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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Dissecting Villains Part 2: Profiling

There has been a lot of thought and effort into profiling serial killers, carried out by people much smarter than we are.  And thank god for that.  As much fun as playing around in the heads of killers can be, having to truly delve into their minds and then shuffle them into helpful categories is a challenge.  So we are perfectly content to let others do that for us.profiling words

One of the first things profilers look at was whether or not serial killers are organized or disorganized; which is extremely helpful to law enforcement in a number of ways. And really, writers benefit from knowing the distinction as well.  Because the organizational methods of a killer, or a villain in general, speaks volumes to what the character is like when they aren’t off reaping havoc.

So let’s take a look at organized versus disorganized serial killers:

Organized: average to high intelligence, socially competent, and more likely than the disorganized offender to have skilled employment. It is also claimed that he is apt to plan his offenses, use restraints on his victim, and to bring a weapon with him to commit the murder and to take the weapon away with him from the crime scene.

Disorganized: little, if any, preplanning of the murder. The disarray present at the crime scene may include evidence such as blood, semen, fingerprints, and the murder weapon. There is minimal use of restraints and the body is often displayed in open view. The disorganized offender is thought to be socially incompetent and to have below-average intelligence.

So right there, we can see how your villains methods will change based on intellect. And a good writer will make that come alive in their stories.

The other helpful bit of profiling (as it relates to writing) is the type of killer you are writing.  We’re not just talking about what motivates them, but what are they getting out of it?  This one is a bit harder to stretch when looking at non-serial killer based bad guys, but let’s start with the profiling aspect, shall we?

holmes typology

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – hears voices or sees visions that tell him to kill (psychotic), the voices tend to be either God or the devil, legitimating the violence.
      • THE MISSIONARY – goes on hunting “missions” to eradicate a group of people (prostitutes, Jews, etc.) from face of earth, seems like “fine young man” to neighbors.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – takes pleasure from killing, but also gets some profit or personal gain from it. Females usually in this category.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – associates sexual pleasure with murder, sex while killing and necrophilia are eroticized experiences.
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – gets a “rush” or “high” from killing, an elixir of thrills, excitement, and euphoria at victim’s final anguish.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – takes pleasure from manipulation and domination (sociopath), experiences a “rush” or “high” from victim’s misery.

If you break the above down into writing (non-serial killer) villains, your breakdown may look more like this:

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – while these villains may still be considered “psychotic”, not all of them all.  When writing, it’s easier to view this as those individuals who have outside forces controlling their actions.  Take away those forces, and would they kill?
      • THE MISSIONARY – These are your questors, and the ones seeking revenge. They have one goal in mind and the end justifies the means.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These are your characters that gain social standing from killing.  Yes, they may enjoy it, but the killing is part of a plan to be more comfortable in life.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – this one is a lot harder to look at when you’re not dealing with serial killers: mainly because if you kill to get off, you’re going to do it again and again; and it is the MOST common type of serial killer.  That being said, we would love to hear some literary villains out there that fall under this category!
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These individuals don’t care about who or what they kill, as long as they get to kill.  These villains generally don’t last long because they lack focus, planning and organization, but boy do they have a good time doing so.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – These are the characters who use their underlings as chess pieces for their own personal pleasure and care little about the misery it causes.  They have one goal: to take over the world (or kingdom, or galaxy)

So now that all that is out of the way, you may ask ‘well, what the fuck was the point of all that?’  And there’s a simple answer.  People who profile the worst of the worse villains have come up with these typologies to explain away behavior.  So when you’re writing realistic bad guys, it’s important to ask yourself: is my villain believable?  Because if it’s not you will lose your readers.  Trust me.

If you missed Part One you can read it here.