I recently read a great article by my friend K.M. Weiland entitled “What Is Your Bad Guy’s Motive?” As I read it I knew I had this article in the hopper and thought the two complemented each other soundly. I invite you to give her article a read.
Our villains need motivation, but must they always be evil? It is possible to give the bad guy a good reason for his actions. In that sense the character is not so much the villain or the bad guy as much as he is the antagonist in the story.
Simply put, the antagonist antagonizes the hero, or protagonist. Our main character wants something and the antagonist gets in his way. Sometimes it is a matter of good guy and bad guy, hero and villain. Examples might be James Bond and Ernst Blofeld, or Superman and Lex Luthor.
But still, you can create an antagonist, someone who tries to stop the protagonist from achieving his goal, for good and honorable reasons.
Love Of Family
If someone came after your family, what would you do? Anything it takes to save them, right? So if a man robs a bank to fund his sister’s cancer care or gives away the launch codes to free a kidnapped spouse, you really don’t despise them for it. Still, these and many more examples could be just the thing to block the protagonist.
Love Of Country
Patriotism is a strong and admirable motive. But what if this patriotism is for a country hostile to America? Would we admire a North Koran patriot, for example? What if his love of country compels him to launch a nuclear attack on America? Now that is something that will make your antagonist jump into action.
Protecting His Business
Maybe a business mogul, a captain of industry, lies to his shareholders or defrauds some pension plan. Not very nice. But what if it’s motivated by his love for his company, which no one knows but him is on the verge of bankruptcy? Any hero would have plenty to do in order to overcome such a powerful man who has hurt so many, albeit for reasons quite understandable.
Looking Out For His Own Interests
In general, we’re talking about an antagonist who is looking out for his interests. His motivation need not be villainous. If fact, he still may be thought of as a bad guy. You might not agree with his actions, and even feel as if they are wrong. But giving such a motivation to our villain as we have discussed here does not function to justify his despicable deeds. It’s just his silent voice screaming out from the page, “Don’t you see why I did these things? You can understand, right?” And even if you don’t understand, even if you are not willing to give him a free pass, he now appears more human than he would otherwise. He is more believable as an antagonist than the black-clad, mustache-twisting maniac who ties the maiden to the traintracks. So even if your villain is not sympathetic, he is at least understandable, he is real and this lends itself to better writing.
Share this article with other writers you know. It will help them just as I hope it has helped you. And as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. How else can we give a good motive to our bad guys? Let me know in the Comment section below.