Villainous motivations

Yeah, I’ve still got villains on the mind, probably because I’m preparing to write the third MAJESTIC-12 book and the bad guy is about to make his play. (And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.) Between that and yesterday’s post, I’ve got villainous motivation on the mind.

To reiterate: Villains are not evil for evil’s sake. Heck, they may not even be evil per se — just in opposition to the protagonists. With very few exceptions, villains don’t see themselves as evil, but rather they’re the heroes of their own stories. They have a goal, they believe it’s just and good to go get that goal, and they will do anything to attain that goal. They are, by and large, convinced of the rightness of their views and goals.

The difference, then, between the protagonists’ goals and the villains’ goals is primarily that they’re in opposition. Running a close second is methodology: Heroes tend to care about things like other people’s lives, collateral damage, hewing to generally accepted standards of morality, while villains tend not to be so diligent about these things.

So here’s a list, pretty much off the top of my head, of different villainous motivations. They’re drawn largely from my own experience in writing, as well as other books, movies, shows, etc. If you have others, throw them in the comments. Ready? Let’s go. 

Love. Hell yes, love is a right proper villainous motivation. You’ve likely heard someone say, “I would do anything for him/her.” You may have said it yourself. Now, when you say “anything,” I’m really hoping this doesn’t include murder, theft or any other sorts of felonies or misdemeanors. The villain doesn’t care, though. That love interest’s health, wellbeing and happiness is paramount, and if folks get in the way, well…they’ll be removed. And of course, if love goes south or that loved one is lost, things get messy fast.

Protection. This is a bit of a corollary, but expanded beyond a single person. The villain may seek to protect a group of people, or a culture, a nation, a religion. Whether or not said group needs extreme measures of protection is, of course, immaterial. These villains see themselves as playing defense in a truly harsh world — and the best defense is a good offense. The survival of the group is absolutely paramount, no matter the cost.

Revenge. You know what? This is fine. Vengeance and hatred is powerful stuff, and it’s actually a very common motivation for real-world crimes, though usually more of that heat-of-the-moment crime rather than the stuff you can build a plot from. The trick here, though, is to make both the target and the scale of the revenge believable. A villain who wants to bomb France because they were rude to him in a cafe, well…dude, get over it. But if French forces destroyed his village or bombed his country? Yeah, that works. Some creativity helps here, too, because revenge can get banal if handled poorly.

I can do it best. You know all those super-geniuses out there? Those powerful sorcerers? Aliens? Politicians? They’re going after the brass ring to take over the world (or some lesser goal) not because they want to rule, but that their immense gifts are practically begging them to step up and do the job. This can actually start with a sort of perverse form of compassion — if a supervillain can end war, shouldn’t he? And if he can do that and ensure peace for years and years to come, a few people getting hurt in the meantime is a very small price to pay. Yes, this is totally an ego trip, but it can be more complex than that, too.

Mine! And yes, there’s some folks who simply want it all and feel quite entitled to go get it. Part of that may be due to capability (see above), and maybe part of it, or all of it, is just because someone took something from them, or they never had it all. They could’ve been oppressed earlier in life. Or maybe what it boils down to is just a massive case of entitlement. Even so, the villain likely may feel there’s another motivation there, or at least pretends to have one. The really interesting thing is that when confronted with the base motivation of greed or lust, the villain may have a tough time accepting that — or he may embrace it.

Obviously, these are just broad strokes, and most good villains will have more than one motivation for what they’re doing, especially if their plans are complex or world-spanning. Again, I personally think a good villain in a story does what they do because they believe it’s for the best, even if it’s obvious to the protagonists (and the reader) that the villain’s definition of “best” is pretty skewed.

Finally, here’s a few things you may want to be careful with.

Money and/or power. You might be saying, well, duh. But let’s be clear about this. Lots and lots of villains want money or power — but few want it for its own sake. These are usually a means to an end. What does the villain want with his or her billions? What will the villain do with dictatorial powers? If they just want to live large and do what they want, well, that’s fine (see Mine!) — there’s some folks for whom that’s the extent of their ambitions.  But even then, if they manage to come out on top, would they be content with that?

Insanity. Most villains are, to varying degrees, psychopathic . (Psychopathy being defined as antisocial, lacking in remorse and empathy, disinhibited egotism, etc.) Very few are at the Joker’s level of absolute insanity, and let’s be super clear here — writing actual insanity is hugely difficult, not to mention a minefield of trouble when it comes to properly writing real-world mental health issues. And again, even extreme psychopathy isn’t the main reason a person is villainous — the villainy is due to whatever he or she wants to do. Plus, personally, I think insanity is a weak-sauce source of villainy, and realistically, would be crippling rather than empowering or motivational.


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