As readers we are eternally curious about the characters who populate stories. But it’s not the surface stuff that intrigues us, is it? It’s the stuff underneath that has moulded them, formed their perspectives – the stuff that drives them. These deeply buried things are what makes a character intriguing.
Villains by definition often top that ‘intriguing character’ list.
Villains do bad things and sure, we want to know ‘who?’ and ‘how?’ but that fades to insignificance beside the question ‘why?’. Why did he poison the cat? Why did she try to destroy Anya’s reputation? Why is he determined to terrify her to the point that she believes she’s insane? The answers to those questions are what will allow us readers to sleep well after closing the last page. We will be sated, satisfied, content.
So, is it ever enough for an author to brush that question away with a cavalier: ‘He/she is just a bad person’?
Short answer? No. Long answer? Never, nil, nada. Hardly ever. 🙂
Why? (See? You wanted to know ‘why?’ 😉 ). Short answer: Readers want more. They’ll feel cheated. And, just quietly, be really, really ticked off with the author.
Long answer: True psychopaths are the scariest people ever. And yes, successful books have been written featuring them. But, at the risk of lighting a fuse under any psychopaths reading this, in the literary sense they’re kind of boring. Kill or torture for the sake of killing or torturing? Not going to hold my attention for long. If I’m not wondering ‘why’ then I’m out. You see, very few people are born bad, so the whole psychopath thing can often be a bit unrealistic and harder for the reader to relate. In fact studies back from the 1980s to the present all agree that a fair equation is that around 1% of western world people are true psychopaths – people who act without empathy or conscience.
Okay, so a more favourable equation would be nil%, but I’ll still take 1% over anything higher. Relatively speaking, it’s a low number. (Actually it’s terrifying if I say it in numbers – but it IS low really. Like 13 million psychopaths in 1.3 billion people. Whaaat!!! No, wait. Honestly, rest assured, despite that scary figure you’re unlikely to meet one walking down the street today. Or maybe not. Feeling lucky? Um, excuse me while I just nip out & lock my doors.)
So, what about all the other people – let’s call them villains – who continue to star in our news reports or populate our gaols? The non psychopaths. These people weren’t born bad. For the vast majority, things happened in their lives that affected their perspective and culminated in poorly made decisions to cause havoc and break laws (sociopaths). Or regular people who’ve got some kind of issue that burns them or has turned them. These ‘things’ are called motivations. I.e, a motive or reason for their decisions or behaviour.
Like everything else in life, villains come in all shapes and sizes. Moreover, they come in all manner of villainy from the sneaky troublemaker to the morally bankrupt multi murderer/serial killer. Some are charming (in their own evil way). Some slip into the shadowy background and exist in that disregarded no man’s land ‘under the radar’. And some will make our skin crawl. As authors and readers, we’ve met them all because fiction has an unfathomably higher percentage of villains of all kinds than real life. Thank goodness, yeah?
To recap that: In real life, ordinary people will do bad things. Just as in fiction, ordinary people will do bad things. The one thing these non psychopathic villains have in common is motivation; the reason that drives their actions.
Let’s look at some. Caveat: The list below is not comprehensive and there are heaps of lists on the net. However these are all motivations – and all open to your own twists and interpretation – that I have either used or read, where used successfully, in YA novels.
- Revenge for a perceived injustice
- Repayment of past treatment.
- Peer acceptance
- Peer domination
- Need for Power (based on villains own suppressed power by others in his life)
- Fear of Discovery
Don’t forget your villain can also have noble motivations – or motivations that began as noble. Most superhero villains were once good guys with noble motivations who somehow got off track. A villain with a noble/likeable side is most intriguing.
Mix up your villains motivations to add more interest. Maybe your villain can’t help being a villain because he’s trapped?
Motivations are one of the major keystones to your story. They:
- Reveal & distinguish character
- Drive plot
- Build drama
- Give your story authenticity
- Provide the impetus for character growth arc.
Motivations apply to every character, not just the villain. They drive the story. Dare I say they are the story. Every action and every reaction of your characters will be the result of their reasoning. And all reasoning is tempered by motivation.
Good Luck and Happy villaining!
Multi award winning author Kaz Delaney has published 72 novels for kids, teens & adults over a 20 year period, many of them published in several languages. Thirteen are YA novels and every one features a romance. Her latest is The Reluctant Jillaroo, Allen & Unwin, 2016 . She is repped by JDM Management.