On Villains Part 3: On Motivations, The Method Behind The Madness

I want to speak today on one of the most important factors of creating a believable, frightening, impactful villain: motivations.

Ok…I’m going to rant here for just a moment, it won’t be long I promise, if you’d rather get on with things just skip down to the next paragraph.  Many villains that we see in media today have no real motivations.  The deciding factor behind the majority of their actions seems to be ‘how do I PROVE that I’m evil’.  In the entirety of human history, I promise you, no more than a handful of people have gone out of their way to PROVE that they were evil…and the ones that did, NOT THE BEST VILLAINS IN HISTORY! Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito did not think of themselves as villains.  Nero and Caligula did not think of themselves as villains.  Real villains DON’T HAVE TO PROVE THEY ARE EVIL!!!

Anyway, short rant done now on to motivations.  Your villains should have reasons for pretty much everything they do, good reasons, believable reasons.  However the key to any character, villains included, is to define their central motivations.  What factor, or combination of factors, drives your villain to his wickedness? Does he lust after power? Does he want to become a god? Does he want to protect his people or his family? Is he running away from something in his past? Is it as simple as he just doesn’t know how to do anything else?

Let’s look at the motivations of some excellent villains. In my last post I used Star Wars as an example, I love Star Wars…to be honest I’m a little bit obsessed. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are two of my favorite villains, they have excellent and CLEAR motivations.  Darth Vader falls into the dark side trying to save his wife, to protect his family.  However once corrupted, once he has lost everything he loved, he continues to pursue power despite clearly seeing it’s evil.  In a poignant moment in ‘Return of the Jedi’ he responds to Luke’s pleas with the statement ‘It is too late for me son, you do not know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.”

Darth Vader understands his own darkness, his own evil, but he sees no way out. The Emperor, on the other hand, does not see his own evil.  He understands that others see him as evil but he sees himself as maintaining order by doing what is necessary.  Vader’s desire, his only real desire, is to feed the addictive hunger inside him which the power of the dark side has created.  He serves in the hope of destroying the Emperor and stealing all of his power.  The Emperor’s central motivation is to create order, secondary to that is his desire to contain non-humans. Both characters had very distinct motivations that lead them to commit evil acts in the pursuit of achieving these goals.

If we look at a couple of the villains, from our group of writers, which I mentioned in my last post we see that Korluus’s primary motivation is self-perfection.  His pursuit of self-perfection has led him to the assumption that whatever serves this pursuit is ‘good’.  Therefore he commits horrendous acts in the name of raising humanity to perfection, himself first of course, and classifies said acts as ‘good’.  On the other hand Loki, from Erik’s fantasy writing, is pursuing Ragnarök (the end of the Norse gods).  The question we are confronted with is why? The two possible answers that I have seen so far (I know you all haven’t) are 1) that Loki desires the end, that he believes it is a good thing. Or 2) that his hate is so complete that he prefers destruction, the destruction of all things, to his own continued existence.

Ultimately there are many things that go into writing a good villain, as many as go into any other character, however there are some that are more often ignored or handled badly than others. I was intending for this to be my last post on this subject, however (in an effort to make my posts more manageable) I am going to split this in two. So, next time, On Villains Part Four: On Humanity, That Poor Little Psychopath.


Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim


Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?


About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on October 8, 2010, in Characters, Tobias Mastgrave, Villains, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Well said!

    Once you start down the path of unmotivated villains, forever will it dominate your destiny.

  2. Definitely. I was just talking to my class the other day about how I’ve never met anyone who REALLY thinks of himself as stupid. We all have a moments of self-flagellation, of course, but by and large most people today like to think of themselves as pretty intelligent, and they think the same of people who share their opinions.

    I think the same holds true of the self-perception of good and evil. Last year I did some reading on Hitler and a very little bit on Stalin. Neither man ever considered himself “evil” for even an instant. Both had come to the point where they saw themselves as very good and anyone who disagrees with them very evil.

    That’s one thing that worries me about the effect of literature and movies on modern society. Some people seem to think that only”bad guys” are evil, and that they are conscious of exactly how evil they are. That’s just not realistic. If we expect that to be true, the emergence of another Hitler, Mao, or Stalin somewhere in the world is only a matter of time (it may be anyway).

    Worse, if “feeling evil” is the ultimate method of determining right from wrong, we’ll never see it in ourselves, as individuals or as a people. We’ll have to wait for historians to come back later and point it out.

  3. Indeed, I think (and I could be completely mistaken here because I’m going off the top of my head) that Stalin once called himself ‘the savior of Russia’. We all tend to view ourselves as good and intelligent (and generally attractive as well), while everyone who disagrees with us is stupid, evil, and/or ugly. Villains are the same way, in my last post I pointed out that the only villain archetype which tends to be comfortable viewing itself as evil is the Joker and this is primarily because good and evil are non-entities to said archetype.
    I’ve known one person who honestly believed he was stupid (when I worked at walmart) and he was mentally deficient so, technically he was pretty much right (a little semantic wrangling needed but yeah). He was realistic about his mental capabilities and was satisfied with that. Most people are not satisfied to see in themselves stupidity or wickedness or anything negative (it’s not good for the self-image you know) and so we turn our backs to reality and run as fear away from it as possible…and people say I live in a fantasy world.

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