IWSG 58: Villian’s Motivation


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This post was written for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group where we share our encouragement or insecurities on the first Wednesday of the month, to join the group or find out more click here.

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This month’s co-hosts:

Fundy Blue | Beverly Stowe McClure | Erika Beebe | Lisa Buie-Collard

Before I begin, I’d like to include a disclaimer: I may understand and share many concepts on the art/craft of writing. Unfortunately for me, I find the execution of some of these ideas very challenging.

Anything I share comes from my deep curiosity and willingness to learn more about the craft. This does not mean I’m able to use what I share with proficient skill. Like everyone else I must practice and make it my own.

‘Nough said. 🙂

Optional Question: Whose perspective do you like to write from best—the hero or villain’s—and why?

Lately I’ve been writing in first person and sticking to the hero’s point of view. As my son would say, “It’s a form of wish fulfillment.”

He’s not wrong when it comes to me. Like many, I do dream of being brave, righteous. Following clues, and proving my great mind (which is not all that) is sharp enough to solve the most confusing of crimes.

Evil act by an evil doer

In reality I find villains especially hard to write. Not so much wish fulfillment there. It turns out I don’t have an intentional mean bone in my body. That causes a problem the moment I try to write some evil act from the point of view of any villain.

I learned to approach the problem from the villains-are-the-hero-of-their-own-story angle. They don’t believe for one minute that anything they do is wrong.

Villainous motivation are based on:

  • The protection/defense of self and/or their loved ones.
  • Grief. The loss of a loved one that may lead to revenge or warped justice.
  • Unresolved family issues and a desperate need for their acceptance. To prove their worth or to earn the love of a family member.
  • Facing a rival and proving they are the best.
  • Greed comes in many forms. A deep need for more. More love, more property, more power. But if the need is only about money, the motive comes across weak to me.
  • Fear. Two ideas are prominent here. (1) The villain’s concern for the future and is willing to do anything (no matter how evil) to change it. (2) Or they see the hero as a threat to humanity because absolute power leads to absolute corruption.
  • The search of knowledge, Which raises the question if they can physically do something (change genetic code, create a cleaner power source, etc), should they? The most innocent creations have been weaponized.
  • Ultimate power over a person, place or nation.
  • Jealousy or envy is also a great motivator.
  • Escaping/achieving their destiny. Think superheroes/villains.
  • In some cases they don’t have motives. I’m thinking of the Joker in the Dark Knight.

Almost all these motivations come from the past. Check out my previous post on timelines if you want to read more.

It’s amazing how much a person can gain over time: a good job, spouse, children, and position in community. Turns out it is a lot to lose.

Add a vile act (best) forgotten and left in the past.

But someone (the antagonist) has a long memory. This memory has been festering and eventually must be acted upon.

The rest evolves into a story.

Where do your antagonist’s motivations come from? In your case, maybe the villain is a rival or an eventual lover; tell us about it.

Gleaned from:

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97 responses to “IWSG 58: Villian’s Motivation

  1. They really aren’t much different than the hero. They just use the wrong means to get what they want. Most of the time they think they ARE doing the right thing.

  2. Good discussion, Anna. I do have to be careful that my villains aren’t flat. Or flattened!

  3. I’ve only written from the hero’s perspective so far. One of my current WIPs could sorta qualify but it’s more of a redemption arc and the character in question was more of a pawn of the villain.

    • Yeah, in my case the is no redemption because the villain feels they are in the right.

      I can see a minion being sandwiched between the hero and the villain though. That could lead to a complicated climax.

  4. Excellent post with useful observations. I write from the hero’s POV but I have written from the ‘search for knowledge perverted good intentions’ perspective a few times.

  5. I like your disclaimer about the information and your aspiration to use and do all the right things. But we are only human and there’s only so much time. I like to study good writing and read books on writing and TRY to implement what I have learned. (Emphasis is on TRY.) Thanks for your thorough discussion of villains. I love crafting a villainous character. Bwah-ha-ha.
    JQ Rose

  6. I only write from the hero’s point of view too. I’ve never tried first person. I think it’s important to create an interesting villain too and you’ve nailed some of their motivations for why they are who they are.

    • Even if I don’t write from their point of view, I still have to address their criminal acts and their motives.

      A hero is only as good as their adversary.

  7. I never thought about the protagonist – antagonist as a hero – villain relationship. Shows you how little I know about (fiction) writing. In my memoir, I see the protagonist as the main character (me) and the antagonist as my adversary, whether it is a person standing in the way of my freedom, or bad weather…

    I’ve never written from the viewpoint of a villain, but it might be fun to play around with one day. Nice list of reasons where the antagonist’s main purpose can come from, Anna.

    • All true. The antagonist is anyone/thing opposing the protagonist. Motives are not always clear. And the determination of the protagonist helps build their bond with the reader.

  8. I always have troubles writing a villain, don’t understand what makes them tick. Even when I do write a villain into my story, he comes out cartoonish, too evil to be real. I have to take lessons from you.

  9. Good food for thought when it comes to villains – something I struggle with writing. I especially like the fear angle and the idea that you’re so fearful of the future you’d do anything to stop it.

  10. Hi,
    my antagonists come from newspaper articles I’ve read or television documentaries that I look at, books that I read, and people that I see that are acting out of the norm toward humanity.
    Wishing you all the best.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  11. Our minds went in the same direction Anna. The Joker in the Dark Knight spoke to me too with this post 🙂 Happy IWSG Day 🙂

  12. I remember hearing awhile back about the villain being the hero of his/her own story, and I thought it was an incredibly fascinating way to look at it. Or maybe that’s just me. 🙂

  13. As a reader, I like reading from different perspectives. When reading a thriller, I love when they also include pov’s from the villain or serial killer.

  14. The most exciting villains are those we can really relate to. There has to be a bit of villain in each of us.

  15. Christine Rains

    I agree with Lee that the most exciting villains are ones we can relate to. I love writing villains who think they’re right, and the reader kinda agrees with them! I’ve never written from the antagonist’s POV, though.

  16. Excellent list of motivations for the antagonist! Writing from the baddie’s POV doesn’t work in my current genre, but I love reading those bits in crime fiction, as long as the villain has a meaty motivation like those you’ve discussed. Happy writing in March.

  17. I like writing from the villain’s pov but only in short pieces (so far). I always want the heroes to win and good to prevail so I doubt I’ll ever try it as a long piece 🙂

  18. YES!!!! I am totally on board and in agreement with all the qualities you brought up in your post. That’s how I like to view villains too!

  19. To me, the best villains are the ones who have human motivations whether they actually understand or are aware of it or not. I love what you found about this and absolutely love this question this month! http://www.lisabuiecollard.com

  20. Suzanne Furness

    This was a most insightful post to read. I think successful ‘villans’ have to be rounded characters in their own right – not too cliche bad if you know what I mean!

  21. Well you certainly seem to have given a lot of thought about the villain’s POV. I agree. Villains usually could have been heroes if they just hadn’t made a wrong decision or two.

  22. These are some good tips for thinking up villains! Thanks Anna!

  23. Good for you for writing in first person lately. I struggle with first person, I try. A lot. I actually started out writing in first person, but since I changed to third person years ago, I can’t seem to switch back.

  24. Good post. My villains have been a jealous co-worker who assumed she would be marrying the boss and a psychotic stalker who blames everything wrong in her own life on my protagonist.

  25. ‘The antagonist has a long memory.’ That sums it up nicely doesn’t it?

  26. I also have a hard time thinking like a villain. Except when. As you put it, you understand that their motives are just as genuine. I also have a hard time giving my characters too much emotional pain.

  27. My current protagonist is coming from a place of ego and fear. He might have started out trying to make things better for everyone, but the power went to his head. Great post.

  28. Lauren Macrie

    Great post! Jealousy is the biggest motivator I’ve used in the past. However, having lived a lot more of life now, I have a greater understanding of what all can drive someone to behave a certain way, for better or worse.

  29. That’s a great list of motivators for any kind of character. @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

  30. Wish fulfillment. Yep, writing is escapism for me too.

  31. Hah! My villians are people I’ve known in real life. And I’m totally into wish fulfillment when they finally get their just desserts. Because honestly, it seldom happens in real life. But having observed the bad guys/gals in real life, it’s not difficult to give characters some complexity and humanity. Still killling them off, though.

    • I bet your villains are very believable. Just do me a favor. Don’t tell me the Joker is running around in real life because I don’t know where we keep the superheroes. 🙂

  32. Like you, some of my characters have traits I’d like to have myself. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  33. Angela Wooldridge

    I like your approach to villains, I suspect its far more realistic than someone who just wants world domination

  34. I hear ya, I want to turn my villains into anti-heroes. They don’t want to be the bad guy really, so yeah I totally get what you’re saying.

    • It’s more like I don’t want to cross the line. There are certain things that they do that I’m afraid reflect back on me. Somehow I need to break away from that mindset. 🙂

      • No, I get that. Had some of those thoughts. Sometimes I have trouble relating because I tend to write my story from a connection I have with my characters. So yeah, I worry about it reflecting back on me and if I think this terrible thing what does that mean about me. There also this aspect that I don’t want any bad things to be in this world when the reality of this world… so don’t want to go there in my fiction with my characters. It’s silly of me. I work through it when I bump it. I don’t do it as much now but sometimes, but when I started writing for to create a complete story it was an angst in writing for me.

  35. My stories don’t have an external antagonist since I’m writing romance. Most of my struggles are internal and issues with the couples that they must overcome. That being said, my first story the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ were one in the same. Because of genre conventions I don’t label that one a romance, but more a dark love story. Writing his POV and in 1st person was interesting to say the least. It was freeing in a way when I could let him be as bad as he wanted with no morals to worry about, but also showing he had a ‘good-ish’ side when with the heroine. Sometimes, I mean she had to fall in love for a reason right? LOL To this day he is the character that messed with my head the most when constructing him.

  36. My response was the opposite, Anna! I found the baddies easy to write and way too much fun! LOL. I wonder what that says about me? I never thought of it as ‘wish fulfilment’ until you said it, though 🙂

  37. mlouisebarbourfundyblue

    Thanks for an excellent post, Anna! I’ve never written a story from the POV of a villain. I’m a little nervous about digging deeply into the dark side. Or perhaps, a little cowardly. I admire people like you who work at improving their skills.

  38. triarianiindah

    How are you

  39. “It’s a form of wish fulfillment.” You son is so right. Good triumphs over evil. Maybe I’m a bit of a Pollyanna. I do believe that the wicked will be punished–in this world or the next. That why I write from the protagonist’s pov. I don’t want to get into the mind of a villain. I can’t even watch Criminal Minds. Keep doing what you’re doing. It works.

  40. I love writing villains. So much more interesting, but then again, human psychology–especially the deviant kind–is fascinating to me.

    Even my good characters are flawed. The more complexity, the better.

  41. Victoria Marie Lees

    I always learn so much here, Anna! The important message you gave here is that to make a fully fleshed out antagonist, you need to create a backstory for him or her. And I agree.

    By the way, I don’t think you have a mean bone in your body either. Thanks for all you do to assist your fellow writer.

  42. You make some good points in this assessment of villain motives, but I think it goes further than that. Everything you have here is on point, but I think it’s important to understand that there are different types of villains. Not all are evil, some are just on the wrong side of an argument and willing to do anything to be heard, while others are pure evil. You pretty much covered this in your assessment but whenever I do write a villain, aside from their motivation, I decide if they will be a redeemable/relatable villain or if they will be completely unrelatable to the hero.

    • I’ve never thought of anyone as pure evil. Yet serial killers and child molesters exist. Irredeemable–yes. Unrelatable–yes.

      Subject I’d write about–no. Or at least, not yet. 🙂

  43. 👍👍👍… interesting read, insightful

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