I’ve written and spoken more than once on the subject of villains, and the vital importance of a well-motivated villain to any fantasy or science fiction story. I’ve been invited by Susan Morris to appear with her at PAX Prime in a month or so here in Seattle to reprise our discussion, with Erin M. Evans, on the subject we first talked about at this year’s Emerald City Comicon. Not surprisingly, it’s also been a subject of some discussion in my class, Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and was the heart of the writers block-inducing creative seizure that struck me in the writing of Devils of the Endless Deep. What more could I have to say on the subject?

Lots more, it turns out. And anyway, here’s a little more.

How much “motivation” is enough, and what really makes people do what they do—what is “motivation” in the first place?

Let’s start with a list of some of the more popular villainous motivations, which I know I’ve seen time and time again in genre fiction. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list, by any means, just a few of the more common standbys.




Pure Evil

That’s a pretty good general list. Let’s break it down.

Power: This is your pretender to the throne, usurper, invader, or evil genius bent on world domination. This villain wants to be in charge of something, from the entire universe down to some back alley in the thieves quarter of the city.

Money: Money can take all sorts of forms. Anything of value can be put under this heading, like oil or the spice mélange, territory, jewels, an energy source…whatever.

Revenge: Whether or not it’s a dish best served cold, people who have been wronged in some way, or feel they’ve been wronged in some way, go out looking to balance the books.

Pure Evil: Sometimes people just do bad stuff for the sake of doing bad stuff, or are possessed by demons who just like being evil and screwing with people in whatever way they can, or have some kind of mental illness that prevents them from experiencing emotions like guilt or empathy.

So then can you just pick one of those four things and go?

Unfortunately, no.

Does a lust for power, in and of itself, actually cause someone to go out and do bad things? Can you gain power in a perfectly legal way that does more good than bad? Sure you can. You can wield power for the common good, too, if you’re so inclined. When I say “motivation” I don’t mean the set of goals the villain has, per se. A well-motivated villain may still want to seize control of the empire, but why? What is it that fuels that quest for power, that makes it personal for the villain?

And for me, that’s the key word: personal.

There are in infinite number of reasons why someone might want to, say, run for President of the United States, or name himself the Supreme Ruler for Life of Panama, but that lust for power isn’t really the sole driving force of that person. Most likely, the would-be dictator is really trying to do something that makes him happy, or at least makes the pain go away, and sees the achievement of some power position as a means to that end. What that personal driving force is, could literally be anything, and is limited only by your imagination.

The same is true for money. Some people do see the accumulation of wealth as an end to itself—or they seem to. These are people who say things like, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But wins what, exactly? If you were a therapist and someone came into your office and all he or she could talk about was money, money, money—getting money, spending money, keeping money, showing off their money with fancy cars and jewelry, you would want to drill down to why that is. What is it that’s missing in this person’s life, what hole is there in his psyche that he’s trying to fill with money? Whatever that gap is, that’s the true personal motivation for that villain’s greed.

Revenge is something that motivates only people in badly written adventure stories. I’ve been trying and I really can’t think of a crime that’s been committed that was motivated purely and only by revenge. People screw each other over all the time. I’ve been screwed over. I have never gone out in search of revenge. I’m happy if that means I’m not a villain, but before you compliment me by saying that if I were a villain, I would have gone out to right those perceived wrongs, let me stop you at the word “perceived.”

As with both money and power, someone who wants revenge is looking to fill some kind of gap in his life. Something is missing, some ability to be happy or content or gain satisfaction. This is also a motivation that’s extremely setting-dependant. If someone’s wronged you, can you call the police? Can you seek satisfaction from Judge Judy? Is there at least some kind of magistrate you can pay off? The difference between revenge and justice is that revenge is following an act of aggression or injustice with further aggression or injustice. Why your villain chooses this path is a question you have to answer, and make clear (in a subtle, organic, story-positive way) to your readers, or you end up with a cardboard cutout revenge freak instead of a really interesting villain. What makes it a personal imperative that this guy gets his pound of flesh?

Then there’s that purely evil, hopelessly mentally ill psychopath, which we discussed a bit in my recommendation of Dave Cullen’s Columbine. There is significant scientific evidence to say that some people, by accident of birth, are simply wired for evil. But is even that motivation enough?

Recently a neuroscientist named Jim Fallon did some groundbreaking work on the brain activity patterns of psychopaths then, to his surprise and horror, discovered that his own brain scan put him in that group. But then here he is, a noted scientist who’s led a peaceful life, even if his friends and colleagues occasionally use words like “manipulative” to describe him. Why is he okay, but Eric Harris went to his high school and started shooting? That scientist credited his upbringing. He believes that in the nature/nurture argument, in this case a positive, nurturing environment mitigated his natural tendency for evil.

I think that sounds reasonable enough to at least consider, which means that even if your villain is truly, naturally psychotic, still there has to be something that sets him off, and that puts him on a specific path. Why did Eric Harris shoot up his school and not the local shopping mall or some other location? Why did he spare his parents? Why that particular day? All of these questions, well, I can’t answer, but that’s because Eric Harris was a real person—a real villain. But if you’re creating a villain of your own, you can and must answer these questions:

Why him? (the villain)

Why now?

Why here?

Why in this way?

And the answers to that are found in the villain’s internal personals column, not in the categorization of his final acts.

Still, lots more to say on this subject.


—Philip Athans



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, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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