil, those can (and should) come from something primal and human.
To illustrate my point, I'm going to use a variant of an old, unlikely and contrived ethical dilemma as a basis for discussion. It goes like this:
You're the driver (engineer) on a train. Up ahead, stuck on the tracks, is a car with five people in it. You can't stop in time; the only thing you can do is throw a switch that moves the train to another track - but this track has a car with one person stuck on it.
Of course, most real-life, or even fictional, decisions aren't binary or that bleak, but given that information and only that information, I suspect that most people would throw the switch. The point here is that inaction - not throwing the switch - doesn't absolve you, the driver, of responsibility. Also, that sometimes no matter what you do, something unfortunate is going to happen. The bleak ethical calculus is that causing one death is better than causing five; or, as Spock put it, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
What does this have to do with villains in stories? Well, first of all, consider your antagonist. What would he or she do? Would she smugly stay away from the switch, looking forward to causing five deaths? Or would she throw the switch, if only to look good for the resulting investigation?
Also consider also the following scenarios, as yourself, or as the hero, or as the villain:
-You have additional information: the single occupant of the one car is a child, whose parent has managed to get out. Is your ethical calculus going to be the same, regardless of age?
-The single occupant is not a child, but you are aware that the occupants of the other vehicle are members of a group whose policies you hate.
-The single occupant happens to be a family member of yours, perhaps your grown child or your parent, while the other five are not directly related to you.
Focusing on that last one, another point comes to mind: hero or villain, most people will favor and protect their own family (absent, of course, the kind of issues that tend to turn someone into a hero or a villain). This applies to protagonists and antagonists alike. Often, even the worst bad guys are doing what they're doing to protect their own family, at least as they see it. And often, in their own minds, they're not evil, but doing good.
The corollary to this is that if you're protecting your own kind at the expense of someone else, you may think you're a hero, but you're not. Some of the worst villains of real history fell into this category, incidentally. I'm sure you can think of one or two. It's a selfish motivation, at its core, and if decades of reading comic books has taught me anything, it's that selfishness is mostly a bad-guy trait. On the other hand, if you *don't* protect your family, you fail as a person.
In any event, this is just to get you thinking. There are tons of other hypothetical ethical dilemmas out there, and you can use them to get a handle on your characters' motivations. Does your antagonist simply not care? If so, why is he trying to take over / enslave / destroy the world? He or she has to care about something, even if it's something evil, or he's going to end up being two-dimensional. Does she simply want power? If so, why? Money? Money is a means, not an end, so again, why?
These questions apply to the protagonist, too, of course, but generally you spend most of your time in the protagonist's head, so their motivations tend to be more transparent.
Bad guys who exist only to provide windmills for the hero to tilt at aren't usually memorable. Give them something to strive for, just like you do with the hero.
Some stuff to read:
Submit an item for consideration in this newsletter!
Have an opinion on what you've read here today? Then send the Editor feedback! Find an item that you think would be perfect for showcasing here? Submit it for consideration in the newsletter!
Don't forget to support our sponsor!
Last time, in "Out of Time, Part 3" , I wrapped up a series on time travel.
Write 2 Publish 2020 : "It's important to set up a self-consistent set of principles for it in your story."
I wrote an article on setting up your world. It really is critical that a writer set up the perimeters of their world and make sure their characters stick to it
If the article's on WDC, think about submitting it here - I'd be glad to link another perspective on world-building.
That's it for me for this month - see you in July! Until then,
To stop receiving this newsletter, click here for your newsletter subscription list. Simply uncheck the box next to any newsletter(s) you wish to cancel and then click to "Submit Changes". You can edit your subscriptions at any time.