One of the popular writing tips I’ve stumbled across in the past year is giving your villains clear motivations. I was instructed to think carefully of their backgrounds, personalities and upbringing so that a reader would be able to identify exactly why they turned out the way they did. It was emphasized that readers should be able to empathize and understand the villain's behavior, which is something I hadn’t been working on. Most of my characters were simply villainous. They were monsters, or mad men who did bad things because they could, not because they had a reason to. All these tip posts made me conflicted about my characters. I started to think if each of my villains really needed a clear motivation, and if that would change my original vision for them. You see, it’s easy to end up writing a morally grey character or anti-hero when writing motivations for villains, not to mention that providing a reason for (and in some cases justifying) your villain’s villany could easily go very wrong. After all, can you really be against a character who you relate to?
Of course this post is not to say that villains shouldn’t have motivations. If the villain in your manuscript is trying to steal all the magic in the world to feed the people of their homeland, you can definitely write that part in. Morals are subjective, and by playing around with them you can create complex characters that really make the reader question themself, and what they would do in a similar situation. Characters like this usually become fan favorites, and this can even lead them down the road to redemption (such as the case with Zuko, from the series Avatar: The Last Air Bender, who started out as the main villain of the show, but through development and defined motivations, eventually joined the gang of heroes). This is to say that most of the time, people will love a well-written villain and most well-written villains have defined motivations. However, this has led to a series of clichés being used when creating evil characters.
Many creators have started using the typical ‘tragic backstory’ trope when developing their antagonists. The evil dictator had an abusive father who shaped him into who he was, the school bully was a victim of bullying themselves, and the mean girl on the track team actually has an abusive home life. Yes, these are all valid reasons for villany and can definitely be used, but the constant viewing of the same tropes as villainous is not only harmful, but becoming more and more ineffective. Personally, whenever I see a villain with a sappy backstory, I tend to get bored or uninterested. One of the main reasons I never really liked Billy’s character from Stranger Things was because he felt like the typical ‘bully with abusive Dad’ stereotype that I’d seen dozens of times before.
This can also lead readers to the conclusion that all villains have some reason for being the way they are, which is not always the case. Sometimes, the bully at school is just a bully because they feel powerful and they get away with it, not because they have problems at home. Sometimes people just want to watch the world burn down, which we often see in real life. The tragic backstory trope can also excuse your villain’s behavior (i.e. the villain is evil because of insert reason, so what they did is a natural reaction to said reason and therefore okay) which is extremely problematic. On the other hand, it can also lead to the connotation that certain groups of people are likely to become villains or bad people in the future. This includes victims of abuse, those grieving massive losses, those less fortunate, those too fortunate and more.
Once again, I am not saying these tropes are all around bad and should never be used (after all, tropes and clichés work for a reason), but I would really prefer if we could balance out our villain motivations. Let’s move away from the sad, depressing, sob story villains and move onto villains with simple motives, or better yet no (clear) motives at all.
Let’s start with simple motives.
Spoilers for the show Invincible
One of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently, happens to be the animated superhero show Invincible (warning: contains graphic violence and swearing, not suitable for children), based on the comic books of the same name by Robert Kirkman. To get right into it, the main villain of the series is Omni Man, a.k.a Nolan Grayson, an alien from a planet called Viltrum who has been protecting the Earth as a superhero for the past 20 years. At the end of the first episode, he violently murders all the members of The Guardians of the Globe, a separate group of superheroes who have been protecting the Earth for equally as long (or longer in some cases). Afterwards, we see him continue to act casually with his friends and family, even continuing to protect the Earth after committing this horrific act. His motives are kept completely unknown until the very last episode of the show, when he explains that as a Viltrumite, his true purpose on Earth is to simply prepare it to join the Viltrum Empire. This, of course, means eliminating any forces that may oppose his goals (i.e. The Guardians of the Globe), and not really having any disposition for killing innocent civilians or causing massive damage to infrastructure, because in his mind, he is helping to create a better Earth. Everyone he has killed is a necessary sacrifice to achieve his goals.
While we do get to see a little bit of character development from him, and see him question the lengths of his brutality (especially when it comes to his son), his motivation remains simple: prepare the Earth for colonization. That’s it, and it has resulted in an incredibly memorable and viciously evil character.
Earlier in this post, I paraphrased the quote ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’. It is lifted directly from the film The Dark Knight in reference to The Joker who just happens to be one of my favorite villains of all time. The Joker, however, is known to be extremely problematic in the comics, having basically no redeemable qualities and consistently proving himself to be an all around menace. Still, there are many people who adore the Joker, and find him just as entertaining and enticing as the heroes he faces. The Joker is so popular, in fact, that he received his own movie in 2019. This movie (ironically) focuses on his backstory and mental health problems that lead him to become The Joker, however, this film isn’t exactly canon, it is a simple exploration of the character.
The Joker has many different origin stories (several that are unclear, as the Clown Prince of Crime is known to be an unreliable narrator). No one knows exactly why he does what he does. Over the years, he has been given several different origin stories, each with its own layer of uncertainty, and none being completely true. In The Dark Knight, he gives two very different reasons as to why he has his scars. In the infamous The Killing Joke comic book, he is given a backstory but it’s unclear whether it’s true or not. The Joker is essentially just a threat to society. He wants to create chaos, antagonize Batman and cause problems; the very definition of choosing violence, all day, everyday. There is no rhyme or reason to what he does, and that’s what makes his every move unpredictable and exciting to watch. His ability to draw in people relies heavily on the mystery of his motives, and if it were explained to us, he’d lose much of his appeal.
For a long time it has seemed to me that authors were too intimidated to write a villain who was evil for evil’s sake. There was the fear of being seen as lazy or uncreative, the fear of creating a flat character, or the fear of just not having enough to work with. Searching for what drives people is interesting, but sometimes interest can lie in mystery. Being baffled by a character doing something for the sake of chaos and confusion or the simplest of reasons is reason enough to follow them. Trevor Phillips, one of the main playable characters from the videogame Grand Theft Auto V, is known to have an explosion temper which sets him off on rampages of murder and terror. He does not have an in depth backstory to explain why he is so violent, he just is, and it works.
Simply put, there’s no set way to write a villain. While I personally would love to see some more villains who are unabashedly evil, I understand that this cannot always be the case. I’ve loved villains with sad backstories and I loved villains who were shrouded in mystery. Sometimes it’s fun and exciting to discover a villain’s motives, and other times I’m fine just watching them fight the hero and try to take over the world. Villains have become more and more complex and developed as our society has aged, and some may think that this means villains need to do more than just be evil, but I would beg to differ. Villany can be a motivation in itself, but this doesn’t mean that it should be your character's only personality trait. Your character will still need to be developed, have other defining characteristics, and be realistic in order to be great. So go ahead, write villains who just want to watch the world burn, and write villains who have a reason to burn it. Write the villain that your story needs.
is a Canadian-Jamaican student, slowly making her way through the writing world. She aims to not only write, but be impactful and play her part in making the world a less judgemental and more accepting place for people everywhere.