#amwriting: Villainous motivation (or why should they bother?)

voldemortYou have a hero.  He/she is awesome. Your beta readers love him/her.

You have a villain. Unfortunately, your beta readers find him/her murky and hard to believe, so they don’t really understand your story. What is their problem?

The problem is not with the beta readers – you haven’t gotten a grip on that villain yourself, and therefore the antagonist has no motivation for being evil other than possessing a bastardly disposition, which doesn’t make a really compelling story.

First you need to understand what defines evil: Google Definitions defines evil as:




  1. profoundly immoral and malevolent.

“his evil deeds”

synonyms:  wickedbadwrongimmoralsinfulfoulviledishonorablecorruptiniquitous, depravedreprobatevillainousnefariousviciousmaliciousmalevolentsinister,demonicdevilishdiabolicalfiendishdarkmonstrousshockingdespicable,atrociousheinousodiouscontemptiblehorribleexecrable;

informal lowdowndirty

“an evil deed”


  1. profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.

“the world is stalked by relentless evil”

So now we have an overly simplified concept of evil.

First of all, very few people are evil for no reason at all. They want something, and are willing to do nearly anything to gain it. The best villains lack compassion. Why do they lack this basic human emotion? It could be they are narcissistic and are incapable of empathy, exhibiting it only when they gain something by displaying feigned compassion.

Most people who are considered evil by society are highly narcissistic. BPDcentral.com defines a narcissist as a person who:

  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

Our villain is determined to have his own way at any cost, and to that end he/she is Manipulative. In their personal relationships they will:

  1. Employ “Gaslighting,” a manipulative tactic that can be described in different variations of three words: ‘That didn’t happen,’ ‘You imagined it,’ and ‘Are you crazy?’ This is an insidious manipulative tactic, because it works to distort and erode the victim’s sense of reality. It eats away at the victim’s knowledge of events and their ability to trust their instincts. This tactic keeps them from feeling justified in calling out abuse and mistreatment.
  2. Employ cutting remarks masked as jokes.
  3. Switch conversational topics as a means to avoid accountability.
  4. Attempt to distract you by focusing your attention on the supposed threat of another person (reporting supposed gossip about you).

It is important to understand that villains want to win at any cost, and sometimes have no concept of what they will do once they achieve their goal, as they haven’t thought that far ahead. They are completely focused just on winning.

Now that we know what our villain is like as human being, we know that most likely greed and/or a lust for power is what is driving this person.

Your task as an author is to clearly define what goal this person has set for themselves and why they believe they deserve to achieve it.

Thor-Everything-LokiMany villains don’t walk on screen as full-blown supervillains, especially in contemporary fiction and romances. They appear innocuous, even loving. You will want to slip small clues for the reader about their personality into the narrative in the beginning pages:

  1. Is he/she a liar? (Hint that they may be a cheating spouse, slick salesman, politician.)
  2. Are they a thief? (Hint that they may be an embezzler, a tax evader, or business person who profits from deliberately bankrupting their own businesses.)
  3. Do they take outrageous risks? Drop mentions and hints as to this aspect of their character early on in the narrative.

The villain is often the most complex character you will write. They must be multilayered or they can appear cartoonish.  If their goals are clearly defined and their actions in keeping with their personality, you will have a good enemy opposing your protagonist.

Whether you are writing fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, romance, or any genre of fiction, chances are you will have a villain. It is your task to make that villain come to life, and to that end, you need to know how they think and why they think that way.

Quoted and researched sources:

www.BPDCentral.com, Hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Copyright © 2014. BPD Central. All rights reserved.

10 Techniques Used by Manipulators (and How to Fight Them), Jessica Stillman, contributor. © Inc.com July 18, 2016


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10 responses to “#amwriting: Villainous motivation (or why should they bother?)

  1. I had to do something a bit odd to get my Villain’s POV out there. While most chapters alternated between the two protagonists, I set up one chapter in the Villain’s POV. It showed her motivation and her characteristic behaviors when not in the company of the protagonist (where she billed herself as a compassionate individual). It worked very well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Swartz

    I’m surprised it took you this long to find me out! Mwah hah hah!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with a lot that is in this post, but I’d argue some of the absolutes like ” The best villains lack compassion. Why do they lack this basic human emotion? It could be they are narcissistic and are incapable of empathy, exhibiting it only when they gain something by displaying feigned compassion.” The key to writing a good villain, which is something I used to struggle with, is people making caricatures and obstacles instead of characters. A villain can have compassion, and be completely avoiding being manipulative and still be evil to me that’s a sign of damn good writing. Some of the greatest stories don’t have a character facing evil, but a character facing someone who is good, filled with belief, and is protagonist of their own story. Not every villain is evil, but they all do evil/cruel things. So many authors focus on the things they do instead of who they are.

    The film Ever After is so good in part because the Wicked Step-Mother (Anjelica Houston) isn’t just evil. She married a man for her daughters and she liked him. But got dragged away from the court and the city into the country, got widowed again, and was left with a girl who she sees rolling around in the mudd which is everything a girl shouldn’t do in her eyes…and then that girl grows up to surpass her own daughters beauty, hurting their prospects of marriage by comparison. She’s undoubtedly the bad guy, but the film makes her a fuller person with motives and moments where you see her attitude of Danielle form. Those moments happen in the first few minutes of the movie and you immediately learn she is an ambitious, urban, socially minded, and image minded woman prone to pettiness and bitterness.That’s a great villain.

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  4. I have been reminded that even the worst bad guys think their aims are worthy, even if that means harming others necessarily. Even villains see themselves as heroes in their own stories.

    Liked by 1 person