What motivates a Villain?

As I put together ideas for my writing notebook, I find myself thinking about villains. In reality, their presence, their opposition to the hopes, dreams, and happiness of the main character in a story are an essential part of the plot as they provide the tension, the push and pull of the action. And if art imitates life, then I suppose we occasionally meet such scoundrels as we listen to the news or navigate the workplace or shopping mall. So I thought that it might be interesting to explore what motivates a villain to act in such diabolical ways.

  1. Insanity, psycho-crazy or just plain nuts – Whether caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain or acute mental illness, the senseless nature of their acts of cruelty or revenge reflect the lack of empathy for others. And while we might hate them, we are able to see that no right-thinking person would behave as they do. This allows us to accept their brutality with the detachment of an objective observer. That way it is less disturbing.

  2. Envious, narcissistic – Jealousy, ego, and personal insecurity drives them to be mean, just out of spite. They blame others for their own misfortune and seek to exact revenge on the world as a result, often harming the innocent in the process.

  3. Evil – The “boogie men” of the literary world are just plan mean, nasty, cruel. Their hearts are hard, and they take great pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering upon their unsuspecting targets. Their actions are the stuff of nightmares and horror shows as they unleash their hatred upon unsuspecting victims.

  4. The Good Guy – Blinded by noble principals, the good guy gone bad does the wrong thing for what he believes is the right reasons, convinced that justice well-served sometimes means taking the law into your own hands. Vengeance and retribution motivates him to move to the wrong side of the law, with no thought of the resulting consequences.

These are the most basic archetypes, of course, the classic models, who often appear in fiction. But I would like to add another, a more subtle kind of villain, who comes to us quietly, wrapped in words of love and affection, sometimes under the guise of having the best of intentions, our best interests at heart, as they use subtle words and helpful advice to influence us, to affect our thoughts, our perception of ourselves and the world. These are the controllers, the manipulators, the schemers. Because they aren’t as easy to recognize or label, the would-be Svengalis, who gain our trust, perform a vital function in stories, and are perhaps the most dangerous of them all.


Please join in the discussion. Can you think of other villains or examples from literature or movies for each of these types?

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