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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Creating Legendary Villains

Since this podcast is focused on the bad guys of the literary world, I thought we’d take a moment to talk about what makes a great villain.  Sure, we’ve looked at making sure your baddies align themselves with some sort of overall scheme, and how forensic psychology can play a role in creating the perfect (or at least realistic) villain, but how do you go about writing one?

Well, I don’t have all the answers.

Writing villains can be very difficult, especially if you’re writing the villain from first person POV, because then we *only* see the villain through the eyes of our hero.  And that’s usually very biased.

To compound the issue, oftentimes we don’t meet the villain, so to speak, until closer to the end of the book.  So how do you make your readers fall in love with one?

The best piece of advice I’ve heard: 

The villain is the hero of his own story. 

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Most villains are not evil by nature (setting aside the psychopath for a moment, that is). The best villains on the page, or screen, are those who are flawed, who are real, who have a rich backstory. Because it creates a small sliver of doubt in the reader: Could I possibly be turn out that way?

I recently ran into this problem in my current MS. I had a great story (first person POV) and though we knew the bad guy from early on, we don’t *know* he’s the villain until the end of the story.  Sound familiar? 

My problem was, how did I make the reader like this guy without shoving him down your throat? In fact, he’s not really close to my MC, he’s more on the fringes.  But then it hit me: If I show how much another character – my secondary main character, K – loves him, then I don’t need to worry about his overt interactions with my MC. I can make the readers fall in love with him because K is head over heels in love with him.

By doing this he’s not ‘just the villain’ anymore.  He’s a guy who comes from a home who took in stray kids to have one, big crazy family. He’s had to work hard to get to where he is in life. He fell in love with a great girl. He’s smart, good looking and cares about others. Sure, maybe he’s a little bit nerdy and overprotective, but everyone has a flaw, right? He’s human. He’s relatable. Maybe even lovable. Which makes his betrayal so much worse. 

What are your tips for writing a great villain?  

Some great articles on writing a legendary villain:

6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys – Writer’s Digest

How to Create Legendary Villains – Kristen Lamb

Three Steps to Creating a Complex Villain

The Podcast…It’s Almost Here!

So why a podcast? Why listen to us? What makes us different from all the others?

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: WHEN IS IT COMING???

Behold! All the answers you seek:

And, of course, the schedule*:

  Episode Date Book Topic
1 9/30/16 Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas Motivations driving the villain
2 10/14/16 Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews Plotter v. Pantster villains
3 10/28/16 False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen Villains present from page one
4 11/11/16 Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo The Antihero
5 11/25/16 Alpha & Omega by Patricia Briggs The Path to evil is paved with good intentions
6 12/9/16 Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud Absent parents tropes
7 12/23/16 The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater Quest/Journey turns characters evil
8 1/6/17 Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost Supernatural Racism
9 1/20/17 Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence Evil Protagonist
10 2/3/17 Crimes Against Magic by Steve McHugh Time jumps throughout narrative
11 2/17/17 Free Agent by J.C. Nelson  TBD
12 3/3/17 TBD  TBD

 

*Schedule is subject to change. Because we’re unpredictable like that.  It makes it harder to stalk us.

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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Dissecting Villains: Real Life v. Writing

Profiling villains in real life is easy. That is, compared to profiling villains in fiction. Our real life baddies are driven by some truly evil thoughts and desires, but at the core of it, their psychopathy (mental illness or disorder) doesn’t change. Something drives these killers, and once you understand that drive, you can begin to understand the reason for their actions.

profiling

Profiling a fictional character is a bit more difficult. Why? Because the motivations of the evil genius come from a much darker place – the imagination of their creators. And honestly, unless their writers have a very profound understanding of forensic psychology or is, in fact, a serial killer themselves, it’s very possible for writers to miss the mark a bit when delving into their characters heads.  Because after all, they have a story to tell.  And sometimes what a person would actually do in a certain situation can fly right out the window when it doesn’t fit within a story arc.

Of course, that’s not always the case. In fact, I would argue that with good writers, they take painstaking measures to ensure their big baddies are realistic.  But the problem always remains, most writers can’t live inside the brain of a killer.

Or do we?

I mean think about it, most days I come up with at least five new and intriguing ways to make my characters miserable. Inventive ways to suffer, excruciating emotional turmoil and lots of blood are just three of the things that I strive to include in most everything that I write.  So maybe, just maybe, I’m no better than your average serial killer.  That would explain a lot, after all.

So let’s begin by examining motivations to kill. Most everyone has a reason. Only those that are completely mentally delusional have some sort of reason.  Especially serial killers. But putting that group aside for a moment, the most common motivations to murder someone can generally be split up into six categories:motivations

  • Revenge
  • Frustration/hate
  • Money/Greed
  • Sex/Jealousy
  • Political/Power
  • Class Conflict

Sure, there are plenty of other reasons the average person may break down and kill someone, but I want to focus on the ones that are the most common when it comes to premeditation – that is, thinking and planning your crimes out to the bitter end. These six categories usually aren’t set in stone, and they usually don’t apply to serial killers, or those good ‘ol fashioned ‘I like killing’ individuals, but these motivations are universal to every single person on the planet.

I mean, seriously, who hasn’t thought about killing someone for one of the above reasons? Just because the average person would never act on these feelings, doesn’t mean they aren’t present at least to an extent in every last one of us.

So, in writing fiction, your big baddies should be driven by one of these emotions. As an author, you need to ask yourself: what is my evil genius’s motivation for their crimes? How does that motivation influence every last god damned action my character takes? How would my character react if that motivation were removed? Fiction should mirror real life, and in real life, people kill for a reason.

Except for serial killers.

Serial killers

Serial killers – not to be confused with mass murderers or spree killers – are a whole other brand of evil when you look at them from a forensic psychology point of view. While the terms serial killer, mass murderer and spree killer are often synonymous, they are all slightly different:

Spree killers refer to one, or more, individuals who go on a killing rampage. They may kill multiple victims over multiple time frames (spanning anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or even weeks), but their crimes are centered on one specific event.

Mass Murderers refer to one person (or a select group of people) who kill a whole lot of people all at once. Don’t drink the Kool-aid.

Serial killers refer to one to two individuals*, acting together who murder at least three individuals over a period of time, with a significant cooling off period between each murder. Usually these murders are similar in some way, which is the trademark of the killer (their signature).

(*Most people tend to think of serial killers as loners who have very little contact with others when it comes to committing their crimes. I disagree, having written my entire Master’s thesis on serial killer couples.  But that’s a topic for another day).

Each of these sets of killers have a different motivation for their crimes, and they usually don’t fall into one of the above categories. Or they do, but that motivation is so twisted that the normal individual struggles to understand it.  That being said: Understanding the strangest of motivations and being able to apply that to writing makes a hell of an interesting character.

Check back in two weeks as we take a look at profiling serial killers!