On November 2, 2011, Rina wrote, I need motivations for my villains, you see. If anyone has any good motivations for villains...?
This is a perfect companion question for last week’s post about backstories. Motivation can be backstory, or front story. Let’s put front story up front and take it first.
Here's an example:Training in alien communication at the Starship Academy begins with a placement exam, part of which is a chess game. First-year student Anthea intuits the meaning behind the game and intentionally loses to her opponent, Bennett, whose triumph twists into rage when she’s assigned to a higher study group than he is. Thereafter, he’s her enemy, the villain of the story.
Lots of front-story events can motivate a villain. Chuck can inadvertently witness something that no one was supposed to see. He can accidentally say the wrong thing. He can be new in town and just be his adorable, outgoing self, which may threaten Dava, the reigning popular kid.
Going back to Starship Academy, now we know Bennett’s motivation: anger at Anthea for divining what he failed to understand, and fury at himself for being used by her. But we don’t know why he responds with rage. Instead, he could concede with good grace. He could even admire Anthea and ask her to explain how she understood the test when he hadn’t. The writer can provide backstory. We can learn that Bennett’s father, who was constantly passed over for promotion, called almost everyone else a loser. Or his mother used to beat him whenever he brought home less than an A on his report card, or, for you homeschoolers, whenever she found fault with one of his projects.
The writer can put this information in, and the knowledge may enrich the story or may make interesting reading, but it doesn’t precisely explain Bennett; we all respond uniquely to our histories and our circumstances.
Motivation doesn’t always matter. Think of Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He’s simply bad to the core. There’s a chilling moment in the wonderful old movie, The List of Adrian Messenger, when Kirk Douglas says, “Evil is.”
The motivation can be lost in history. Think of feuding clans. The parties may not even remember the reason they hate each other, but the hatred is carried forward from generation to generation until something breaks the cycle.
Power is a frequent villain motivator. Villainy itself requires a degree of power. The villain doesn’t float in the river of time; he puts his oar in. Real-life historical villains, many of them, are motivated by power.
Indifference can be a motivator. The villain wants what he wants and doesn’t care who’s hurt.
Prejudice can be your villain’s goad to action. Inga hates everyone in the Yunnu tribe. When a young Yunnu boy enters the village she behaves despicably toward him.
Lack of empathy, even solipsism (look it up, if you don’t know - it’s a great word) can cause a villain to act as he does. Georgio doesn’t necessarily mean to do ill, but he doesn’t believe that Helena will feel unhappy if he kidnaps her. He just wants the ransom.
As important as motivation, in my opinion, is consistency. Bennett is going to be a certain kind of villain. He’s gotten into Starship Academy so he’s smart. Is he patient or impatient? Does he enlist henchpeople who do his villainy for him, or does he work alone? Does he pretend to be Anthea’s friend to get under her guard? Whatever you decide, he should always be that. Moriarty will always be subtle and clever. Hattie in Ella Enchanted, not so much, and Olive, never. The ogres in Ella are sneaky and crafty; in The Two Princesses of Bamarre they’re brutish and doltish.
Complexity in a villain is nice but not necessary. The decision may rest on how close or how distant he is. In the Sherlock Holmes stories again, he’s distant. In the Starship Academy example he’s close, and the reader will probably need to know him well, so he should be well-rounded. You may want to give him a good quality or two. The pirate Smee in Peter Pan is lovable, at least partly due to his spectacles. Captain Hook is lovable too, I think, even though he kills without mercy. Maybe it’s because he’s pathetic. After all, his ambition is to kill a little boy. And he has good manners.
What good quality might you give your villain? I’ve known a few baddies (not many). One was very generous, and another had a great sense of humor; the others had no redeeming qualities that I could discover.
An element to consider may be the power relationship between the villain and hero. Anthea and Bennett and Chuck and Dava are equals, but Edwina could be Fred’s horrible boss. Or Fred could be the horrible one, undermining everything that Edwina is trying to accomplish. A powerful villain can exercise his villainy out in the open, not always, but often. An underling villain has to be sneaky. The need for subterfuge can be part of Fred’s motivation.
We look for motivation in a villain, but I’m not sure we do in a hero. Anthea does her best in the chess test. Her goal is to show her skill in nonverbal communication; she isn’t out to defeat Bennett, even though he sees it that way. We don’t generally ask, however, why the good character is good. Interesting.
Sometimes the villain motivates the hero and shapes her actions. Edwina, as the good boss, has to learn how to succeed in spite of Fred. She has to become the kind of supervisor who knows how to deal with subtle insubordination. She can become better or worse because of Fred.
And sometimes the hero shapes the villain. Peter Pan is unchanged by Hook, but Hook is profoundly affected by the sort of enemy Peter is. He becomes a tragic figure (in a lighthearted way) because of Peter.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Anthea’s mentor, who sets her course through the academy, assigns her to use Bennett’s enmity. For training purposes, he’s her alien, and she has to manipulate him through understanding. Write the story.
∙ Bennett’s mentor sets him up for repeated failure. His task is self-understanding. He’ll never succeed with an alien until he understands himself. Write his story.
∙ June’s cousin Kyle comes to live with her family for the summer. Kyle is a year older than June, bigger, and a bully. June, however, has inner resources. Decide what they are. Write what they do to set each other off. Tell the story of their summer.
Have fun, and save what you write!