Earlier this year I went to LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything—a symposium for science fiction and fantasy writers). While there I listened to a presentation on creating effective villains. One thing in particular that I learned was that bad guys can’t be bad just for the sake of being bad. In other words, every story needs a villain (whether tangible or not) and that villain needs to be three dimensional. He needs a back story. He needs motivation. He cannot be doing bad things just because you need a bad character. He needs to be driven. And as is mentioned several times in the Writing Excuses podcast, the villain needs to be the hero of his own story.
And even if you never explain the back story, the complexity of your characters will come through in your writing. Because the more you know about them, the more it shows.
As I started brainstorming for the last book I wrote, I tried to think of ways to make my bad guys more complex. Somehow this morphed into me creating a list of motivations for bad guys.
Here’s a list of the 12 motivations I came up with as well as some of my favorite bad guys to illustrate my thoughts (and please note that motivations are subject to change throughout the story—so these are characters who at some point during the story possess this motivation. And yes, these are mostly movie examples because it’s harder to get pictures of characters found in books. But the principles can be applied to both, and really, who doesn’t love pictures?).
Jafar from Aladdin
—For his third wish, Jafar wishes to be “an all-powerful genie!”
2. World Domination
Sauron from Lord of the Rings
—No explanation necessary.
Voldemort from Harry Potter
—No explanation necessary.
Regina/Evil Queen from ABC’s Once upon a Time
—Regina wants revenge against Snow White. I won’t say why though. If you haven’t seen this show, you SHOULD go watch it right now.
Guy of Gisborne from BBC’s Robin Hood
—No explanation necessary. Just appreciate his smile and awesome leather outfits.
6. Get the girl
Imhotep from The Mummy
—Imhotep killed the pharaoh because he had the hots for his wife.
7. Prove themselves/A desire to be the best at something
James Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock
—Moriarty wants to prove that he’s smarter than Sherlock. I think this motivation is pretty common in a lot of crime dramas. A serial killer or other bad guy wants to prove that he’s better than the detective/cop.
8. True belief that what they’re doing is right
Valentine from City of Bones—for those of you who don’t know, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is playing this role in the currently unreleased movie
—I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that Valentine fights for his cause (as wrong as the rest of the characters think it is), giving up all that he has for it.
9. Mentally Insane
The Joker from The Dark Knight
—I think this one is pretty obvious. Oh how I miss you, Heath Ledger.
Loki from Thor
—Loki is jealous of his older brother, Thor.
Magneto from X-Men
—Magneto believes that mutants are better than humans and persecutes them.
12. Greed/Wanting something so badly that you’re willing to do anything to get it
Lamia from Stardust
—In this case, the object of her desire is the heart of a star. Another example is Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, her motivation being a puppy fur coat.
After doing this I discovered that what made my villains more complex was giving them a variety of motivations, but it’s also important not to get too crazy. Too many motivations can just make the story confusing.
Now when plotting, I simply look at this list and decide what I want my bad guys to be like. It helps with constructing the conflicts and plot as well because character driven stories develop conflict when opposing personalities collide.
Can you think of any other motivations? List them in comments below and tell us some of your favorite bad guys.