Villains: Empathy and Motivation

7 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley


Note: This post expands on this excellent one by Vanessa di Gregorio. She covers everything that has to do with villains, whereas here we’re only focusing on one aspect: motivation.

When we were kids, the villains were obvious. Every kids movie makes the bad guy very clear: diabolical grin or laughing, spiky costumes, menacing physical appearance, explicit statement of evil intent, a darkening of the music, etc. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that these characters were Bad?

But let’s face it – that only works for kids. As you become an adult, you realize that contrary to the stories you read as a child, the world rarely has clearly defined villains. Sure, there are bad people who do bad things, but no one goes out to commit world domination just because they feel like it. Everyone has a powerful motivation for their life-long goals, and your villains should be no exception.

Why is your villain mercilessly torturing space soldiers to get the access codes for the nuclear device on the space station so he can blow up Planet Xenon 3? Is it because he’s Evil? If that’s your excuse, you need to go back into the editing cave. Just being Evil doesn’t cut it anymore, because no one is just Evil. Maybe your villain is trying to destroy Xenon 3 before it collides with his home world, even though he’s exiled from there, because if he saves the planet they’ll finally let him come home to his wife and children. Or maybe he’s doing it because Xenon 3 hosts millions of miles of cloned death warriors beneath its surface, and another villain is going to activate them to destroy all life in the solar system (For a very good reason).

The point is, you have to give your villain some very powerful motivation, otherwise they’re just not believable.

I like to take things one step further. As 19th century German playwrite Friedrich Hebbel wrote, “In a good play, everyone is right.” Ever since I’ve heard that quote I’ve tried to take my villain’s motivations more seriously. I love stories where both sides have equal claim. Whenever possible I try to work that into my own plots. Does it mean I want my reader rooting for the ‘other guy’? Absolutely not. I chose my main characters for a reason, and of course we’re going to side with their needs more than the antagonist’s. But I do want the reader to recognize that choice is sometimes a very hard thing, and to empathize with the villain even if they don’t support their actions.

Because that’s what empathy is: Understanding why, even if you don’t agree.

Take my novel NAMELESS, for example. In this world, women rule as heads of the households and men are kept as domestic slaves. An underground Rebellion movement seeks to free the slaves, but at what cost? True, no human should be enslaved, but on the other hand, an entire society has been built around a slave system. What will happen if they are all freed at once? There will be no one to tend to crops, or do maintenance on the sewer system, or even make consumable products. How many will go hungry? How many government-provided necessities – water, electricity, plumbing- will fail? Obviously we want our main characters to defeat slavery, but we can also empathize with those who choose to put down the Rebellion out of fear for the outcome of freedom.

For a pop culture example, consider GAME OF THRONES (book and TV): Yes, we want the Stark family to come out on top, but isn’t Daenerys the rightful heir to the throne?

In THE OFFICE (TV), didn’t we both want Michael to get fired out of empathy with his employees, but not want him to go out of empathy for him (and comedic value)?

In JANE EYRE (book and movie), weren’t we horrified at the revelation about Mr. Rochester’s secret, yet understand completely why he lied?

When I was working on my fairytale retelling, ROSES OF ASH, I knew that the main villain, the Fae witch Silaine, had to be pretty evil. She cursed my MC to sleep, brought winter on the kingdom for a hundred years, and generally behaved rather poorly in regards to humans. As I wrote the book I thought I could just chalk it up to hunger for power, but soon it became clear that wasn’t going to cut it. It wasn’t interesting, and it didn’t lend any sort of new possibilities to the plot. Then I realized, Silaine wasn’t doing all this because she wanted to rule, she was doing it because she felt the Fae people had lost their soul when they left Earth for their perfect world of Avalon, and she was trying to revert to the old ways to get it back.

Power hunger or need to save the spiritual identity of her people? Which one is more interesting? Which one makes you empathize with her more?

As a conclusion, I’d like to share with you several passages about empathy that you can apply both to villains and main characters. These are all from a wonderful non-fiction book I’m reading called WRITING WITH BREATH, by Laraine Herring:

“A writer without empathy cannot create a world where you, the reader, can understand the characters, even if you don’t agree with their actions.”

“Acceptance doesn’t mean condoning actions. It means recognizing that piece of each of us that is purely a human animal, not dressed up to go to church all the time.”

“Empathy helps us move from an ‘us and them’ mind-set to a ‘we’ mind-set.”

“Empathy, like forgiveness, doesn’t mean that it’s OK for people to murder one another. It means we can find our way past the deeds to the human being, and we can discover the basic need that person was trying to meet.”

“Empathy creates connection; judgment creates distance. Choose connection.”

What motivations have you given your villains, and do you have any particular philosophies when it comes to villains?


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website is, but she updates more frequently on her livejournalShe is currently working on editing Nameless. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here. You can read an excerpt from her Sleeping Beauty retelling here.


35 Responses to “Villains: Empathy and Motivation”

  1. Marina June 7, 2011 at 12:19 AM #

    But what about the Joker? He wants chaos for the sake of chaos, so isn’t it then him being just plain evil? And he’s one of the most popular movie villain.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 7:53 AM #

      But see, I think that is a great motivator. It’s an excellent explanation, anyway. The first time I heard that I was like ‘whoa’.

      • Marina June 7, 2011 at 3:43 PM #

        Wow, I see quite a few people answered my question, thank you everyone!

    • Tim June 7, 2011 at 6:40 PM #

      Wow the reply thing tunred cool. Anyway, the Joker was a bad character wriiten by good scriptwriters and acted by a great actor. It’s very rare for a book to pull off a villian with absolutely no backstory!

    • Luke July 31, 2012 at 1:56 PM #

      Here is a post on reddit about Batman and Joker that I feel is particularly enlightening….

      They are fighting an ideological battle for each other’s soul. They are both two sides of the same coin:

      Two individuals who, because of a horrible day in their lives, became insane and decided to take on the world and make it in their image.

      The joker was a shitty comedian with a pregnant wife, a nice guy. On the day his wife died in a random accident he was bullied by mobsters into committing a crime, fell into a vat of chemicals and ended up alone, in pain, and scarred for life. The overall pain was such that he snapped…. realized that the world is cruel, unjust and random and decided he was going to destroy all fabric of the attempted, false, self-delusional order of the world and break everyone down to his level. He believes morals, ethics, are hypocritical nonsense. You can refer to the Dark Knight movie, in which he says “I’m just ahead of the curve.” He spends the entire movie putting everyone in front of him in situations where, to survive, they will have to break their moral code. Even the henchmen of the black guy… there are two. For no reason other than to break them, he says he will hire the one who will kill the other.

      This is what the Joker does, he lives to prove to people that he is the avatar of who they really are : he just refuses to lie to himself.

      Batman watched his parents be murdered, went insane also and developed several obsessions, he fights to bring justice to a world he feels is essentially good and plagued by the unnatural disease of crime and evil. He believes in justice above everything else, he does not kill.

      So what happens when these two men face each other? The Joker’s ultimate victory is for the Batman, the strongest enemy of his world view, a person who refuses no matter what to break down to his level, to kill him. He wants the Batman to kill him. He can’t wait for Batman to do it. It will prove his point: anyone can be broken into evil, just like him, if their pain or their reasons are strong enough.

      Meanwhile the Batman is facing someone who is the epitome of cruelty and senseless crime. He HAS to beat the Joker according to his rules, to prove to himself that his rules mean something, that they are absolute. And this is a decision he has to face every time he catches the Joker: do I kill him? How many lives will I save if I just kill him? He always escapes Arkham…. I will be doing a good thing by ridding this world of this supremely deranged psychopath. If only he could break his morals in this one case…. this one time… for the greater good….

      The Joker knows this. And he laughs. And he hopes.

      But he also has to deal with the temptation… without the Batman he would be virtually unstoppable. Even in the world of DC Comics where there is Super Man, other supervillains fear him. They steer clear of him. He is too unpredictable, chaotic, and cruel. If only he were to kill the Batman, there is nobody out there who understands him enough to be able to stop him. If only he could kill the Batman… everything would be so simple.

      They are fighting a deeply personal, deeply ideological war. They each represent what the other one hates the most, and they each depend on the other to stay alive until the other bends to his will.

      The last each one of them wants is to kill the other.

      It is poetic.

  2. joan June 7, 2011 at 2:45 AM #

    I like this post and I think it’s very helpful. True, at first, the villain in my story was all “let’s destroy the world” and was out to simply get revenge. But this is too superficial. Before the incident (the one that requires revenge), wasn’t he a good man? Okay, maybe not a good man but an okay person? What was the reason he became so bent on destruction and putting others through hell?
    As I explore those questions and try to understand him and his drive, I also get to know more about my story and it’s always amazing to feel that your story is becoming more real, more uh, 3D? x)
    Thanks for the post!

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 7:54 AM #

      I love discovering stuff about characters half-way through. 🙂

  3. kate June 7, 2011 at 3:41 AM #

    i’m not sure i entirely agree with you 100% of the time on this matter. sometimes i like a good purely evil character, you know? second, even in life which doesn’t have the benefit of ever being as polarized as books have the opportunity to be, there are people whose motivations (or at least, rationale) are weak at best; these people cut among the evilest of villains. some evil is banal, and all the more evil for it; and some people serve only their own selfish interests without some powerful extrinsic or ‘higher’ intrinsic motivator. therefore, i think at least some literature should reflect this reality.
    sidebar regarding Nameless and slavery: thomas jefferson expressed that very conflict once, comparing slavery to a wolf held by the ear.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 7:57 AM #

      I think that in younger fiction pure evil works, but I think for adult fiction, which has to be more ‘real’, that you do need motivation. But of course there are exceptions… parody books, and books that incorporate child-like fantasy elements… for example, The Eyre Affair, which I’m pretty sure has some truly evil characters.

      On the other hand, there are non-human or previously-human characters who can be Truly Evil and they don’t really need a reason, like demons and orcs.

      • kate June 7, 2011 at 1:12 PM #

        i think really what i mean is that there are villains with motivations, but that those motivations are *not* ones that we can at all empathize with. for example, as pointed out by marina above, the joker wants chaos. but–that’s not really something i can get behind at all; just as i can’t get behind a disney character’s blind, all consuming and not-terribly well-motivated quest for power. and i don’t think that having motivations necessarily precludes a character from being well and truly, capital E, Evil.

  4. Jules Wood June 7, 2011 at 3:45 AM #

    Great post! Even the Joker has a backstory, Marina; no one believes that he is inherently evil. He’s a human being, not a demon or an alien. Even if the Batman franchise didn’t have time with all of the explosions to really get into his psyche, I think it was implicit that he was messed up because of his childhood (which admittedly isn’t the most interesting of reasons for wrong-doing, but it works).

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 7:58 AM #

      I soooo wish we had gotten to see his backstory, I’m sure it was intense. Maybe they revealed it in the comic universe? I never read the comics so I don’t know… A quick trip to Wikipedia will probably answer this…

  5. keikomushi June 7, 2011 at 7:03 AM #

    Regardless of which series of books or movies he’s featured, the Joker is the product of a damaged psyche. This shows in his twisted view of what normal is – a world filled with darkness and chaos rather the mundane. After all, he is a product of chaos and believes others should see life through his eyes.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 8:06 AM #

      The official DC explanation is that he was driven mad by grief and personal trauma. Among other backstories, lol.

  6. Rowenna June 7, 2011 at 8:37 AM #

    Thanks for this post! I fully believe that every character in a book is the hero of his or her own story–including the villian. I *love* my current villian so much–I can identify with his motivations to a fault, even though he’s totally in the wrong. It’s a hard balance to strike, making a villian contemptable and worth fighting yet still empathetic. But it’s my favorite balance of a good book!

    Maybe the only example I can think of of a non-empathetic villian in a really good story is Lord of the Rings (I mean, Sauron pretty much was just evil, right? Wanted to control for control’s sake and cover the world in darkness? No traumatic childhood to blame that on?)–but if you’re not Tolkein, I don’t think you can pull it off 🙂

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 8:40 AM #

      Haha, I agree… there are exceptions to every rule, and Lord of the Rings does seem to have a lot of characters that are Just Evil. But Gollum, for example, has a pretty neat backstory and explanation for why he is the way he is. Addiction and isolation from the rest of the world.

      I love loving villains, so I especially appreciate when they have a good backstory. Draco Malfoy, anyone?

  7. Ladonna Watkins June 7, 2011 at 11:10 AM #

    Very true. With my MC mother, she is mean and cruel. However, the readers can understand why she does what she does. She is trying to protect her family even though it is a very unorthdox way.

    Thanks for the post.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 11:20 AM #

      I’m currently working on an MG cinderella retelling and I’m really struggling with /not/ giving my evil characters deep motivations. Your situation reminded me of the Wicked Stepmother problem, lol.

  8. Mac_V June 7, 2011 at 11:10 AM #

    This is excellent. I was actually having this conversation last night with my writing group and I am struggling on making my villain a man the reader can empathize with. It’s difficult, but the more I think about it the better I can start to understand him. It’s there. I just have to find it.

    I honestly think a great representation of this that is very recent is Erik in X-men first class. He was one of my favorite characters to watch through the whole show (other than the prettiness that is James McAvoy *sigh*) because of how great his character was formed. You wanted him to find Shaw because he did horrible things to Erik as a child to get his power to come out, and he wasn’t just evil either. He thought he was helping Erik use his powers and become the next evolution of man. And Charles and Erik had different point of views of how men would react to their mutations. Erik is a villain, especially with this movie, that you can totally empathize with, which makes his character brilliant and the struggle that much more real.

    Thanks for this awesome post! I hadn’t heard the title for your Sleeping Beauty retelling yet, but I love it! Hope it’s still going well! 😀


    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 11:28 AM #

      Ooh, a writing group. That sounds like fun! All my writing friends are online, lol.

      I’m not up on the X-Men saga so I don’t really have an opinion, other to say that I love bad guys with a great background.

      And thanks!

  9. Joshua June 7, 2011 at 11:55 AM #

    My antagonist in Kissing Dragons comes across as almost pure evil in my MC’s eyes, but his motivation is quite strong, and, in fact, of all the characters in the book, I’m probably most like him.

    I think the key force of a great villain is to give them motivation while painting their villainy darker than it probably is in the eyes of the protagonist.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 12:05 PM #

      Um, can I say that I want to read your book based off title alone?

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 12:07 PM #

      Oh sweet it’s actually getting published!! Congratulations!!! I will definitely be adding that to my TBR list on Goodreads…

  10. Tim June 7, 2011 at 12:07 PM #

    Ahhh I think Antagonists should be have empathy but not villians. I’m trying to think of books we both read but Kerrigor wasn’t really Emphatic at all, and I’m not getting into A song of Ice and Fire’s morality:P Oh, Harry potter.
    Voldemort: Understandable. Bellatrix: Mad, bad and unemphatic.
    Draco: Kind of empathy. Crabb and Goyle: Never fully developed enough.

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 12:28 PM #

      You know that’s a very good point, I didn’t really distinguish between villains and antagonists.

      ASOIAF’s morality is a little sticky, isn’t it? It’s made me super paranoid about plotlines in books because I just can’t trust characters anymore…

  11. thegildedpage June 7, 2011 at 3:12 PM #

    I think it also depends on what kind of time period you’re emulating, too. : ) The perspective of good and evil has altered a lot over the past couple hundred – thousand – years. Presenting a world that emulates that time period would most likely mean presenting a world that emulates the morality of that period.

    Evil does exist for some people – for others, it’s a complication of perspective. Your world and character views are what will dictate the empathetic reaction of the characters and readers.

    It’s like, LOTR vs. HP. Good conquers evil vs. good feels empathy for evil.
    I’ve found that in fantasy, evil has become a lot less prominent (more overlords coming from a place of fear, in order to justify the power that they chase), while in dystopians, evil has cropped up a little more. In that, the new evil isn’t ‘I TAKE OVER EVERYTHING’ so much as ‘I STRIP YOU OF FREE WILL’. Because, to us, looking to that as a future – a possible future – is a lot more scary than a mythical, superpowerful demonthing trying to rule with world. Be it with rings or crazyawesome wands.

    – Kae

    • savannahjfoley June 7, 2011 at 3:18 PM #

      That’s a wonderful insight into morality and how it affects villains. I think you’re right in that a lot of fiction has shifted towards matters of free will and individuality.

  12. cgmason June 7, 2011 at 11:23 PM #

    Awesome post Savannah! I think both types of villains can work depending on the story and how good the author is, but I personally like complex villains. You know who is a really great villain? Azula from Avatar the Last Airbender. She was such a badass villain…

    • savannahjfoley June 8, 2011 at 11:52 AM #

      Haven’t seen it 😦 Might have to correct that…

  13. GFanthome June 14, 2011 at 8:51 PM #

    I have a couple of villains in my novel. One is very unlikable – repulsive even, and the other you come to sort-of like after awhile… after you get to understand him a bit. Still, he’s probably not ever going to be the reader’s favorite character – LOL!

  14. Marumae June 28, 2011 at 10:49 PM #

    My favorite villain of all time, from one of my favorite novels is a woman whose motivations I’d say are entirely selfish and understandable, but at the same time wrong? You know what I mean? I do agree on the idea that a villain needs motivation that you can understand besides ‘MO HA HA HA’. In some ways I empathize with her and if I was in her situation would I really do the same? It’s scary to think that I might, but that’s what makes me love the book and her.


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