Villains and Motivation


Hi everyone,

Well, it’s been a week and here I am with a new blog post. First things first – so far I have kept up my resolution to write 500 words each day (I had to cheat a bit on Monday night, when I finished at ten past midnight, but it still counts).

In the last week, I’ve written 4528 words – which brings me up to a total of 14698 so far this year. It’s not NaNo levels of productivity, but it is consistent. For Thursday’s secondary project, I went back to A King’s Ransom because I have more ideas for it than for anything else I’m working on, and sometimes you just have to follow the ideas. I’m still working out a few finer details of my submission for Call to Arms (such as, er, the plot) so that will have to wait for a while!

Today, for no particular reason, I thought I’d write a little about villains (antagonists), and how we approach writing them. You can, of course, write big cartoony villains who come in and make a big noise about how evil they are, bragging about their plans with no shame whatsoever. You can also write very subtle villains – sometimes, they don’t seem villainous at all, but they say or do things that are insidious and make the world a worse place. And, of course, you can have a story with no villain at all – either your antagonist is a perfectly reasonable person who just happens to be working at cross purposes to your protagonist, or the obstacles in your protagonist’s way aren’t actually caused by any specific person.

One thing, however, unites all antagonists and villains, and that is that there has to be a reason for what they are doing (or are) and the way that they feel. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, of course! Sometimes there are no good reasons. But there are always reasons, or at least intentions.

When we write protagonists, it’s usually very easy to get into their heads and pick out the reasons that they want to slay the dragon (to save the princess, or to protect their sheep) or find the hidden temple (to use the healing waters there, to learn about an ancient culture, or for simple bragging rights). It’s harder, sometimes, to get into the head of a cruel or evil character. After all, the reason they’re stealing kittens and turning them into food for the super-rich is just… that they’re the bad guy. Isn’t it?

But the truth is, nobody thinks they’re the bad guy, and people rarely do things (big, complicated things, at least) just on a whim. Perhaps, in the truly heinous example above, they think they’re taking the strain off the animal shelters, or providing a service people really need – or perhaps they’re just trying to make money (whether they desperately need it or not). It doesn’t have to be a good reason, as I say – and for the record, I don’t believe that there is a good reason for anyone to steal kittens and/or turn them into food – but there has to be some sort of internal logic as to why they do what they do. Sometimes, that logic will make no sense to the reader, but as an author, you have to know what that logic is and be able to convey it through the character’s actions. As a reader, it really makes a difference to understand what led a character to do the terrible things they’re doing – even if you can’t excuse or accept them.

At least, that’s my opinion. What do you think? Does knowing an antagonist’s motives diminish their villainy, or add more depth to a nuanced character? Do you often find yourself sympathetic to antagonists based on their reasons for what they do? Let me know in the comments.

Talk to you next week!


2 thoughts on “Villains and Motivation

  1. Kat

    Well, that was a thought provoking article! I definitely think you can’t have depth without motive! In fact, I’d go as far as to say that people put more thought into villains’ motivations than they do the heroes’. We often ask why someone might commit a crime, but we never ask why someone does a good deed. As such, some writers make the mistake of assuming it’s easy to create motivations for hero characters. Rather than having relatable, personal reason for their actions, heroes end up doing things because it’s the “right thing to do,” or worse, because they’re the chosen one. They’re still motives, but they’re not particularly interesting ones. By comparison, the villain ends up looking complex. Sure, their aims or deeds are dodgy, but the writer’s put thought into showing why they do what they do.

    I’d definitely be interested in a blog post about how you create motives for your protagonists! In particular, how did you use motives to add depth to your Submerge characters?


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