Writers are encouraged to dig into their hero or heroine’s past to understand what factors (including wounding events) are steering their behavior and motivation in the story. By doing this we can ensure our protagonist’s goal aligns with the unmet need driving them, tailor challenges that will force them to face specific fears, and raise their awareness of destructive emotional shielding (flaws, biases, dysfunctional behaviors) that is holding them back. Internal growth, after all, is what character arc is all about!
Putting time into backstory is a no-brainer for the protagonist…but there’s another character often overlooked who also needs this type of development: the villain.
The villain (if your story has one) plays a crucial role. He’s the main source of conflict, making the hero’s success that much more difficult to achieve.
Few things disappoint readers more than a cardboard villain who is “evil for evil’s sake.” Yet, we see this portrayal countless times, which steals the power from an otherwise incredible tale.
Compelling characters have real motivations…villains included.
Just like the protagonist, we should always know what is driving the villain in the story. Here are three key areas to brainstorm to help you build a credible antagonist that readers will love to hate.
Negative Life Lessons
All characters enter the story with a suitcase of past pain, including your villain. The fear of being hurt again motivates him just as it does the protagonist, but how this manifests through behavior will be darker. Uncovering the wounds of the past is a must because to write the villain’s dysfunctional behavior well, we need to know what caused it.
To find the wound, ask yourself, who hurt him, and how? What negative life lessons did other people or circumstances teach him that led to his current jaded worldview? Someone, or something, caused him to become the person he is now, and his past trauma, whether it involved a significant loss, a humiliation that can’t be forgotten, or a betrayal that locked his emotional shielding into place, is at the root of it.
Another area to examine is the villain’s moral center. Core beliefs shape our actions, but in fiction, the villain’s code of conduct will change significantly due to the skewed way he views the world.
Imagine two people who suffer the same devastating circumstance—say, one of their children dying in a hit-and-run accident. Though they end up with the same missing need of safety and security, depending on personality, support system, mental state, and a slew of other factors, they could go about filling this need in different ways. One might pursue a career in law enforcement, seek to change the law regarding drunk-driving offenses, or open a rehab center to make it easier for alcoholics to receive treatment. Goals like these are inherently positive pursuits and make sense for someone seeking security.
Another person could go a completely different direction: stalking and ultimately murdering his child’s killer or going on an arson spree and burning down bars around town. He thinks that eradicating the responsible person or establishments from his neighborhood will make the world safer. But because he refuses to work through grief and instead allows fear to dictate his behavior, these goals are ultimately dissatisfying, leading him to commit bigger offenses in a desperate effort to find peace.
Morality is often the biggest difference between protagonists and villains. His do-not-cross line, if he has one at all, is set much farther back than the protagonist’s, enabling him to do unthinkable things to get what he wants.
Coping With Unmet Needs
Unmet needs are also the result of a wounding event. Being hurt in such a deep, psychological way leaves the character in a protective state: he’d rather go without something (love, pursuing a dream, freedom, etc.) than risk having it stolen from him again. The longer this need goes unsatisfied though, the unhappier a person becomes. In a change arc story, the protagonist will eventually reach a tipping point where he’s no longer willing to live without his unmet need, but the villain doesn’t always get to this place. Why is that?
One possibility is that the antagonist once made an attempt to work through his wounding experience and that attempt was unsuccessful, reinforcing the same pain he first felt. As a result, he became hardened and unwilling to risk that kind of hurt again.
Another likelihood is that the villain refuses to revisit the wound and heal because it’s too painful and so simply muffles the gnawing void by pursuing whatever temporarily eases the hurt. This may result in him rejecting his emotions so he feels nothing for himself or anyone else, thereby enabling him to seek revenge (Howard Payne, Speed) or do truly horrific things without remorse (Jigsaw, Saw franchise).
Or maybe the villain’s dysfunctional behavior is personally satisfying to the extent that he’s not willing to give it up. Vices are ultimately destructive, but on a base level they’re enjoyable; for someone who is in denial or is mentally imbalanced, these activities can act as motivators that make it difficult to sacrifice them in favor of lifelong changes for the better. Understanding how your villain copes with his unmet need will help you write his actions in a way that rings true.
A villain’s motives will have deep roots.
Villains are products of their past, just like everyone else. Genetics and anomalies can play a part, but the overwhelming majority of deranged individuals are that way because of the negative people and events they were exposed to. Knowing what’s driving him and why he’s chosen his particular goal helps you to portray a villain who is credible. If you need help with this, pull out your Emotional Wound Thesaurus book, or visit One Stop for Writers’ vast collection of emotional wounds.
What’s your villain’s motivation in the story? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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My current story villain is liver disease. However, I also have an extraordinarily bitchy her-sisters-bff who challenges everything my protag does, all out of love for the sister who is her BFF. I have other stories with more classic villains but now I'm worrying. Do I HAVE to have a villain in every story?
There will always be forces opposing your character's progress in a novel but I don't know that I would call them villains specifically, so no. 😉
A really good villain can make you question your own loyalties within a story, too. I love bad guys I can root for enough to want to see redeemed (even if it never happens). (See: Loki, anyone?)
Absolutely--the ones we really get close to are those who have been developed well so that we can see their viewpoint, skewed as it may be, and understand what it is that they want and why they believe their current actions are the best way to get it. We can understand it, but not agree, because usually the moral aspect is completely out of bounds and the fallout to others means the ends DON'T justify the means. ';)
Angela, what great information at just the right time! Thank you! You convinced me that the villain in my almost-finished WIP is lacking the depth and motivation needed to plausibly explain what he does, as well as for the reader to have some sympathy for him. I owe you, BIG time.
So glad this is helpful, Christopher!
Many times, my villains are nature or [real life] animals and my antagonist is part of the protagonist's problem but NOT a bad guy, per se. Nature, as in weather, darkness, or real mountains to climb, can be considered the "villain" in a story, right?
I can't thank you enough, Angela, for sharing your expertise with us here at Writers in the Storm. I've shared this blog post online. Enjoy your week!
As I mentioned to Jenny above, all stories will have something that opposes the character but this may not be necessarily a villain, but rather an "antagonistic force." Although most stories do tend to have a person who is actively working against the character, even in smaller ways. 😉
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This is great stuff, because it helps me clarify why my protagonist and antagonist are both really wounded people, but the antagonist murders someone.
Making the distinction, the main character feels mistreated by life, but the villain fingers one specific person for mistreating her and goes for direct revenge. Of course, I need to make sure that's all on the page so that readers follow along with their motivations and buy into their choices! Thanks, Angela.
Good luck, Julie. I think often crossing a moral line is sometimes closer than we think it is...if the situation is right, we are capable of doing anything. I think this really gets us in the gut when we see a situation play out with an antagonist or anti-hero where we "get it" on some level. Stories that make us question what we would do in that situation can be exceptionally powerful.
That whole "get it all on the page." That's always the rub, isn't it?
I know. there's always so much to juggle. But the deeper we think about it at the outset, the easier it is to convey deeper motivations through mannerisms, behavior and choices.
My novel, Red Flags, has an abusive skating coach character that may seem like the main villain. But the true villain is the system that enables him and covers for him after one particular incident. I don't dive into the coach's past or explore his motivations. He more or less behaves the way he does because he can. The central conflict in my novel is protagonist vs. the state. The state makes for a much more complex and nuanced character than the abusive skating coach.
Do what makes sense for the story, as always. 🙂
This is fantastic information. I think villains can be difficult to write well because most of us aren't villains. While we might share or understand our protags insecurities, it's much harder to understand what makes people do evil things.
I think sometimes it is hard, yes. Other times, we can see the dot-to-dots. What would it take for us to commit murder? The death of a child? To protect someone who is innocent or undeserving of a terrible fate? Something else? It is interesting to think about. 😉
Happy to help, Denise!
A classical question! A friend of mine who has a PHD in Psychology is doing a second one in Philosophy. (I call him 'Doctor, doctor'!) His thesis is about evil, concentrating on Hannah Arendt's writings. I've read a draft and it may influence my future writings.
My current WIP though has villains primarily motivated by the simple fact that they are the rulers and soldiers of a Fascist state. Ideology, in short. Nonetheless their enthusiasm and methods do vary and some are more conformist than others. Other villains are humanoid aliens and I have various other antagonists, including sea monsters and storms.
Morals are learned first and foremost, and then through experience, they can shift. So if a character grew up with corruption being the norm, to them this IS normal. Something needs to trigger a moment of clarity that there is more than what they were taught or originally believe. some never get there, others do. It's always an individual journey though--even within a regime or group who adopt a certain ideology. Everyone is shaped by individual experiences.
I don't have villains, per se. My protagonists are their own villains!
You trailblazer, you!
Our characters can definitely be their own worst enemy sometimes!
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Fantastic article as always, Angela. 🙂
You know what one of the big differences is between my previous manuscript and the current one? The current one has antagonists, but not a villain. Certain characters make the protagonist's life difficult, but none of them are necessarily "bad guys." And as a result, I've had an easier time thinking of them as human beings, just like the less antagonistic characters. And their emotional wounds and life experiences have made them who they are in the story.
I think part of this difference might be genre. The former WIP was YA epic fantasy, which is typically plot-driven and often has the "good vs evil" trope built in. And the new one is YA magical realism, which is more character driven and requires you to treat your characters - including the antagonists - more realistically. So I'm glad I noticed this early on, because it's changed the way I look at characters. It's reminding me how important it is for everyone to be sympathetic, relatable, or human in some way - and understanding their emotional wounds helps.
That is terrific. I am not a fan of good vs evil in the traditional sense. Villains or antagonists who have complex and real motivation are always so much more interesting and compelling. Being able to convey the unique yet skewed filter through which they see the world to readers in a way that they can understand it yet not agree with the same conclusions--I love that.
[…] but without compelling characters our stories won’t grab the reader. Angela Ackerman asks that your villain have well-developed motivations, Khadijah Lacina shows how to bring a character to life through costume, and Donald Maass explores […]
Thanks for making me think, Angela! Since I write science fiction and like to tweak my readers' sensibilities, sometimes my characters change midway in the story into a villain or an ally because of new information or a new location. Of course, this only works if they aren't cardboard characters to begin with. And, yes, I've been guilty of producing a cardboard villain or two...
Haha, I think we all have a few of those in our past drafts! I think one really interesting component is the ability to change. What will cause someone to cross that moral line? What will cause them to cross it again to come back? Stories that make things uncertain in this regard are the best stories, because they make us think.
I found this post particularly useful. In fact, it inspired me with a whole new story for NaNoWriMo. I read recently in another post that if you are losing headway, find out what the antagonist is doing. This is really going to help me sort out my time line for the series of books in which this character is a shadowy presence setting things in motion, calling the shots. It will be interesting to look at whether he is aware of his villainy, or how self-deceiving or justifying he is. The comment about the work of Hannah Arendt is useful also.
[…] Does Your Villain Have Well-Developed Motivations? […]