Villain Motives Made Easy

It's a simple fact that villains are some of the hardest characters to write. Most of us aren't that well-acquainted with many people who are actual villain material, so we don't really have a good frame of reference. Sure, we know plenty about people who were villainous (pick any dictator or serial killer, for example) but at the end of the day, many of us fail to comprehend what was going on in their heads.

In lieu of a real answer, many people end up defaulting to "because they were just evil." While this explanation can ease our minds in real life, if we try to write villains like this we're going to end up with some very shallow, even nonsensical characters. This doesn't really make for an interesting or scary villain.

Another trap writers fall into sometimes is writing the same kind of villain over and over. It's not long before things start getting stale and predictable. But it's not always easy to change things up, as one might only be fluent in one type of villain. This leads to issues such as every villain being exactly the same, or only a small handful of villains actually being any good.

So to help you avoid these problems yourself, here's a breakdown of the whys and hows behind just about any act of evil that ever was, which will hopefully help you build up and map out better villains of your own.

Table of Contents

The four basic motives behind acts of evil

Pretty much every act of evil, or willful act of harm upon someone else outside of taking action necessary to protect oneself or others from imminent harm, comes down to one of four reasons, or some combination thereof:

1. Personal attention entitlement. Where people believe that they deserve personal attention of some kind regardless of whether the other party wants to give it. Personal attention can include sex, ego stroking, personal care, personal tutoring, or just serving as a human punching bag whenever they want to vent some stress. When they fail to get what they want, they may resort to verbal or physical abuse, stalking, slandering, or even murdering whomever they felt owed them something. They tend to write their victims off as cold, uncaring, selfish, and/or unable to appreciate how needy they are.

2. Social power entitlement. Where people believe they deserve to hold power or sway over one or more people and treat them as inferior or subservient and generally kick them around however they will. This can include bullying or threatening others into submission, sabotaging perceived rivals, public acts of vandalism, or murdering those whom they feel never gave them the respect and admiration they deserve. They tend to write their victims off as rude, disrespectful, and/or unintelligent.

3. Material entitlement. Where people believe they are entitled to have money, goods, or property at the expense of others. This can include burglary, mugging, fraud, embezzlement, human trafficking, cutting workers' wages to unlivable levels so to have more money for oneself, land grabs, and monopolization. They tend to write their victims off as lazy, immoral, spoiled, and/or unworthy.

4. Personal ideal realization entitlement. Where people believe that they are entitled to make their dreams and ideals into reality at any cost, and without anyone's consent. This can include verbally abusing anyone who doesn't agree with them, outright forcing people to live according to their personal ideals, and stalking, harassing, or even murdering those who get in their way. They tend to write their victims off as ignorant, small-minded, selfish, and/or lazy.

Of course, wanting personal attention, social power, material goods, or to make the world a better place are not inherently evil. What makes an action evil is being readily willing to worsen and/or end someone else's life over it. (Note that merely annoying someone on some matter of personal principle or belief does not count as worsening someone's life.)

The first three, as far as I can tell, tend to be the most common in real life. The fourth seems to be much rarer, and it very commonly overlaps with the second, though not always. And while they may look very similar to the untrained eye, the difference is that the second, in its pure form, has no vision beyond bossing others around and keeping them inferior. The fourth, in its pure form, doesn't want to be in charge of anything per se; it just wants things to be better. It's less of a need to be in control and more of a need to correct something that feels wrong or broken. Those with this motive don't necessarily want to be in charge; it's just that they see being in charge as the best way to see their goals through. (In fact, they might believe that this is what sets them apart from a "real" evil overlord or whatever.)

If you want to make this easy to remember later, write down: Motive Types: 1. Attention, 2. Power, 3. Material, 4. Ideal.

Three reasons why people fall into evil patterns of behavior

There are three reasons why anyone engages in any given pattern of behavior, good or bad. These reasons, which can and often do overlap, are:

1. An inherent trait. For example, some people are born more with submissive personalities, while some are born with more aggressive personalities. Highly aggressive types who do not learn and accept that too much aggressiveness is a bad thing, and do not learn how to rein in their aggressive impulses and handle them in an acceptable and healthy way, can end up becoming bullies and violent offenders.

2. A habit developed in response to pressure. Someone who grew up in a violent environment may have learned through experience that it's kill or be killed, and thereby adapted to the environment by adopting more aggressive behaviors. At some point these behaviors became second nature. If this person does not acknowledge that there are scenarios in which this type of behavior is inappropriate and unnecessary and fails to make necessary adjustments, trouble can arise.

3. A behavior learned and adopted from another. Someone may have grown up with parents or a sibling who frequently bullied others into compliance, and thereby came to see bullying is an acceptable means to get one's way. The parents or sibling may have also deliberately encouraged this person to bully others, perhaps claiming that it's the only way to get ahead in life and keep people from walking all over oneself. Alternatively, this person might have read a book claiming that such behavior was the only way to get ahead in life, and took that message to heart. If this person does not realize and care that this is an unfair and cruel way to treat people, the behavior will continue.

You can write these down as Behavior Sources: 1. Inherent, 2. Reactionary, 3. Learned.

When you're writing your villains, you can stop and ask yourself what's going on with them that they think their behaviors are acceptable. Maybe your villain started life with a highly aggressive temperament and was surrounded by people who encouraged violent and cruel behavior. Maybe the social environment encouraged your villain's meanest and cruelest personality traits to flourish. Or maybe your villain was just born mean and had no one to teach any better behaviors, or had such a low regard for others that any attempts to teach better behavior were actively resisted.

Now, it's important to note that what makes people truly evil isn't that they've done something wrong in the past, but rather that they resist and refuse any opportunity to do better in the present and future. As mentioned in How To Redeem A Villain, there are good people (or mostly good people, since nobody's perfect) who have bad ideas, and then there are people who are just plain bad. Good people with bad ideas may do bad things if it's all they know to do, but they will try to do their best given what they know and understand.

Do remember, villains who are "good people with bad ideas" types end up being more sympathetic, and people are more likely to want to see them redeemed rather than killed. Depending on how things are done, there's also a risk of it seeming like you're trying to excuse their actions. To mitigate this, How To Write Sympathetic Antagonists Without Endorsing Or Excusing Their Actions, & Without Making Your Protagonists Seem Heartless has some tips.

Note that while it might be tempting to go full-out "just plain bad" to avoid the abovementioned problem, these villains can end up becoming appealing for different reasons. Check out How To Keep People From Admiring & Idealizing Your Villains for tips on keeping people from liking any villain, sympathetic or unsympathetic, too much.

All right, so now what?

The first thing is to figure out what you want your villain to do in your story, if you haven't done this already. How does your villain make people's lives worse? Once you've figured that out, look at the four basic motives in the first section and ask yourself which ones most likely apply. Now, look at the three reasons in the second section and decide which ones you'd like to apply here.

Build up your villain's backstory appropriately. Ask yourself what kind of environment or events could produce the kind of person you want your villain to be. Aim to keep it plausible for the setting, though. For example, if your character was part of an evil cult, remember that there's only so much evil that cult could have been doing without people noticing and trying to put a stop to it. "Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself! and Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using can help you work out for yourself whether any idea is sufficiently plausible.

Also, define your villain's core drives. Defined core drives help you keep your villain consistent throughout your story.

Don't forget to put yourself into your villain's shoes for a few minutes and ask yourself if what your villain is trying to do actually lines up with the motives you came up with. What does your villain want to accomplish, and why and how does your villain expect that doing this will accomplish that? You don't want to end up with, for example, someone whose big plan requires that a specific person remain alive suddenly trying to kill that very person for no discernible reason.

In addition, it helps to make a general habit of paying attention to history, the news, or even just people around you. If you do this, you'll often be able to glean a lot of insight into what kinds of things drive people to act in certain ways.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Tips To Create & Write More Interesting & Believable Villains
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You

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