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…?

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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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

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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