Tag Archives: Villains

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 www.savannahjfoley.com, 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.

Writing Good… Err… BAD Villains

2 Sep

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

There are some characters we just love to hate. The question is: are you hating those characters for the right reasons?

Nobody wants to write a villain who isn’t… well, bad. And no one wants to write a villain who doesn’t do a good job at being a villain. Some people want to write villians who are more than just “evil” – they want to explore what makes a person truly bad – what makes them tick. Maybe your villains aren’t wholly evil – maybe they’re sympathetic. But if there’s one thing everyone will agree on, it’s that your villain needs to be capable of doing some bad things; and they need to be convincing. Otherwise, your villain will be bad for all the wrong reasons.

And villains who are evil just because they’re evil are not only rare: they’re boring.

So, how do you make sure the antagonist in your MS is a bad villain, as opposed to a bad-ly written villain?


First, your bad guy needs some motivation. Not all villains want to take over the world. Some want to regain something that has been lost. And others just like to steal princesses from castles. And others still are trying to play God. So the question is: What is driving Dr. Horrible* to be so, well… horrible?

Is it greed? It could be greed for more money, more power, more anything really. Catwoman is a good example (although she redeems herself later on – cause who says all villains stay villains?). And tying into that is a greed of the thirst for knowledge –  Think Faust/Dr. Faustus or Rappaccini.

Perhaps it’s power – some people are power hungry. They want to be at the top of the pyramid. Or it could be hatred or revenge, which can sometimes be tied together. Hatred is pretty straightforward – is there a culture, a person/people they hate? Have they been victims in the past to hate crimes, which has in turn made them into the villain they are today? As for revenge, well… vengeance can include hatred for the one that has wronged them. Some villains want to avenge loved ones, other feel betrayed – the list goes on.

Your villain’s motivations could also be due to insanity. Crazy people can do crazy things – think the Joker, a villain who has become the perfect example of madness. Or it could be fear. Are they afraid of something? Another person, another race, another country, or another gender? Has this fear so completely devoured your villain that they have driven themselves insane? The motivation could even be something instinctual – something deeply encoded into their DNA. Werewolves are often blood-thirty, meat-eating creatures and can’t help their predatory instinct.

Anyways, you get the gist. Your villain needs to be motivated; there needs to be a driving force behind his/her actions. Was there a turning point, or a traumatic experience that has caused them to be the antagonist? Are they incredibly ambitious? Or perhaps they think they’re doing the right thing (but are really misguided) – not all villains are aware that they are evil. Some think that they are doing things for the greater good. And others might want to get rich, or increase their own personal power.


Take Magneto, for example. He is a great example of a complex villain. Having been in the Nazi concentration camps when he was young, he knows how inhumane and cruel a majority could be to a minority. This is something he remembers when he finds himself yet again a minority; this time, as a mutant. Which is why he believes the only reason for mutants to live peacefully is for mutants to be in control and take over the world. THAT is some good motivation to make one do bad things.

Evil Factor

Not all evils are the same. Some stories require a bully – or perhaps the bullied kid who snaps and becomes the real bad guy. Some require serial killers, others corrupt kings, cops, or politicians. Some stories require demons or zombies or other supernatural creatures. Rival gang leaders, a killer cyborg, ghosts, an abusive husband, the popular but bitchy girl – the list is endless. Just make sure that your story has the right type of evil for it. A story about highschool, where your antagonist is the popular girl, probably won’t include serial killers – unless that’s what you’re going for, of course. If you’re writing humour, your villain might be over-the-top, like Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Just remember; it needs to be plausible and make sense.

Do a Little Digging

Sometimes you just need to get to know your villain just a little bit more. Even if you don’t include everything into your story, knowing the back-story for your character can help. A few things that can help you build a great villain include:

  • Figuring out how they got to where they are now. What was the turning point that made them evil? Was there a traumatic event that occurred that has forever changed them? Or were they raised a certain way? Was something vital missing from their life?
  • Give your villain at least one thing they enjoy/love without greed or malice. Some love their significant others so much they’d do anything to get them back. Maybe your villain loves the feel of rocks in one’s hand, the smell of the ocean, or a treasured pet.  Maybe they’re attached to a family heirloom or photo. Play around a bit.
  • How are these two related? Bounce the two opposing ideas back and forth in your mind – how is your villain capable of loving something so much even though they’re filled with hate and malice?
  • Take a look at people you know – what are their flaws? Exaggerate those flaws to a fault.

This isn’t necessary, of course – but I think it can add another dimension to your bad guy. Figure out what makes them vulnerable. Look at Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) – Rowling shows us bits and pieces of Voldemort’s past that help us understand, to an extent, how he came to be. It makes him not only a much more believable character, but more frightening as well. And perhaps a bit sympathetic – the kid you meet in the orphanage, though creepy, is also a bit sad. You think to yourself, “What a cute kid. If only things had been different, he might not have turned into this.”

Just make sure other people who read your story think he’s as badass as you do (because sometimes we, as the writer, assume that the reader understands our characters just as much as we do). Being the creators, we’ve got a whole array of information stored away – information that your readers aren’t aware of.


Where does your hero fit in? Do your protagonist and antagonist know each other? Have they known one another for a long time? Are are they meeting for the first time? Don’t forget to factor in your protagonist.

Lesser Evils

There is no one singular evil. Bad guys tend to have a posse of other bad guys. Voldermort had the Death Eaters – some of the most memorable being Wormtail and Bellatrix. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings had his Nazgul, and Saruman as his right hand man. Don’t forget about all the other bad guys in your MS! They deserve to be more than two-dimensional.


In the end, it all comes down to how believable your villain is. Some of the most compelling villains are not completely evil. And they serve a purpose in your story. They bring conflict, they create tension and suspense, and they can sometimes make us sympathize with them.

Who Do You Love to Hate?

So, with that said, I’ve still got one more suggestion to help you improve your villains: Read. I know, I say that a lot; but it really does work. Look at some of your favourite villains; what makes them such strong antagonists? Why are they so memorable? What makes you love to hate them? Do you empathize with them at all? Look at what makes them great, and apply that to your own villains.

And so I now have a question for you all. Who are some of your favourite literary villains, and why?


*yes, I threw in that link because I think everyone should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – and because he’s a great bad-at-being-bad villain, but in all the right ways.


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.