Many, many years ago, when I was still living in suburban Chicago, I went to traffic court. At least back then (I’m fifteen years behind on any developments in Illinois state law) when you got a traffic ticket you could go to court and ask for “supervision.” This was more or less you pleading no contest, promising not to waste the judge’s time with a defense, and more or less throwing yourself on the mercy of the court. If your record was reasonably clean, this was pretty much always granted, and you were sent on your merry way without the cruel and unusual punishment of your crimes being reported to your car insurance carrier. If you got another ticket in the period of supervision, you got shithammered for both of them.

When I lived in Chicago I was among the ranks of the working poor. I could barely afford car insurance as it was, so if I had the slightest infraction, I needed to take that day out to beg for supervision, and that’s what brought me to traffic court on this particular day.

People make fun of traffic court judges. I bet even other judges make fun of traffic court judges. But I bet traffic court is the only time the overwhelming majority of Americans actually see the inside of a courtroom. So these poor beleaguered judges are the only judges we meet in person, and that’s too bad, because traffic court almost never goes the defendant’s way. Everybody has a sob story, and I’ve yet to hear one that was believed, or even listened to with anything like the judge’s full attention. And on this particular day in this particular traffic court, I was ready to see more of these poor bastards throw themselves at the bored judge and the obviously inconvenienced prosecutor to no avail. But then the judge addressed the assembled supplicants and explained the difference between an excuse and a defense. I’ll paraphrase, but this message resonated with me immediately and thoroughly, and I often think back to this vital life lesson.

It boils down to this:

You’re accused of running a stop sign.

A defense: I did not run the stop sign.

An excuse: I ran the stop sign because . . .

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. E. A. Hughes says:

    Excellent article. Motivations for villains are one of the trickiest things to get right, in my experience. As writers we naturally tend to focus on the ‘what’ (actions) rather than the ‘why’ (motivation) when it comes to our bad guys, usually because we are solely focused on our protagonist’s arc and the obstacles we want to throw in their way that we tend to forget that Dark Lords Are People Too.

    What are the best and worst motivations you have come across for villains?

    For me:

    Worst = ‘daddy issues’, ie. my parents didn’t love me enough.
    Best = any personal need to do something that could just as easily be felt by your protagonist (I need to save the ones I love; I need to atone for something I have done). That way, the difference between hero and villain comes down to method, which makes things far more interesting.

  2. Great piece, as always. Something i’m prone to saying when talking about character, motivation, and villainy is a third-hand rendition of something i heard years ago in the form of Joss Whedon quoting Willem Dafoe. When asked by a reporter about whether he preferred playing heroes or villains, Dafoe responded that it made no difference to his approach as an actor, because deep down inside, “everybody thinks they’re righteous”. For me, the most interesting villains are those whose righteous excuses are a reflection of the same excuses a hero might use to justify his or her own actions — “I did it for the greater good”, “I did it to save the ones I love”, “I did it because it needed to be done, and everyone else is afraid to do it except me.”

  3. Kameron says:

    I love the communal groan everyone uttered when that guy offered his excuse for speeding. Imagine being able to elicit a similar, if more intense than a groan, reaction from your reader when you reveal your villain’s excuse for his actions. That requires some set up on the author’s part so that the reader has the same understanding you and your fellow traffic court attendees had thanks to the judge’s explanation. Giving a villain motivation is good, but having the reader see through that motivation and accept it is just an excuse is even better.

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