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Character Spotlight: The Villain - Finding Your Antagonist's Motivations


(Listen to the audio podcast version of this post HERE.)

Hi everyone! Glad to see you again! This past week, I saw a quote on Twitter which really stuck out to me, and I thought it would be such a good theme for today’s Character Spotlight. What is that, you ask? That’s right… villains. And not just villains in general, but specifically, their motives. A weak villain is one who acts “just because”. They do things that help propel the story. In other words, their actions help the plot, but might not make sense from a character point-of-view. I have personally found that some of the best villains in books (and even movies) are those who have very personal, intimate motives or reasoning behind their actions. We will look at some examples, and discuss how to make your villains three-dimensional and interesting. After all, the two most important characters in your story are the protagonist and the antagonist (aka the villain). Let’s get started!

Here is the quote which sparked this topic…

“You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” – John Rogers

The thing that strikes me so much about this sentence is the idea of the villain believing he is a protagonist. In other words, the villain truly believes he is doing the right thing. Or, at least, his actions make sense to him, even if he knows they aren’t “right”. An example of this could be vengeance. The antagonist might know that slaying innocent people is wrong, but to him, they might not be “innocent”. It comes down to perspective.

Let’s use a really strong villain whom I happen to love (in a love-to-dislike-them kind of way)…

***SPOILERS FOR THE RED QUEEN SERIES***

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Maven from Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series

I personally think that Maven is such a strong character. By strong, I am referring not to his courage, but to the dynamic, three-dimensional depth of his personality, history, feelings, and motivations. The reason that he torments Mare so much (especially in Glass Sword) is because he loved her, but she chose someone else. His anger towards his brother, who’s shadow he has always stood in, fuels him. This anger is carried out on Mare, the girl he once loved. While Maven is – frankly – insane, he has a motivation that seems so real and honest and natural that I as a reader can’t help but understand him. I don’t agree with him, but he is one of the most fleshed-out villains I can think of, and his motivation makes sense. The reason he does things makes sense. I could spend a lot of time picking through all of Maven’s many vengeances and motivations, and the backstory of why he makes the decisions he does, but instead, I’ll just say… go read the series, if you haven’t. But if you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t have read this, because I’ve just spoiled everything for you :D

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***END SPOILERS***

Let’s go back to the John Rogers quote. “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” In your villain’s mind, they should be the hero. They are right, and the protagonist is someone standing in their way. Aside from mental issues which may cause someone to act irrationally or without any clear motive, villains have reasons for their actions. Even the most selfish, evil, greedy, power-hungry, despicable, barbaric antagonist in the world… has some motivations for doing what they do. The more complex, twisted, and genuine the motivation, the more complex, twisted, and genuine the villain.

Let’s say that again for emphasis…

The more complex, twisted, and genuine the motivation, the more complex, twisted, and genuine the villain.

Another amazing example of an INCREDIBLE villain is in C.J. Redwine’s Defiance trilogy, particularly in the third book, Deliverance. There are no spoilers here, but if you want to see a fantastically-crafted villain in action, go read that series. Here’s a hint… the antagonist is not who you think. The thing about C.J.’s storytelling is that she weaves narratives together in a way that there are multiple heroes and multiple villains. And it works beautifully. Masterfully. The particular antagonist to whom I am referring here has a past that is steeped in suffering, pain, guilt, anger, and revenge. His entire existence is fueled by vengeance. Unlike some antagonist’s, however, he doesn’t act out of a vengeance which is all fury and hatred. He has some humanity inside of him, and that makes him so real and three-dimensional. In his world, he really is the protagonist of the story. His actions really are justified. And as twisted and wrong as he still is, I as a reader can’t help myself from feeling a small bit of remorse for him.

One thing that is still important is the keep the distinction between protagonist and antagonist. Now, some people will argue with this. They like morally grey antagonist. They like the line between good and evil to blur. I am not advocating that the hero be perfect and innocent, and the antagonist be all rage and evil. However, in the end, good should triumph in some form, even if it isn’t a happy ending. In order for this to happen, good must triumph over something. In other words, there must be an antagonist who loses. So as flawed and human-like and real as the antagonist should be, there should still be some inkling of a divide between them and the protagonist, even if that line sometimes fades in and out.

Many times, writers depict villains as pure evil, with zero motivation, or a very weak motivation. They’re waging a violent, bloody war on your protagonist’s kingdom. Why? Because they want power. Or because they feel like it. Power can be a motive, but it is always attached to something. Where does that greed for power stem from? Dig into their past, and discover what really fuels them. The more intricate and emotional the reason, the more complex and interesting the villain.

Let’s look at another fantastic example. I happened to love the movie Maleficent for many reasons, including incredible cinematography. However, one thing that struck me in this retelling is how the writers gave Maleficent (a notorious villain) motivations that were so real and raw, that viewers couldn’t help but feel for her. The boy she loves betrays her, marries someone else, and then has a baby. That baby is the product of betrayal, and the object of Maleficent wrath. Now, was cursing an innocent child right? No, and Maleficent acknowledges this in the end. There is still that definition between good and evil. However, her justification for fighting the kingdom’s armies and killing the king are incredibly understandable. This is the kind of complexity that villains need.

It can be draining to develop such a complex character. Often, we as writers put our hearts and souls into creating rich, intricate, flawed, complex protagonists. We build their backstories and pull from their pasts, weaving experiences throughout their story. But the focus on the protagonist can often mean we neglect the second most important character – the villain. Don’t let this vital role fall by the wayside. After all, if your character has no one to fight against, there is no conflict, and no conflict means no plot. No plot means no story. No story means everything you are crafting is pointless.

Take the time to dig into your antagonist’s brain. Why do they do what they do? What fuels their choices, evil and wrong as they may be? Why, in their head and world, are they the protagonist?

Do you struggle with your antagonist? Leave your opinion in the comments below!

Want more tips, tools, & encouragement for writers? Find me on Twitter, Facebook, & YouTube! Find the audio version of this post HERE.

#antagonist #villain #charactermotivations

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