Motivations driving the villain

What makes us love the villain?

A good villain can make or break a story. Our heroes need someone to root against, someone we can hate, someone who makes us love our main characters even more. If our villain falls flat, oftentimes our story will too. The cardboard cutout villains with no ulterior motives just don’t make for a good story. Give me your complex villains that we can love in our own way. The evildoers that we can sympathize with because we realize that given the right set of circumstances that could be you. The villain is the hero of his own story after all.

 

One of my favorite villains in recent pop culture is Zod from the Man of Steel movie. Zod is not evil, per se. Since birth he has been bred for one purpose: to protect Krypton. And he fails. Miserably. As in the planet implodes on itself, but not before General Zod and his comrades are blasted into space for their crimes. And their heinous acts? Acting against the government to do what he felt needed to be done to preserve his species. Fast forward a few decades and Kal-El is on planet Earth holding the only key to re-create Krypton, the planet Zod dedicated his life to protect. Of course, Zod’s master plan involves annihilating the human race and recolonizing Earth to allow the rebirth of his people. Superman just ain’t having that.

 

Evil plans aside, we would have no movie if it weren’t for Zod. The entirety of the plot is moved forward as Kal-El struggles with his identity and fitting in on a planet where he doesn’t belong. So when Zod threatens to destroy it all, Kal’El must react. Without Zod, we have a Nicholas Sparks novel. Yuck.

And if you want to get to the crux of the matter, Zod isn’t necessarily evil: He was born and bred for the sole purpose of protecting his people and he sees Earth as his chance for redemption. How does that make him evil? On top of it, he doesn’t believe what’s he’s doing is evil.

These types of motivation make for the best villains, in my opinion. It’s easy for me to look down on the big bad evil who kills for fun, or those that kill for a litany of other problems: money, power, revenge, or jealousy. But those sympathetic characters are the ones we love to hate. And boy do we love them.

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Villains: D&D Style

It’s Friday night. You’re hanging out with four of your best friends when suddenly darkness descends on the group and the temperature drops. Your breath comes out in a fog as numbness creeps into your extremities.  If you don’t act fast, you’re dead.  Fumbling, you reach into your bag and dig through it, frantically searching. There.  Finally. You thumb through the pages of the ancient text, searching before the cold reaches your brain, clouding your thoughts, forcing you into paralysis.

*Cast spell of everlasting warmth!*

The DM rolls.

Fifteen.

You’re safe, but your hair catches on fire.

No. This isn’t the opening scene of Netflix’s Stranger Things, but it’s a scene all too familiar to my generation, the one now pushing mainstream media to accept our awesome nerdiness.

*BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME*

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

Now that we’ve established our awesomeness, what does that mean for writing villains in fiction? Well, we’ll tell you: we spent our childhoods going on dangerous quests and journeys across a multitude of landscapes and have battled our fair share of evil.  Then we went back for more, again and again.

And I guarantee you, if the villains in our worlds had been stale, cardboard cutouts, D&D would have died out long ago. Instead, we took the mainstream definitions of good vs. evil and we morphed them into our own and came up with nine separate alignments:

Lawful good

A lawful good character typically acts with compassion and always with honor and a sense of duty. Such characters include righteous knights, paladins, and most dwarves. Lawful good creatures include the noble golden dragons.

Neutral good

A neutral good character typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A neutral good character has no problems with cooperating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a lawful good character would.

Chaotic good

A chaotic good character does what is necessary to bring about change for the better, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. Chaotic good characters usually intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of sync with the rest of society.

Lawful neutral

A lawful neutral character typically believes strongly in lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules, and tradition, and often follows a personal code. Examples of lawful neutral characters include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer that adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, and a disciplined monk.

Neutral

A neutral character (a.k.a. true neutral) is neutral on both axes and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment, or actively seeks their balance. Druids frequently follow this dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.

Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment, since they are guided by instinct rather than conscious decision (although in 5th edition animals are “unaligned”, not sapient enough to actively make a decision based on alignment, even that of neutrality).

Chaotic neutral

A chaotic neutral character is an individualist who follows their own heart and generally shirks rules and traditions. Although chaotic neutral characters promote the ideals of freedom, it is their own freedom that comes first; good and evil come second to their need to be free.

Lawful evil

A lawful evil character sees a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit and shows a combination of desirable and undesirable traits. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, and undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct.

Neutral evil

A neutral evil character is typically selfish and has no qualms about turning on its allies-of-the-moment, and usually makes allies primarily to further their own goals. A neutral evil character has no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit for themselves. Another valid interpretation of neutral evil holds up evil as an ideal, doing evil for evil’s sake and trying to spread its influence.

Examples of the first type are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind their superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer. An example of the second type would be a masked killer who strikes only for the sake of causing fear and distrust in the community.

Chaotic evil

A chaotic evil character tends to have no respect for rules, other people’s lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have much regard for the lives or freedom of other people. Chaotic evil characters do not work well in groups because they resent being given orders and do not usually behave themselves unless there is no alternative.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alignment_(Dungeons_%26_Dragons)#Chaotic_neutral)

We did this, because in the realm of fantasy, role playing and make believe, evil wears many different hats, for many different reasons. And when you can’t quite fit these villains in to the roles assigned to real life baddies, you can nearly always figure out how they are aligned.  Fantasy writers often take to heart the nine alignments when crafting their characters.  Each villain is governed by his or her own set of rules – or lack thereof.

When looking at spec fic novels, it becomes easier to see and understand the type of characters we are drawn to using these terms, because people have been using these archetypes for generations.

Where do your favorite villains fall? Where do you fall?

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